Joseph O’Neill on the culture wars: ‘Everyone wants to be the accuser’
The author talks politics, privilege and attitudes towards diversity in his US homeland
Jospeh O’Neill: “I’ve never really understood why I should be more interested in Bob’s fate over here than someone else’s fate 3,000 miles away.”
In January 2005, an unsuspecting Joseph O’Neill attended the wedding of Donald Trump and Melania Knauss at Mar-a-Lago, an occasion he barely registered until the ambitions of the groom in question began to creep a little further than New York real estate.
Writing for the New Yorker about the big day, O’Neill described the wedding guests as, like himself, somewhat at arm’s length from the proceedings, “Imagine a room that is empty except for a large population of flies on the wall.”
Sitting before me now in a hotel in Cork, he says: “It felt like, you know, you and I have this meeting and then five years later, you’re running to be a dictator. And it’s like, what happened there? The last I heard she was some blameless reporter and now she’s taking over the world as a fascist. Nobody could tell. The historical irony, you couldn’t make it up.”
O’Neill was born in Cork to an Irish father and Turkish mother. He grew up in Mozambique, Iran, South Africa and the Netherlands, studied law in Cambridge and worked as a barrister in London. He has very much retained the accent and something of the air of that last incarnation. “I miss certain little gratifications of argument,” he says about that chapter of his life.
He moved to New York in 1998 with his wife at the time, leaving law behind. “It was sort of a leap of faith but it always is, isn’t it?”
O’Neill proceeded to live the sort of New York writer’s life that a novelist might dream up, renting an apartment in the legendary Chelsea Hotel for 10 years. “Every strand of electricity was not to code, asbestos covered every surface, every tenant was litigious. I loved it very much. I made some very dear friends there.”
For many years he had very few readers but after the publication of the post-9/11 novel, Netherland, in 2008, he was hailed by New York magazine as “King of New York”.
O’Neill’s new collection of short stories is called Good Trouble, named for a speech made by US civil rights leader John Lewis, “speak up, speak out and get in good trouble”. The trouble in the mind of O’Neill, however, is not so benign.
The constant crises of American politics have robbed O’Neill of the mental quietude he might need for a novel. “Every single time I try to sit down something happens which disturbs my ability to immerse myself. It all started with the US election. I became very anxious and obsessive about what was happening. I still am. I felt I needed to translate those jitters into something story-like and this is what came out.”
The stories themselves are “not specifically political but to me they feel like everyone’s on edge, everyone’s thinking, ‘what is going on’. They also take a sideways swipe at ideas of political participation; a poet is asked to sign a ‘Pardon Edward Snowden’ petition-verse, a cowardly husband protests by day but leaves his wife to investigate strange night-time noises alone.”
From his first book, Blood-Dark Track, which dealt with O’Neill’s own extraordinary family history (his two grandfathers, one Irish, one Turkish, were both in prison for suspected subversion during the second World War) O’Neill has been concerned with “how the individual conscience deals with history as it’s happening and how perilous that is”.
Before now, we have lived through a “relatively quiet period of history. My experience growing up, the Cold War was there, but there were reasonable people actively de-escalating it. Then the walls came down, and you felt like you could actually have the freedom to focus on nothing, which is the sort of capitalistic, bourgeois freedom that society is supposedly about. We want to be able to wake up and think about chocolate croissant versus almond croissant. Those are the sorts of choices that people really want to have.”
For him, the madness of American politics is, “so intrusive. It feels existential. It feels like someone has to do something, everyone has to.” But he recognises also the “comic grandiosity when someone says, ‘We have to do something! This cannot stand. Resist!’ But on the other hand, the reality. What are your choices here?”
A novelist who writes for the New Yorker and teaches at Bard, O’Neill is part of the “coastal elite” we heard so much about in the Trump campaign. “I am the cosmopolitan, I am the globalist,” he concedes, taking a bite of his sandwich. “It’s definitely true there’s a relationship of the other that exists between coastal America and so-called flyover country. So what? Who said that we’re all supposed to be simultaneously visible to each other? Who said that people from Pakistan that just arrived three weeks ago are supposed to be deferential, and that their priority, or someone like me, my priority, amongst all the things I have to do as an American immigrant, is to understand that there’s a predicament of right-wing white people. Why don’t they see my predicament? Why can’t it be both ways?”
He sees the rise of Trump as very much a response to racial anxiety. “I feel like white America is not celebrated as it used to be. They don’t own the country any more. They suffered a loss of cultural capital and that’s been rubbed in their faces all day long by Fox News, which has created a sort of resentment. [Trump supporters] are a neo-fascist, neo-authoritarian movement. They have to be defeated.”
Not for him the much extolled notion of empathy for middle America.
“Like I always do with politics, I say, who are the vulnerable people in society? It’s not Hitler and his jack-booting thugs. It’s people being rounded up by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement).”
Speaking of vulnerable, I ask about his depictions of men in these new stories. They tend to be anxious and lost, often reasoned with by women who are…
“The intelligent ones,” he interjects. “There are no mansplainers in these stories. They’re all sort of, what just happened? Who moved my cheese?”
He laughs and takes a sip of yet another coffee.
“Men are sort of having to process a new state of affairs in which women are laying claim to economic and social power that previously was, not exclusively male, but very male.”
This is no struggle for O’Neill. His mother was a teacher, his Irish grandmother was the family matriarch, his sisters were “the bosses” of his childhood.
“There’s a way in which the state of the planet is so terrible now, the climate, the politics, there is this idea that maybe women should just be put in charge of things. The so-called resistance in America, the pussy hats. It’s massively female at every level.”
The success of Netherland changed O’Neill’s career. “You do feel your ability to keep writing, just as a practical matter, does require you to succeed, because it’s a long life.”
You can’t, however, control your relevance, which brings us to O’Neill’s literary heroes, Updike and Roth. (This interview took place before Roth’s death.)
“They are currently in the dog house,” O’Neill concedes. “And Bellow. And Mailer is just completely gone.” However, he believes it worth noting that these Jewish-American writers were once “taboo-shattering”.
“It is possible to review their work with a contemporary ideology and say, oh that’s quite misogynistic, but it’s worth noting the roles which they took on in a literary establishment which had no space for them. If patriarchy is your concern, you can go after Roth if you can show that you voted in the last six elections and for a certain kind of candidate. Otherwise, a lot of this is a way of putting a little feather of cultural capital in your hat.
“If your ambition is to be a writer who is celebrated in perpetuity at all times, that’s not going to happen. No one’s that lucky.”
As a writer, O’Neill is “interested in modernity. A very difficult question in modern times is what do we care about?” It’s much harder now to be a Frank O’Connor type and write about Cork. “Now we turn on the internet and see a boy’s body on the beach in Turkey, and we say, what is my duty as a person, never mind as a writer, to that situation?”
With his global background, O’Neill sees himself as “peculiarly exposed” to this. “I’ve never really understood why I should be more interested in Bob’s fate over here than someone else’s fate 3,000 miles away.”
And those faraway fates keep him awake at night. “I can’t just recycle plastic bottles and think that’s it, I’ve done my bit. What does my bit mean?”
It is one of the reasons for his interest in sport. Netherland centred on the life of immigrants in a New York cricket club. He is working on a book about soccer, “another love of mine. I think nationalism makes perfect sense in the love of sport where it’s harmless. When it comes to politics, it just gets harder. I feel like a lot of the right-wing backlash we are getting is on a subconscious level a way of trying to manage guilt. Because we’re so rich and they’re so poor.
“Our plate is so overloaded now, and so much of it is bad news that part of the impulse of the current climate is just to toss the plate away and say I can’t handle this anymore.”
He might be reminded of his privilege in being able to throw the plate away.
“People talk about white privilege, and privilege generally. I feel like that word is used partly to illuminate something which is worth illuminating but it’s also used to raise the person who is using the word. It’s been magnified by social media. Everyone wants to be in the position of being the accuser, and weirdly, the prosecutor-victim. That’s a really sweet position to occupy.”
There are many such ways he could position himself, was he so inclined. His mother is Turkish, but is the child of immigrants from Syria and a member of one of the Arab Christian minorities living in Turkey. He grew up listening to his grandmother and her sisters speaking to each other in Arabic.
“I could be an Arab-Irish writer, if I was interested in that sort of cultural capital. Never say never!”
“I have these equally spurious 50 per cents of me. I’m 50 per cent Irish and 50 per cent Arab and in neither case would I conform to the identity.”
In Netherland, the protagonist’s wife leaves the US because, under George Bush, she believes it “ideologically diseased”. O’Neill finds himself coming to the same conclusion. “We underestimated Canada. A nice, equitable society with relatively harmless bourgeois aspirations. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Good Trouble is out now. Joseph O’Neill will be speaking at the West Cork Literary Festival in Bantry on July 19th. westcorkmusic.ie/literaryfestival/