“Not counting the lobby, the Chelsea Hotel had ten floors. Each was served by a dim hallway that ran from an air shaft on one side to, on my floor, a door with a yellowing pane of frosted glass that suggested the ulterior presence of a private detective rather than, as was actually the case, a fire escape. The floors were linked by a baronial staircase, which by virtue of the deep rectangular void at its center had the effect of installing a precipice at the heart of the building. On all the walls was displayed the vaguely alarming art-work of tenants past and present. The finest and most valuable examples were reserved for the lobby: I shall never forget the pink, plump girl on a swing who hovered above the reception area gladly awaiting a push towards West Twenty-third Street.”
O’Neill set his novel in the Chelsea Hotel and he himself actually lives there, with his wife, Vogue editor Sally Singer. (From Netherland: “Our problems were banal, the stuff of women’s magazines. All lives, I remember thinking, eventually funnel into the advice columns of women’s magazines.”) Rumor has it that Singer rejected O’Neill’s second novel when she was an editor at Farrar Straus and Giroux. They’ve been in the hotel since 1998. They’ve got an Obama sticker on the door and silkscreened images of Sid Vicious over the couch (Sid Vicious allegedly killed his girlfriend Nancy Spungen in the Chelsea). A couple of years ago, a Guardian reporter joined O’Neill and his family for breakfast: “When I visit, we sit over takeaway coffee and croissants in the tiny retro-chic kitchen as a flurry of small, screaming boys dash around us. The cat, Lola, a tawny, green-eyed queen with a powder-puff tail, swishes in and out of the room. O’Neill, dressed in cricket gear for his weekly game, is gracious and chatty.”
It took O’Neill seven years to finish Netherland. He almost titled it “The Brooklyn Dream Game,” but then poet Paul Muldoon “raised a friendly eyebrow.” When it came out, the New York Times’s Dwight Garner called it “the wittiest, angriest, most exacting and most desolate work of fiction we’ve yet had about life in New York and London after the World Trade Center fell.” In it, a man and his wife, Hans and Rachel, move from London to New York with their son Jake. 9/11 forces them out of Tribeca and into the Chelsea Hotel. Hans says: “Over half the rooms were occupied by long-term residents who by their furtiveness and ornamental diversity reminded me of the population of the aquarium I’d kept as a child, a murky tank in which cheap fish hesitated in weeds and an artificial starfish made a firmament of the gravel. That said, there was a correspondence between the looming and the shadowy hotel folk and the phantasmagoric and newly indistinct world beyond the Chelsea’s heavy glass doors, as if the one promised to explain the other.”
Briefly, O’Neill and his family moved into a house in Brooklyn, but they missed the hotel so much that they sold the house and moved back into the hotel. “I like that there are transients coming in every night,” Singer told the Guardian. “I love the continual stream of people to look at. I don’t want to live in my own closed-off space. People just drop by and knock on your door. I want to open my door and let the world in—and let my kids out.” Singer asked her son, Malachy, why he lives in the hotel:
“Because I was born here,” he snaps.
“What do you like about the hotel?” she persists.
“I like the guy who lived in the bathroom.”
Netherland’s Hans says: “Our hotel apartment had two bedrooms, a kitchenette, and a view of the tip of the Empire State Building. It also had extraordinary acoustics: in the hush of the small hours, a goods truck smaking into a pothole sounded like an explosion, and the fantastic howl of a passing motorbike once caused Rachel to vomit with terror. Around the clock, ambulances sped eastward on West Twenty-third Street with a sobbing escort of police motorcycles.”
Other descriptions of the hotel are somehow simultaneously insider-y (like you’d-have-to-live-there-to-know) and cliché’s of New York City: “Most evenings, once I’d showered and put on some casual clothes, I went down to the lobby and fell listlessly into a chair by the non-operational fireplace. I carried a book but did not read it. Often I was joined by a very kind widow in a baseball cap who conducted an endless and apparently fruitless search of her handbag and murmured to herself, for some reason, about Luxembourg. There was something anesthetizing about the traffic of people in the lobby, and I also took comfort from the men at the front desk, who out of pity invited me behind the counter to watch sports on their television and asked if I wanted to join their football pool.”
Later, Hans walks down the Chelsea’s famous stairs with a woman who is not his wife:
“Together we descended, as the wide-eyed transients did, the streaky gray marble steps. When Danielle surveyed the sulfurous, wildly expressive canvases, I found myself freshly eyeing the pipes and wires and alarm boxes and electrical devices and escape maps and sprinklers that cluttered the wall of each landing. These tokens of calamity and fire, taken in conjunction with the fiery and calamitous art, gave a hellishly subterraneous aspect to our downward journey, which I had undertaken only once or twice before on foot, and I was almost startled when we reached the bottom of the stairs not to run into chuckling old Lucifer himself and instead to find myself on the surface of the earth and able to walk out directly into the cold, clear night.”
As I typed these descriptions from Netherland, and felt how it might feel to write like O’Neill, I worried. I don’t know whether I am worried about the ease with which Hans self-mythologizes or worried about O’Neill’s decision to make Hans that guy. In her essay for the New York Review of Books, “Two Paths for the Novel,” Zadie Smith wrote that Netherland is a “novel that wants you to know that it knows you know it knows. Hans invites us to sneer lightly at those who are ‘prone to general observations’ but only as a prelude to just such an observation, presented in language frankly genteel and faintly archaic (‘so one is told and forlornly hopes’). Is it cheap longing? It can’t be because—and this is the founding, consoling myth of lyrical Realism—the self is a bottomless pool. What you can’t find in the heavens (anymore), you’ll find in the soul.”