Joseph O’Neill’s novel Netherland (Pantheon Books) has been selected as the winner of the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. The announcement is being made today by the directors of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, Susan Richards Shreve and Robert Stone, Co-Chairmen.
Four Finalists were also named. They are Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum for Ms. Hempel Chronicles (Harcourt); Susan Choi for A Person of Interest (Viking); Richard Price for Lush Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux); and Ron Rash for Serena (Ecco).
The Judges—Lee K. Abbott, Randall Kenan, and Antonya Nelson—considered close to 350 novels and short story collections by American authors published in the US during the 2008 calendar year. Submissions came from over 70 publishing houses, including small and academic presses. There is no fee for a publisher to submit a book.
“Our choices were of a vast and robust variety,” writes PEN/Faulkner Judge, Antonya Nelson. “The historical novel is alive and well. The short story collection is alive and well. The crossover/transcending-genre novel is alive and well. The political novel is alive and well. Men and women, writing like geniuses, all alive and well.”
About the Award
Founded in 1980, the PEN/Faulkner Award is the largest peer-juried prize for fiction in the United States. As winner, O’Neill receives $15,000. Each of the four finalists receives $5,000.
In a ceremony that celebrates the winner as “first among equals,” all five authors will be honored during the 29th annual PEN/Faulkner Award ceremony on Saturday, May 9 at 7 pm at Folger Shakespeare Library, located at 201 East Capitol Street, SE, Washington, DC. Tickets are $100, and include the award ceremony followed by a buffet dinner. They can be purchased by phoning the Folger Box Office at (202) 544-7077 or online at www.penfaulkner.org.
About the Winner
Praised for its richly accomplished prose and articulate portraits of characters in New York, Netherland is a novel which also examines the varying moods of its protagonist’s interior life—and passion for playing cricket. Hans van der Broek, the Dutch-born narrator of O’Neill’s meditative narrative, is dislodged along with his wife Rachel and young son Jake, from their downtown Manhattan apartment in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. The family who had moved to New York from London becomes temporary residents of the Chelsea Hotel, one among a series of fantastically colorful, off-kilter locales in the book. Fearing another imminent calamity and disillusioned with her marriage, Rachel returns to London with their son, leaving “a city gone mad” and a husband dazed with grief. “Life itself had become disembodied. My family, the spine of my days, had crumbled. I was lost in invertebrate time.” Hans’s life in the aftermath is lived within convention (he is an equities analyst for a large merchant bank) but also as a seemingly destinationless journey, accompanied often by his fellow cricket enthusiast and companion Chuck Ramkissoon.
A Trinidadian immigrant of boundless enthusiasm, Chuck is an enterprising businessman whose endeavors include illegal gambling/gaming. Beautifully rendered scenes describe the game of cricket and its community of players, largely West Indian and Asian. As an émigré who grew up playing cricket in the Hague, Hans is welcomed into this community devoted to the sport, its ethics, and the conviction of cricket’s rightful place as an original American sport. But in as much as this novel explores the immigrant’s possibility of grasping an American dream—Chuck’s beloved project is to transform the fallow Floyd Bennett Field airport grounds into a world-class cricket arena dubbed “Bald Eagle Field”—it also opens with the discovery of Ramkissoon’s corpse floating in the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. In resonant prose, Netherland explores time, memory, separation and reunion.
“The thing that struck me so deeply about Netherland,” writes PEN/Faulkner Judge, Randall Kenan, “is how much it is about the new and continuing immigrant story, about New Americans and the making of new American traditions, which has always been New York’s function in the world. O’Neill has created a powerfully entertaining novel, but also a new emblem for our time.”
Joseph O’Neill is the author of two previous novels, This Is the Life, and The Breezes, as well as the family history, Blood-Dark Track, which was a New York Times Notable book. He is a regular contributor to the Atlantic Monthly and lives in New York City with his family.
About the Finalists
Ms. Hempel Chronicles is a novel-in-stories by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, whose first novel, Madeleine Is Sleeping, was a National Book Award finalist. The eight gem-like chapters of this novel combine to illuminate the story of Beatrice Hempel, a young seventh grade teacher, engaged to be married and new both to teaching and to her school. Vivid scenes of Ms. Hempel’s students capture their passionate idiosyncrasies, while the universal dramas and foibles of early adolescence are rendered with humor and empathy. Interspersed within the storyline are chapters in flashback to Beatrice’s own childhood and family relationships. Writing for the Christian Science Monitor, Heller McAlpin notes, “Bynum’s Ms Hempel Chronicles is not only…about a young 7th-grade teacher navigating the final passage to her own adulthood even as she ushers her students through the tricky narrows of adolescence; it is also a testament to how hard—and important—the work of teaching is.” Director of the writing program at the University of California, San Diego, Ms. Bynum lives in Los Angeles with her family.
In A Person of Interest, Susan Choi has created a protagonist as absorbing as he is unlikely within a plot that is pulsed with the nervy speed of a mystery, and the leisurely unfolding of interior psychological drama. Professor Lee is a cynical and reclusive math professor in a quiet Midwestern university. The novel opens as a bomb explodes in the office next door. The packaged bomb sent by mail kills Lee’s much younger, talented colleague, Dr. Hendley, a brilliant computer scientist. Choi’s earlier, second novel, American Woman, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, took as its subject the kidnapping of Patty Hearst. A Person of Interest draws loosely upon account of Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, though only as a jumping off point. The tense story which develops here involves the F.B.I.’s progressive investigation of Lee as a person of interest. Yet if mystery compels readers forward, it is the story of Lee and his domestic ruins portrayed in Choi’s flawless writing that mesmerizes us. “Choi’s readers may find themselves considering the odd happiness with which they look forward to spending hundreds of pages in the company of this cranky old man. Lonely, alcoholic, slovenly,” writes Francine Prose for the New York Times. Recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, Susan Choi lives in Brooklyn, New York with her family.
Preoccupations with place and time feature prominently in Lush Life the eighth book by novelist and screen writer Richard Price. This is contemporary New York City as well, but the Lower East Side, a district Price delineates in the midst of cultural transition and monitored by the “quality of life squads” charged with guarding urban development while policing the poor and immigrant residents who’ve lived there for generations. Yet there is “one sort of room at the city’s very core,” writes Walter Kirn, in his March 2008 review, that “resists much gentrification of the soul, let alone beautification of the hair.” The tension between old and new, surface transformation and the inevitability of stasis undergird Price’s masterfully realized literary noir novel. Its protagonist, Eric Cash, is heir to this neighborhood and its newer, improved architecture. An aspiring writer and actor, he supports himself by day as a restaurant manager. One night, Eric, his boss, and a friend are held up at gunpoint. His boss mouths off and is shot, launching the novel’s complex story of investigation, social scrutiny, and meticulous interior examination. Kirn calls Price a “consummate stalker-realist who seems to have written the book from stoops and doorways.”
A Finalist for the 2008 PEN/Faulkner Award with his collection, Chemistry and Other Stories, Ron Rash is honored for a second year in a row for Serena, his fourth novel. A scathing critique of the Depression era logging industry in North Carolina, Serena tells the story of its ruthless heroine Serena Pemberton and her husband George, timber barons who strip the land and its inhabitants with rogue ambition. A woman of near epic strength, Serena rides an Arabian stallion, trains a bald eagle, and ruins the lives of anyone who interferes with the advancement of the Pemberton timber empire. The violent conflict between Serena, the illegitimate son her husband earlier fathered, and the child’s mother serves as a focal metaphor for the novel’s larger explorations of violence, passion, and greed. Rash is the winner of numerous honors, including the Novello Literary Award, the Appalachian Book of the Year Award, and the Southern Book Award. He is currently the Parris Distinguished Professor of Appalachian Studies at Western Carolina University
About these five remarkable books, Judge Lee K. Abbott writes, “I am struck by the fact that these books are as much about their language as they are about their events. I am heartened by style unique to tale. With some writers—too many, I fear—you can always see them at the keyboard, their presence standing between me as a reader and story. With O’Neill, Bynum, Choi, Price, and Rash, what is foregrounded is the yarn itself and the language necessary to it. I found all these books to be rousting, suspenseful and moving.”
The PEN/Faulkner Foundation is committed to building audiences for exceptional literature and bringing writers together with their readers. This mission is accomplished through a reading series at the Folger Shakespeare Library by distinguished writers who have won the respect of readers and writers alike; the PEN/Faulkner Award, the largest peer-juried award for fiction in the United States; the PEN/Malamud Award, honoring excellence in the short story; and the Writers in Schools program, which brings nationally and internationally-acclaimed authors to public high school classrooms in Washington, DC, Atlanta, and in Kansas City.