By Aidan Ryan
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
“He knew how to intuit the shape of the wind,” writes Colum McCann of Arthur Brown, who, with Jack Alcock, in 1919, achieved the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic.
In this respect, McCann’s conception of the celebrated aviator must closely resemble his (re)maker – for to write a novel like “TransAtlantic,” the author must have shared those qualities, the intuition, the daring, the sense of all things invisible.
Fresh off a National Book Award for his last novel, “Let the Great World Spin,” it should surprise no one that McCann is possessed of both ambition and the consummate craftsmanship to turn ambition into art. But “TransAtlantic” persists in surprising. Not surprising as a war is or a gunshot or finding peace against all odds – though the novel has all this – but surprising like an unexpected act of kindness, or the opening, at evening, of the white petals of some nyctitropic bloom, for whoever is lucky enough to be watching.
The language is artful, expressive, plainly wonderful in several places – and always believable. He captures the lone, feminine resiliency of Lily Ehrlich – once known as Lily Duggan, who escapes poverty and famine in Ireland only to awaken on the bloody dawn of the American Civil War, to gain and lose sons, husband, livelihood – with a single line: “There were ways to survive.”
Sometimes McCann gives us little miraculous bits of detail that exist for only a single frame, and which one would hesitate to quote, or even paraphrase, just as one would hesitate to pluck an exceptionally beautiful flower from its proper place in a garden.
And of course there are the lines that only the Irish could say, as when Hannah, Lily’s great-granddaughter, thinks of a bank manager, “A fine young man if he wasn’t what he was, but he is.”
McCann is equally adept at rendering characters, both historical and imagined, as he is at conveying feelings – from the loss of a child, to the experience of war, to the hope of peace. He embraces us, effortlessly, with the sense of being aloft in a Vickers Vimy, a machine of “wood and linen and wire,” feeling the peace of thin air and an open cockpit, the quiet pull of death at all times, and the beauty and peerless joy as all the doubts and limitations of the previous centuries, all man’s history, fall away with the countryside below.
“One glance down takes in a line of chimneys and fences and spires, the wind combing tufts of grass into silvery waves, rivers vaulting the ditches, two white horses running wild in a field, the long scarves of tar-macadam fading off into dirt roads – forest, scrubland, cowsheds, tanneries, shipyards, fishing shacks, cod factories, commonwealth, we’re floating on a sea of adrenaline and – Look! Teddy, down there, a scull on a stream, and a blanket on the sand, and a girl with a pail and shovel, and the woman rolling the hem of her skirt, and over there, see, that young chap, in the red jersey, running the donkey along the shore, go ahead, give it one more turn, thrill the lad with a bit of shadow …”
The book is swift and smooth as it moves in this fashion, much like a plane, wherein the reader or the passenger does not feel so much the speed as the confidence of the pilot. McCann takes us through Brown and Alcock’s trans-Atlantic flight, Frederick Douglass’ visit to Ireland and his meeting with O’Connell the “Great Liberator” and George Mitchell’s efforts for peace in Northern Ireland of the late ’90s. He crosses and re-crosses the centuries and continents with his characters, managing the rather ambitious task of juggling several deceased international heroes – Douglass, O’Connell, Brown and Alcock – and the even more audacious task of breathing fictional life into a still-living man, former senator Mitchell.
Then he loops back, and traces new narratives through the lives of four generations of women – the fact of a new life in America, where “New York appeared like a cough of blood”; the feeling of two newlyweds in love, being young with a young century, “The two of them out tripping the light fantastic”; and the hate, the fatigue, the slow deadening of things after a mother loses her son during the Troubles, when “The skies …. were a candelabra of violence.”
This is no palimpsest, though, with Lily’s, Emily’s, Lottie’s and Hannah’s stories traced over the thick sweeping lines of grand historical movements; nor is it the reinvention of those movements and dramas within the author’s capacious imagination.
The book is subtler than that. The point lies in the people, their voices – the connections between them, the echoes; the passage of a letter, unopened, from mother to daughter; the possibilities of things like flight, reinvention and family. Sparks from book one scatter across the pages, nestle amongst new words, and ignite fires, families, destinies in books two and three, “the past banging its flint against the present.”
The reader feels that this not an American book, a Canadian book nor an Irish book; it is not a work of historical fiction, nor the story of a family, nor even of a journey. It is written in third-person and first-person, past and present tense, with a view, somehow, of both sides of the ocean, of time stretching away in both directions. The book is aloft, never alighting for long, and returning always to its home in the crosscurrents above the Atlantic. It is a pleasant place for a reader to inhabit, for a while.
In many ways, “TransAtlantic” reaffirms the novel as a form – for those of us who doubt it. In some places, McCann seemed to meditate upon the act of writing. Certainly Emily Ehrlich’s vivid descriptions of the writing process, “The elaborate search for a word, like the turning of a chain handle on a well. Dropping the bucket down the mine shaft of the mind. Taking up empty bucket after empty bucket until, finally, at an unexpected moment, it caught hard and had a sudden weight and she raised the word, then delved down into the emptiness once more” – serve to remind us of the obvious, which, comfortable in McCann’s intimate prose, we can easily forget: that what we read was written by an author, and one whose authorial consciousness is never really hidden.
References to Heaney, Joyce, Woolf, Frost and perhaps even Thoreau float easily on what is clearly a fascination with words, and what they can do, as when McCann says of a house in Dublin, “The rooms led into one another like fabulous sentences.”
And this is the essence of it, for McCann: endless, effortless, perceived and unperceived connections.
He chooses a Wendell Berry quote to begin “Book Two”:
But this is not the story of a life.
It is the story of lives, knit together,
overlapping in succession, rising
again from grave after grave.
If McCann has an artistic mission statement in “TransAtlantic,” this is it. The story doesn’t seem to end, or begin; we’ve simply caught a glimpse of the whole fabric, like the landscape from 5,000 feet, a patchwork quilt sewn up by trees, seen a for a moment between a break in the clouds.
In this way, “TransAtlantic” is emblematic of the best of contemporary fiction. Holden Caulfield and Stephen Dedalus still wander somewhere out there in their modern Wasteland (and a few postmoderns still pursue cleverness for its own sake, and deconstruct the Lego houses they’ve built for themselves), but these heroes and antiheroes left behind the rest of us – a whole world of lonely people – and some of the best writers of our age have taken it upon themselves to weave us back together, on the threads only they can see. Jonathan Franzen, David Mitchell, McCann – all have chosen connection and reconnection, with a dash of the impossible, as their subject matter.
McCann’s is an interesting take. “TransAtlantic” is not really a story, so much an affirmation that there is a story, that it’s happening now – and this in turn is an affirmation of life.
More importantly, though, “TransAtlantic” is a wonderful book.
“It was a house worth listening to,” McCann writes on Page One, of an old cottage by a lough. It’s a book worth listening to, as well. There are many voices in it.
By Colum McCann
320 pages, $27
Aidan Ryan is a News staff writer.