HOW TO EXPRESS an ancient truth in a new way? This is one of the more fundamental questions facing the author; those who succeed in answering it are said to possess “vision.”
For almost two decades, Colum McCann has labored at a very old truth indeed: that the burdens of the past condition the present. It wasn’t, however, until his fifth entry in this project, the 2009 novel Let the Great World Spin, that McCann was widely hailed as a visionary. Though the book, with its array of perspectives and its interest in the ways in which the past lives on in the present, hardly marked a radical departure from McCann’s previous four novels, it earned him universal critical acclaim, a National Book Award, and the big audience that had hitherto eluded him. Its success seemed due in no small part to its subject matter: arranging a Joycean cast of urban dwellers around Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the Twin Towers, Let the Great World Spin made an indelible and appealing contribution to the fledgling cohort of 9/11 novels.
I don’t mean to ascribe the success of McCann’s novel to subject matter alone; Don DeLillo’s take on September 11, Falling Man, was less than universally praised. There is much to admire in Let the Great World Spin. McCann’s mid-1970s New York is humid with reality. His ability to inhabit voices ranging from a Park Avenue housewife to a Bronx prostitute is truly impressive. The parallactic effect of the multiple perspectives keeps the narrative fresh. But the breathless quality of the praise that met Great World obscured a kind of willfulness in the novel’s attitude towards history. In its eagerness to soothe the traumas of the past, the novel often veered dangerously close to bathos. As its title suggests, Let the Great World Spin tended to endorse an “Ol’ Man River” view of life: suffering occurs, but the world just keeps spinnin’ along. This is an unfortunate side effect of Whitman’s acknowledged influence on McCann: paint a canvas broad enough — sufficiently blur the lines between past and present, between self and other — and the sufferings of any one individual risk being lost in the flow of time. “Things don’t fall apart,” says the narrator toward the novel’s end, but given some of the things we’ve seen in the previous 300 pages, we’re not so sure we agree. The novel’s insistence on redemption is often coercive rather than convincing.
Still, if Let the Great World Spin suffered from obviousness — “The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough.” — it was redeemed by the exuberance palpable on every page, the exuberance of an author who had stumbled upon a story he felt born to tell. If only some of that joy and clarity had seeped into TransAtlantic, McCann’s excessively solemn new novel. It is a work that displays lots of skill and ambition but little vision or delight, as if, in the midst of busily studying Vickers airplanes and the speeches of Frederick Douglass, McCann forgot why he set about writing his book in the first place. Like Let the Great World Spin, TransAtlantic boasts impressive amounts of research and a carousel of perspectives. It leaps back and forth in time and touches the shores of Ireland, Newfoundland, and America. It examines the lives of factual men and fictional women. But for all its intricate design, it’s difficult to divine what, exactly, McCann sought to achieve except to overawe the reader with vague intonations about the interconnectedness of ages. The results are several brilliant passages, many leaden ones, and the unhappy suggestion that McCann may have exhausted his great theme.
TransAtlantic is basically divided into two parts. The first is a triptych of historical figures at key moments in their careers: the aviators John Alcock and Arthur Brown as they make the first transatlantic flight in 1919; Frederick Douglass on his visit to Ireland in 1845-46; and former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, brokering the Good Friday peace agreement in Belfast in 1998. The second half traces four generations of Irish women whose lives intersect in more or less significant ways with those of the flyers, Douglass, and Mitchell.
There’s a fairly obvious impulse behind aligning such a disparate set of public and private stories. Popular histories tend to elide the hopes and fears of ordinary people, forgetting, for instance, that the Gettysburg Address was intended not for the walls of the Lincoln Memorial, but rather for the ears of people like you and me. Part of the novelist’s imperative is to supply that deficit. McCann has often argued as much. Discussing his novel Dancer, about the great ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, in The Believer in 2010, McCann said, “I didn’t care one whit about Rudolph Nureyev nor his very obvious hubris. I cared about the shoemaker, the rentboy, the smaller characters at the edges.”
This is sensible and worthy enough, but TransAtlantic attempts to cover too much ground in its 250 pages. It quickly raises and discards concerns: immigration, slavery and freedom, The Troubles, and the global economic crisis all have their cursory moment onstage. This crowdedness weakens the novel in almost every way. It’s certainly responsible for the central paradox gripping TransAtlantic: in attempting to tell a tale of historical coincidence and contingency, McCann has instead given us a work of necessity and contrivance. Let the Great World Spin was expansive enough that links between plot strands were often genuinely surprising. But in the confines of TransAtlantic, the cross-pollinations are expected and often superficial; the deeper connections between, say, Douglass and Mitchell remain opaque, bolstered only by sonorous declarations like: “The tunnels of our lives connect, coming to daylight at the oddest moments, and then plunge us into the dark again. We return to the lives of those who have gone before us, a perplexing möbius strip until we come home, eventually, to ourselves.”
Absent a strong organizing principle, the novel can feel like a game of connect the dots between its scattered sections, the lines drawn not to reveal a larger picture but for the sake of drawing lines. At one point, for instance, McCann writes, “Europe was ablaze with ideas. Paintings in Barcelona. Bauhaus in Dessau. Freud in Vienna. The tenth anniversary of Alcock and Brown. Big Bill Tilden in the men’s tennis at Wimbledon.” This passage strains credulity, not only because an anniversary and a tennis tournament hardly count as revolutionary ideas, but also because the year McCann describes here is 1929. By then, people were presumably talking about a fellow named Lindbergh. But because McCann is impelled to constantly bring the novel’s gestalt into view, he frequently shoehorns references like these into odd corners of the book.
The novel’s brevity also puts pressure on McCann to quickly get his characters up and running. Where the historical figures are concerned, this necessity manifests itself as an anxiety that they will appear not as fully fleshed humans but as moribund busts in a gallery. McCann’s solution is to endow the men with memorable quirks: Jack Alcock’s sandwiches are often “stained with a thumbprint of oil,” Frederick Douglass is embarrassed by the set of barbells he keeps in his room, and George Mitchell laughs when he catches sight of himself in a mirror, clad in tennis clothes. These are finely observed details, and in a more spacious novel, they would dazzle. But on the spare pages of TransAtlantic, they feel like slightly desperate tags, designating their owners as alive.
As for the purely fictional characters: McCann intends the females to be tribunes of sorts, but their main purpose seems to be to ensure the veracity of the novel’s more famous inhabitants. Early in the novel, for example, Lottie Ehrlich, the third of the novel’s women, encounters Arthur Brown in the hotel where he’s staying before his flight. Ostensibly, the scene exists so that Lottie can hand Brown a letter to carry across the Atlantic — a letter that will serve as a rather thin plot device in the chapters to come — but you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s simply an excuse to show Brown thinking about his fiancée: “[Lottie] appears at the end of the corridor, moving sharply and quickly. Her dressing gown exposes a triangle of white skin at her neck. He feels an acute and sudden pang of desire to see Kathleen and he is glad for the desire, the errancy of the moment […] He misses his fiancée, pure and simple.” Pages and decades later, George Mitchell has the following exchange with Lottie (now Lottie Tuttle) after a tennis tournament, a humorless attempt to show that the senator has a sense of humor:
—Lottie Tuttle, she said, stretching out her hand.
—Oh, we know who you are, Senator. We saw you this morning with that awful backhand.
He reared back and laughed.
McCann’s decision to eschew quotation marks chills the dialogue in TransAtlantic, rendering it as a kind of emotional semaphore that, like the novel’s structure as a whole, hints at deep meanings but largely fails to engage the mind or heart. Mitchell’s exchange with Lottie goes on:
—You’re American? he asked.
She finished the small glass of champagne.
—Canadian. Sort of.
—Lottie Ehrlich was the name. Once. Long ago.
Occasionally deployed in Great World, those fragments are annoyingly common in TransAtlantic. Sounding their doleful notes on almost every page, they exacerbate the novel’s penchant for grandiloquence, as in the scene where George Mitchell’s treaty nears completion: “They are all in agreement: nothing will derail us now. We have come too far. Enough is enough. No surrender. We own that dictum now. It is ours. No. Surrender.”
I don’t doubt for a moment that McCann feels deeply about this moment; he wrote about it movingly in an essay for The New York Times in March. But his dependence on fragments stiffens the book unnecessarily and deprives the reader of the joy of what his language, when allowed to stretch its legs, can do. Marching soldiers look “as if they had become mute assistants to their muskets.” A night sky is “nailheaded.” World War I “concussed” Europe. The section on Alcock and Brown worked well when it was published as a short story in The New Yorker last year; surrounded by the novel’s weighty murmurs, its sparkle diminishes only a little. The chapter concerning Lily Duggan, the matriarch of the novel’s women, is the most consistently promising. At one point, McCann gives us Lily’s husband, an iceman, as he cuts blocks from his frozen lake:
Jon Ehrlich used a long thin augur to bore the holes. Steel with a sharp point. When he turned the handle, it looked to Lily as though he were churning butter. Small sparks of ice rose from the surface. He went across the lake with the boys, sinking hole after hole in the ice, three feet apart. They made a checkerboard of the lake. They stood over each hole and inserted a thin stick to make sure the drill had gone all the way through. The water gurgled up and spread. Layer upon layer. The spill from each drill hole met its neighbor, a spreading sheet of freeze.
This passage is almost perfectly written: the fine metaphors (the butter churn, the checker board); the unexpected contrast of ice and spark; the lovely, unassuming verbs. Free of the plodding fragments and the Delphic pronouncements, McCann’s language acquires a fragile hush that verges on the holy. At last, we have before us human beings that feel born rather than staged. TransAtlantic here achieves what it largely fails to do elsewhere. Like all good fiction, this scene makes us feel bound to people we’ve never met.
James Santel lives, writes, and teaches in St. Louis. His writing has appeared in The Believer, the Paris Review Daily, The McSweeney’s Book of Politics and Musicals, and The Millions, and is forthcoming in The American Scholar. He blogs at jsantel.blogspot.com