For writers preparing their own novels, ColumMcCann’s TransAtlantic is a good study. The backwards and forwards of the novel, the research required, the creative interweaving of fiction into an otherwise historical account spanning from roughly 1919 to 2012 (though it dips as far back as the Civil War period), are fecund lessons for emerging writers.
As with Let the Great World Spin, the opening chapters describe a daring feat. Anyone who has read his previous novel will not soon forget the way McCann thrilled us with Petit’s tightrope walk between New York’s famed Twin Towers. (The sadness of the towers’ subsequent histories hangs heavily in the air as one reads of this dangerous walk, those thirteen hundred sixty-eight feet up.)
Now, in TransAtlantic, McCann gives us an account of another dangerous crossing, that made by the airmen Alcock and Brown. They flew fromNewfoundland to a bog in Ireland, determined to take “the war out of the warplane” they’d refitted. (The two preceded Lindbergh’s solo flight by eight years.) The author’s research is soundly in evidence, although he admits in his acknowledgements to having “sometimes combined, conflated, and on occasion fictionalized quotes in order to create the texture of truth.” Writers can draw their own conclusions from this.
Real and imagined characters join hands, most notably, in a close account of Frederick Douglass during his months in Ireland, and in the unfolding of the life of Lily Duggan, an Irish domestic servant who leaves her blighted country. McCann allows the lives of these two to intersect briefly. He describes Lily’s progeny in America and tells of some of their return trips to Ireland. For these many crossings the book is aptly titled.
McCann, Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at Hunter College and recipient of the National Book Award, wields a strong arm in his ability to turn a good phrase. An Irishman named Ambrose, married to Lily’s granddaughter inherits his family’s failing business interest: the manufacture of linen. McCann calls the inheritors of this dying industry “janitors for the ambitions of the dead.”
In other displays of linguistic skill, as he refers to Ireland at war with itself, the author describes the skies over Belfast as a “candelabra of violence.” Ambrose, unfolding his morning newspaper “accordions it out.” (We can picture it.) Early on, Lily listens to the horses eating. McCann writes, “She could hear the soft rip of grass in the mouths of the horses: the way it moved and crushed.” Other images I admired were, “The wind pulsed wintry along the river,” and “Rain spat down in flurries,” and “The children looked like remnants of themselves.” These are fine details deftly rendered.
McCann’s carefully researched details included the specific items of clothing worn by people in their given eras and settings, the pathetic treatment of dying Civil War soldiers, the early business and marketing of ice harvested in Missouri’s cold winters, and minute details about transatlantic flights made by the still-living Senator George Mitchell as he negotiated on Clinton’s behalf for the ending of the Irish festerings in 1998.
Disparate elements are finely interwoven through McCann’s focus on his specially chosen characters. These elements are neatly bookended by a letter written around 1919, as we learn early in the novel, and still unopened in 2011, as given in McCann’s final segment, “The Garden of Remembrance.” Critics may say the novel is too disjointed. I feel McCann has succeeded, though in the hands of a lesser artist, the effort might have failed. It was a daring attempt.
See ISBN 978-1-4000-6959-0 (Random House, 2013)
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