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Writing on a High Wire

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Sophie Bassouls/Corbis
Colum McCann, Paris, 2006

In June, during his first-ever visit to Northern Ireland, President Obama gave a speech to two thousand young people at the Waterfront Hall, Belfast. Of the two Irish writers he quoted, one—perhaps inevitably—was W.B. Yeats (“Peace comes dropping slow”). The other was Colum McCann: “Peace is indeed harder than war, and its constant fragility is part of its beauty.”

For anyone who disapproves of modern literary hype, the good news is that McCann’s progress to such exalted company has been almost charmingly old-fashioned in its stateliness. He began the old-fashioned way too, with a collection of short stories, Fishing the Sloe-Black River—a book published to quiet murmurs of appreciation in Britain and Ireland in 1994, but that had to wait until he was more established to appear in America. His themes of exile and emigration were already in place (not unexpectedly for a Dubliner who lives in New York) and his prose was already strikingly sharp and lyrical. Nevertheless, it must have taken a certain amount of self-confidence for an Irish writer in his twenties to call the first story “Sisters”—which, give or take a definite article, was also the title of the first story in another debut collection: James Joyce’s Dubliners.

Since then, both McCann’s reputation and the scale of his literary ambition have grown steadily with every novel. Songdogs (1995) was a poignant account of a much-traveled son coming back to Ireland to visit his much-traveled father. This Side of Brightness (1998) told the twin tales of the men who built New York’s subway tunnels in the early twentieth century and the homeless people living there in the present day. Dancer (2003) and Zoli (2006) recounted the dramatic lives of two exiles—Rudolph Nureyev and a fictionalized Romani poet, respectively—from a variety of globe-trotting viewpoints. (In Nureyev’s case, they included his Parisian housekeeper, his London shoemaker, and one of his New York rent boys.)

Finally, in 2009, came a big breakthrough. Let the Great World Spin interwove the first- and third-person stories of a daringly wide range of New Yorkers during the time of Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the Twin Towers, with a coda set thirty-two years later. It won the National Book Award for fiction and then, two years later, the famously lucrative International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

And now, with TransAtlantic, McCann’s ambition reaches further still—combining fiction and nonfiction more closely than ever and spanning centuries rather than decades. Yet if the scope of his methods has constantly expanded, the themes they express have remained largely unchanged: not only exile and emigration but, even more insistently, the influence of the past on the present, and the consequent belief that the forces that shape our lives are in place long before we’re born. Or, as TransAtlantic’s epigraph from Eduardo Galeano puts it—in the first sign that McCann hasn’t given up on this theme just yet—“the time that was continues to tick inside the time that is.”

In McCann’s first two novels, this central idea was also symbolized in exactly the same arresting way. One night, Conor Lyons, the narrator of Songdogs, realizes that “the light hitting my eyes might have come from a star long imploded.” A homeless man watching the stars in This Side of Brightness “knows that the light hitting his eyes has left years ago, there is nothing up there but the movement of the past, things long imploded and exploded and for ever gone.” Toward the end of TransAtlantic, the youngest of the main characters we meet—and so the heir to the whole of the book’s history—is said to have “loved the notion that the light hitting our eyes might be coming from a star that had already disappeared.”

This time, though, the theme takes longer than usual to come into focus. The opening section of Book One, set in 1919, features the first nonstop transatlantic flight by Jack Alcock and Teddy Brown, a pair of RAF pilots whose achievement has been comprehensively overshadowed in America by Charles Lindbergh’s solo success eight years later. Even so, theirs was quite a feat—what with an open cockpit, various bits of the plane falling off, a radio and heating system that both broke down, and a crash landing in a Galway bog. It’s a feat of which McCann takes full advantage, writing with a mixture of his customary precision and the kind of verve to be found in a classic adventure yarn.

But no sooner have Alcock and Brown landed than the action shifts to Ireland in 1845, where Frederick Douglass is touring the country to promote the antislavery cause. The “Dark Dandy,” as he’s approvingly known in the press, is filled with delight and astonishment at the lack of racial prejudice he’s facing. At the same time, he’s aware of a contradiction. On the one hand, his message to his new Irish fans is that “a wrong done to one man is a wrong done to all.” On the other, with famine clearly imminent, the poor of Ireland are suffering some cataclysmic wrongs themselves. So should he speak up for them, at the risk of losing the support of his well-to-do Protestant hosts, and of the Brits he’s due to visit next? In the end he chooses to stay silent—although, presumably because of the novel’s fidelity to the historical record, this feels more a source of pain to McCann than to Douglass.

The book’s third section, by contrast, is free of moral ambiguity of any kind. Given that it deals with the signing of the 1998 Northern Ireland Peace Agreement—which, among other things, released known murderers from prison and gave positions of power to former terrorists—this seems surprising. Yet by leaving the region’s tangled politics in the background (or absent completely) and telling the story from the point of view of Senator George Mitchell, McCann presents the simple portrait of a moral hero whose endless patience and refusal to judge wins out over centuries of violence. Apparently, before publication, McCann sent this section to Mitchell for his approval—and if I were Mitchell, I’d have given it too.

All three of these narratives contain plenty of examples of McCann’s gruff lyricism, with the single unforeseen word a specialty, from the “eager, hatted, earnest” crowds that greet Douglass to the “chandelier of snot” that hangs from Brown’s nose. All in their vivid way—and I don’t mean this in the least slightingly—serve up fascinating history lessons. Still, the reader could be forgiven for wondering what they’re all doing in the same novel, even one called TransAtlantic.

McCann throws in some parallels. Sending a message from Newfoundland to his fiancée before his flight, Brown “is timid with the telegraph, aware that others may read his words”; George Mitchell is careful with the e-mail he sends his wife in New York “in case it is intercepted.” Both Mitchell and Douglass are constantly amazed by the fact their lives have led them to Ireland—and both like a lot of sugar in their tea. By flying a former bomber across the ocean, Alcock and Brown see part of their mission as “taking the war out of the plane, stripping the whole thing of its penchant for carnage”: a nod toward Mitchell’s peace agreement that the senator later obligingly reciprocates by thinking of the negotiating process as something he

just wanted to land…. To take it down from where it was, aloft, like one of those great lumbering machines of the early part of the century, the crates of air and wood and wire they somehow flew across the water.

Despite such moments, though, it’s only in Book Two that the real reason for the coexistence of these three stories becomes clear. Only then do the nonfictional men retreat into the background, take up their role as imploded stars, and allow the fictional women who have been lurking in the shadows to demonstrate once again the influence of the past on the most unregarded of lives.

We see this immediately in section four, which opens Book Two and begins in Missouri in 1863 where Lily Duggan is serving as a Civil War nurse before traveling north for a bravura series of scenes about ice harvesting in the days before refrigeration. But this is also the Lily Duggan we last saw as a cowed Dublin maid inspired by Douglass’s words to strike out for a life of her own. Her daughter Emily then becomes a journalist and ends up in Newfoundland—which is why she was there at the start of the book covering Alcock and Brown’s preparations, with the help of her photographer daughter Lottie.

In section five, Emily and Lottie sail to Britain to interview Brown on the tenth anniversary of the flight. Lottie falls in love with their driver and moves with him to his hometown of Belfast. This in turn explains how George Mitchell had met the elderly Lottie in Northern Ireland, and been spurred on in his quest for peace by learning of her grandson’s death in the Troubles. It also means that section six, set in the 1970s, can tell us how the death took place.

Baldly summarized, these links may sound contrived, even corny. For the reader, they’re a lot more deft, sly, and often startling than that. Nonetheless, by the time one reaches Book Three and the seventh and final section—narrated by Lottie’s daughter Hannah in 2011 and the sole first-person narrative in the book—much remains to be done to bring the novel’s many elements together. In the event, McCann just about manages it, although not without the help of some coincidences. As Hannah drives into Dublin to meet an African academic who will not only help solve her financial difficulties but also provide some scholarly underpinning for the connections between Irish and black people, she finds many of the roads closed. That’s because the city is preparing for the arrivals of the British queen and of President Obama, neatly suggesting happy outcomes for both the peace process and Frederick Douglass’s fight for equality.

Some reviewers of Let the Great World Spin were unable to resist comparing McCann’s own achievement to Philippe Petit’s high-wire act. So, in the same spirit, I would suggest in TransAtlantic, he eventually lands this loosely bound crate of a novel with most of its parts intact. There are, however, at least two obvious problems—one, a sudden exaggeration of a long-standing element of his prose; the other, a more besetting sin.

The first is that McCann’s fondness for short, verbless sentences here seems to run out of control. Properly timed, such sentences can of course achieve the required narrative urgency, something they do particularly well in the Alcock and Brown section. The trouble is that they’re used so relentlessly throughout the book that we’re left with the impression either of a writer who, faced with an excess of material, is reduced to shorthand notes—or of one who’s simply developed an unfortunate tic.

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