Archive for the ‘McCann, Colum (2)’ Category

TransAtlantic, by Colum McCann

August 15, 2013

Purchased at

Purchased at

I think it is a fair assumption to say that you could fill quite a large bookshelf with nothing but novels based on the Irish diaspora to North America. It is a genre that shows no signs of abating: Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side (2011) and Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn (2009) are but two recent examples. Both earned Booker longlist recognition.

So it is no surprise to see TransAtlantic by Colum McCann on the 2013 Booker longlist. He himself is part of the contemporary diaspora, born and raised in Ireland, now living in New York City. This version, however, comes with a distinct twist. In Book One of the three part novel, McCann turns the premise around, developing three story threads based on “returns” to Ireland, all featuring non-Irish central characters. While the three threads span 150 years, the author does not present them chronologically and I will respect that here:

  • The first (“Cloudshadow”), set in 1919, is the story of Alcock and Brown flying from Newfoundland to Ireland in a modified Great War bomber, a Vickers Vimy, with a bag of letters, the first trans-Atlantic “airmail”. Much of this section is set in St. John’s as the frustrated pair wait for appropriate weather to take-off — there is a prize for the first crossing and they have competitors. The latter part does provide an account of their struggles with storms in the air…and their near-crash landing in an Irish peat bog.
  • The second (“Freeman”) turns the clock back to 1845-46 and tells the story of the escaped American slave, Frederick Douglass, and his historic visit to Ireland. He is on a mission to promote the abolitionist cause, raise funds for it and, perhaps most important, promote his own book (to acquire enough money to buy his freedom). We meet him first in Dublin, uncomfortably resident in the home of his Irish publisher; he eventually moves on to Cork in Northern Ireland. Throught his stay, he grapples with the comparisons between his own slavery of being “owned”, the slavery imposed by Irish class behavior and the slavery resulting from the potato blight.
  • The third (“Para Bellum”) moves to 1998 and centres on Senator George Mitchell, born to parents of Irish lineage but raised by a Lebanese family after being orphaned in childhood. We meet him as he prepares to depart New York for Belfast for the crucial weekend of negotiations that will eventually produce the Good Friday Agreement that finally brings relative peace to Northern Ireland — most of the section concerns his personal activities during those high-tension days.
  • booker logoAll three of those threads feature real-life individuals who emerge as heroes in real-life events — McCann wants to make it clear that Ireland does not just send people to North America but that at least parts of Ireland’s history are reflected in the outcome of “return voyages”.

    In Book Two, however, the author returns to the traditional flow, as he begins to weave his three strands together. While those opening parts outlined “global” stories based on individuals known to this day, the central characters in this section are ordinary, very Irish, individuals, all of whom were introduced as minor accessories in the first third of the book.

    The most important is Lily, whom Douglass first met as an indentured maid in the house of his Dublin publisher. She later showed up at the Cork house where he was staying: inspired by his speeches, she has “escaped” servitude and is on her way to America. We pick up her story a couple of decades later in “Icehouse”; she is married to an American who harvests ice in northern Missouri in the winter and prospers by hauling it to St. Louis in the warmer months.

    In the Alcock/Brown thread, McCann also introduced a Newfoundland reporter, Emily Ehrlich, and her photographer daughter, Lottie, who are covering the departure (“Alcock and Brown have been warned to be on their guard, since the mother and daughter have, by all accounts, a tendency towards nostalgia and firey Irish tempers.”) Despite that warning, Brown has developed a respect for Emily. In fact, on the morning of the departure, she hands him a packet of sandwiches and a sealed envelope to carry on the “first airmail” journey, a bit of “illegal” commerce in the enterprise. In this later section, we follow Emily and Lottie on their first trip to Europe, a six-month magazine assignment that starts with a first-class ocean liner trip and ends with a visit to the aging, alcoholic Brown in Wales.

    Daughter Lottie is also the central character in the third thread of Book Two — now a grandmother she is teaching her grandson tennis at the same Belfast club where Sen. Mitchell relaxes in stolen moments from the peace negotiation process.

    Having updated and braided his threads together in Book Two, McCann moves to 2011 in Book Three (“The Garden of Remembrance”) to bring all the stories into the present day. I won’t try to describe this section here beyond saying I found it the weakest part of the novel — while sympathetic, interesting characters were the strength of the first two books, in this one tidying up story lines seems to take precedence. Alas, that seems to be an issue that most authors of “widescreen” novels have to face.

    I like to provide excerpts from books I review so visitors here get at least a sense of the author’s style. Unfortunately, McCann’s prose approach makes that hard to do — I noticed the same thing in the only other McCann that I have read, the multi-prize-winning Let The Great World Spin. Still, I’ll give it a go. Here’s an example of his detached, almost formal, approach to story narration, in this case Emily and Lottie watching Alcock and Brown’s Vimy as it leaves St. John’s:

    She stands with her daughter at the third-floor window, hands on the wooden frame. They are sure at first that it is an illusion, a bird in the foreground. But then she hears the faint report of the engines, and they both know they have missed the moment — no photograph either — yet there is also a strange exaltation about seeing it from a distance, the plane disappearing into the east, silver, not gray, framed by the lens of a hotel window. This is a human victory over war, the triumph of endurance over memory.

    Out there, the blue sky lies cloudless and uninterrupted. Emily likes the sound of the ink rising into her fountain pen, the noise of its body being screwed shut. Two men are flying nonstop across the Atlantic to arrive with a sack of mail, a small white linen bag with 197 letters, specially stamped, and if they make it, it will be the first aerial mail to cross from the New World to the Old. A brand-new thought: Transatlantic airmail. She tests the phrase, scratching it out on the paper, over and over, transatlantic, trans atlas, trans antic. The distance finally broken.

    Description, by contrast, is almost stream of consciousness. This excerpt follows immediately from the passage quoted above:

    Floating icebergs below. The roughly furrowed sea. They know there will be no turning back. It is all mathematics now. To convert the fuel into time and distance. To set the throttle for the optimum burn. To know the angles and the edges, and the spaces in between.

    Brown wipes the moisture from his goggles, reaches into the wooden compartment behind his head, grabs the sandwiches, unwraps the waxed paper. He passes one to Alcock who keeps one gloved hand on the yoke. It is one of the many things that brings a smile to Alcock’s lips: how extraordinary it is to be munching on a ham-and-butter sandwich put together by a young woman in a St. John’s hotel more than a thousand feet below. The sandwich is made more delicious by how far they have already come. Wheat bread, fresh ham, a light mustard mixed in with the butter.

    Despite the awards, Let The Great World Spin provoked a mixed response from readers and I am sure Transatlantic will as well. On the one hand, McCann likes the “grand” — a grand city in the former case, grand global events in this one. But his real passion in both books is ordinary people and the way they form part of that “grand” scheme — if that scheme represents the impressive oak tree towering above the ground (more than 150 years old in this novel), those characters are part of the essential ball of roots that sustains and grows it.

    Some readers (that includes me) take to that approach while others find it frustrating. For me, McCann’s characters — both the grand and not-so-grand ones — are multi-dimensional, their stories both comprehensive and interesting. And I fully support the concept that the tallest, broadest tree needs roots that we don’t ordinarily see but should appreciate. There may be a bookcase full of previous Irish/North American novels but space deserves to be made for this one as well.


    Let The Great World Spin, by Colum McCann

    July 6, 2009

    mccann2 I approached Let The Great World Spin with considerable trepidation. The tragedy of 9/11 and the destruction of the World Trade Center towers has led a number of very good writers (John Updike and Don Delillo come to mind) to write books that I found to be sorely wanting, to the point of being better left unpublished. There has also been what I would call a WTC “echo” phenomenon — works that feature the 1974 tightrope walk between the towers by Philippe Petit. For example, Man on Wire, a documentary based on Petit’s 2002 book, To Reach The Clouds, won this year’s Academy Award for documentary, after winning several festival prizes.

    (EDIT, Oct. 14 — Let The Great World Spin was named to the National Book Awards fiction shortlist today. It is a worthy contender — and the only finalist that has been reviewed on this blog. Nov. 18 — And today it won the prize, a minor surprise. It is a good book.)

    Colum McCann’s novel opens as that tightrope walk is taking place. Born in Dublin, McCann lives in New York and my fear was that yet another New York-based author felt it was necessary to use the World Trade Center image to justify his presence there. I am most happy to report that that is not the case — Let The Great World Spin is about New York, but it is an extension of the tradition of novels about that city that extends from Edith Wharton (reviewed here) through Steven Millhauser (reviewed here) to Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy. Just as Petit used a balancing pole while performing stunts on the wire, McCann uses that event as a pole around which he winds a number of stories that are happening on the ground in 1970s New York — and ends up producing a valuable addition to the list of fine novels that have been written about the city.

    The most prominent story thread of the novel is narrated by Ciaran Corrigan, the older of two brothers born in Dublin. His younger sibling, known as simply Corrigan for most of the book, has developed a notion of God by the end of his teenage years:

    What Corrigan wanted was a fully believable God, one you could find in the grime of everyday. The comfort he got from the hard, cold truth — the filth, the war, the poverty — was that life could be capable of small beauties. He wasn’t interested in the glorious tales of the afterlife or the notions of a honey-soaked heaven. To him that was a dressing room for hell. Rather he consoled himself with the fact that, in the real world, when he looked closely into the darkness he might find the presence of a light, damaged and bruised, but a little light all the same. He wanted, quite simply, for the world to be a better place, and he was in the habit of hoping for it. Out of that came some sort of triumph that went beyond theological proof, a cause for optimism againt all the evidence.

    “Someday the meek might actually want it,” he said.

    Corrigan eventually enrols in a semi-monastic order of similar independent, undisciplined souls. He takes himself to New York, with a fifth floor apartment in a broken-down tenement block near the hooker stroll under the Major Deegan expressway. It is the stroll for the too-old, too-damaged prostitutes who once worked Park Avenue. The “small beauties” that Corrigan brings to his client population are a place to pee (and freshen make-up, but definitely no shooting up) and occasional deliveries of pastries to them on the work-site, for which he is periodically ritually beaten up by their pimps. Ciaran searches for his brother, finds him and becomes a reluctant partner in this life work.

    The central character in the second most prominent narrative stream is Claire Soderberg, wife of Solomon, a State Supreme Court judge, who lives on the upper floor (she doesn’t like to call it the penthouse) of a central Park Avenue apartment. Claire’s problem, besides being guilted by the luxury of her life, is the loss of her son Joshua in Vietnam. Joshua wasn’t even in the U.S. armed forces, he was a computer geek developing a program that would produce an accurate total of the American dead for the President and cabinet when he got blown up in a Saigon cafe. Claire has found an ad in The Village Voice for a support group of mothers who have lost sons. Needless to say, the other four mothers are much poorer than Claire — since they meet at each others homes (to inspect the room of the departed child) she is anxious about displaying her affluence when it is her turn, which just happens to be on the day that Petit performs his walk.

    There are other streams and McCann develops amplifications and improvisations on all of them, including worthwhile development of characters too numerous to mention. Poverty, race, war, exploitation, authority, anti-Semitism — all are in the book, but none are central. It is a survey of what this world of New York in 1974 looked and felt like, not a judgment about any of its particular flaws.

    All of this is contrasted periodically with brief snippets from Petit’s preparation for his daring moment and the minutes of that act itself. (For those who were around at the time, it is hard not to contrast it with Andy Warhol’s “fifteen minutes of fame” — Petit seems to have outdone all of Warhol’s proteges.) The symbolism of escaping that miserable, dreary world, if only for minutes, to soar above it, literally on a tightrope, may be obvious, but McCann does not push it too far. It also creates the scenario the author needs to tie all of his various streams together as the book draws to a close — perhaps a little too tidily, but I was willing to grant him the licence. All the while, the great world spins on.

    For anyone who has read Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn (reviewed here) and appreciated the way that he captures the New York of the early 1950s (and he does), it is almost impossible to believe that Let The Great World Spin is set only a little over 20 years later. An incredible amount of change took place in those two decades, not just in New York — sometimes it takes good fiction to remind us just how much.

    As might be guessed, I am a fan of novels about “the City” — perhaps because so many excellent writers have chosen it as a venue. I wouldn’t argue that this is the best of those novels, but, as I said at the start of this review, it is a valuable addition to the shelf.

    (While Let The Great World Spin has been released in North America, it is not scheduled for UK release until Sept. 7. Assuming McCann has retained his Irish citizenship, that would make it Man Booker eligible this year. While I think it rates longlist consideration based on quality, I suspect the New York focus will keep it off the list — in some ways, it may turn out to be 2009’s version of Natherland.)

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