Review by Angelica Baker
In the opening pages of Colum McCann’s new novel Transatlantic, two veterans of the Great War meet for the first time and recognize one another as kindred spirits. “Alcock and Brown took one look at each other and it was immediately understood that they both needed a clean slate,” McCann writes. “The obliteration of memory.”
Readers familiar with this particular novelist should pause here for a hearty chuckle. The obliteration of memory? Good luck, in McCann World. Here, as in his last book (the rapturously praised Let the Great World Spin), memory is utterly resistant to obliteration. It is, in fact, put forward as our last and only bulwark against the vagaries of grief. Our ability to embrace memory is what allows us to continue, despite all that threatens to pull us asunder, from our communities or our families or even from ourselves. The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough, as McCann’s last book noted on its final page.
Let the Great World Spin centers on the day in August 1974 when Philippe Petit walked a tightrope stretched between the twin towers in downtown Manhattan, buildings that were still new and even considered, by some, to be folly. From that act, the novel then swings outward to capture the stories and voices of nearly a dozen characters whose lives intersected that day with devastating consequences. And yet, because it is a Colum McCann book, the overwhelming fog of grief through which his characters struggle towards solace is eventually outshone by redemption and even, for some among them, a happy ending. There are those readers for whom the novel’s triumphant spirit is a bit much, and at times the book does feel precious, even treacly. One character, just before her death, marvels that “the only thing worth grieving over…was that sometimes there was more beauty in this life than the world can bear.” (Cue the dancing plastic bag from American Beauty.) In another chapter, a Park Avenue housewife mourns her son lost in Vietnam as she prepares to host a group of grieving mothers, suffering from a bourgeois fear that they will resent her for her penthouse apartment. The chapter title? “Miró, Miró, on the Wall.”
The main action of Let the Great World Spin is intercut with shorter segments that follow the preparations of the tightrope walker himself, unnamed in the novel but clearly modeled on Petit. Again and again, McCann and his creations meditate on the tragedy and harm that this man might have caused, but the book’s pervasive sense of wonder is drawn from the miraculous truth that, against all odds, he did no harm at all. Life itself had already battered those who watched him that morning, but he brought grace to all, pain to none. And his whimsical achievement necessarily stands, for the reader, in contrast to the fate that would one day befall those very towers. The only direct reference to this (in a book that Esquire called “the first great 9/11 novel”) comes in the book’s coda, set in 2006, when a young woman finds a photograph taken that morning.
A man high in the air while a plane disappears, it seems, into the edge of the building. One small scrap of history meeting a larger one. As if the walking man were somehow anticipating what would come later. The intrusion of time and history. The collision point of stories. We wait for the explosion but it never occurs. The plane passes, the tightrope walker gets to the end of the wire. Things don’t fall apart.
McCann’s latest novel, Transatlantic, begins with a brief and mysterious introduction set in 2012. An unnamed woman wakes early, in a cottage at the edge of an unnamed lough. She listens to the sleeping house, to the gulls flying overhead as they drop oyster shells on the roof. “When a shell tip hit directly, it cracked open, but if it dropped sideways through the sky it wouldn’t break: it lay there like a thing unexploded.”
This woman’s identity will remain a mystery until the novel’s final section, but another “thing unexploded” pops up in the very next chapter: a letter from the journalist Emily Ehrlich, written to an Irish family whose members once knew her mother, Lily Duggan. The letter’s contents will remain a mystery for most of the novel; it serves instead as a MacGuffin that links seven chapters through three centuries, as McCann follows Lily Duggan and her progeny from Ireland to Missouri to Newfoundland, from the potato famine to the Civil War to the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the latter half of the twentieth century.
This idea of waiting for explosions that never occur – the fears and desires that guide the course of our lives only to melt away as the burdens and blight of the years begin to weigh us down – is central to McCann’s fiction. His characters find triumph not in the realization of their hopes, but rather in the acceptance of the hands that life ultimately deals them. He is fond too of historical sweep, of central crises or events whose effects will resonate for generations to come – the eruption of a subway tunnel beneath the East River in This Side of Brightness, that tightrope stunt in Let the Great World Spin. The new novel is no exception. Its first chapter chronicles the aforementioned Alcock and Brown, the two men who piloted the first non-stop transatlantic flight from Newfoundland to Ireland, who “knocked the war from the plane,” as one character recalls. “This is a human victory over war, the triumph of endurance over memory.” The flight is a historical first that will unite and influence the women of one formidable family. When (spoiler alert) the men land on the verdant shores of Ireland, we realize that here, finally, we have McCann’s Irish novel. “Ireland. A beautiful country. A bit savage on a man all the same. Ireland.” Here, finally, this transplanted Dubliner, who achieved literary celebrity for a novel about New York in the waning days of the Nixon era, has come home.
But while Ireland is the heart of this novel, the cruel and lush homeland from which McCann’s characters flee and to which they are drawn back, Alcock and Brown are only bit players. They haunt the remaining chapters but disappear from the action. We do glimpse Brown briefly when Emily, who covered the transatlantic flight when she was a journalist in Newfoundland, visits him ten years later and finds a wistful, waning alcoholic who tells her that he’s made a career out of attending luncheons held in his honor. Alcock and Brown’s glory is present throughout, to be sure, but – like Frederick Douglass, whose visit to Ireland during the potato famine also pops up – they are but specters, important less for their own purposes than for the fact that their greatness has touched Lily and her descendants, inspiring them to survive.
Lily Duggan meets Douglass during his visit to Dublin, where she is a housemaid. Soon after, thrilled by his lofty rhetoric, she sets sail for America, arriving in New York only to find that the men there are “adherent to the shadows…the sloping Negroes were bent and huddled. What freedom, that?” (Her dismay echoes that of Douglass himself when he arrives in Ireland: “He thought then that he had found the word for Dublin: a huddled city. He, too, had spent so many years, huddled into himself.”) Her segment of the book serves almost as a novella unto itself, following her life in her adopted homeland for nearly thirty years. She loses a son to the Civil War, his corpse brought to the very field hospital where she works as a nurse, and throws her lot in with John Ehrlich, who runs an ice business in rural Missouri. They forge a life together, with a handful of children, but a bloody accident leaves Lily once again a widow, the mother of three boys and Emily, whose passion for reading awes her illiterate mother. “Her own experiment with books had not lasted. She was mother to the daughter. That, in itself, was enough.” Years later, a grown Emily convinces her mother to go to see Douglass, this man who unwittingly set the course of her life, speak on women’s suffrage. But anticipation, as so often in life, leads only to a somewhat toothless reunion; Lily refrains from approaching the great man. “What could she say? What further meaning might she get from saying her name? He might only give feign recognition, or perhaps he would not remember at all. She had her daughter. Her sons.”
The fierceness of their mother-daughter bond is echoed in the next generation. Emily, too, has little use for the father of her daughter, Lottie Ehrlich. We are told that he was a newspaper editor in St. Louis, a man who allowed her to publish only if she wrote under a gender-neutral penname, also writing his articles without credit. Only Lottie marries well, to an amiable Irishman named Ambrose, and it is in her that the clan makes its way back to Ireland. By the time Lottie receives her own chapter we have met her twice, as a young woman in Newfoundland, photographing Alcock and Brown, and fleetingly as an old woman in one of the book’s most powerful sections, “Para Bellum.” There we find George Mitchell, Clinton’s Special Envoy for Northern Ireland, amid the harrowing negotiations that produced the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The most moving tragedies of Transatlantic are drawn from The Troubles, from the violence that claims Lottie’s grandson in another excellent chapter, “Darkdown,” set in 1978 during a fateful weekend at her family cottage in Strangford, on the lough. Make it happen for us, Lottie tells Senator Mitchell when they meet in the street outside the Irish Parliament, as he enters for a last round of tense negotiation. We’re forced to change because we’re forced to remember, Mitchell tells the gathered press in the wake of the successful agreement. And we’re forced to remember when we’re forced to confront.
Transatlantic concludes in 2011, at that same cottage, where Lottie’s daughter, Hannah, has quietly settled into an embittered solitude, the last surviving member of the Duggan/Ehrlich clan. She resists the financial necessity of selling her mother’s cottage and seeks out a Kenyan professor in Dublin, a Douglass scholar, to help determine whether her last birthright, the unopened letter written by her grandmother and carried across the sea to Ireland all those years ago, might be worth anything. The themes that have swirled around her ancestors throughout the novel – gender, race, class, violence, grief – come to a potent head in this final chapter. Its title, lest we miss anything? The Garden of Remembrance.
It is Hannah’s final meditations on her family and its losses, on the true value of the artifacts to which she has clung so desperately, that the novel has built toward. And it is the women of this family – Hannah and Lottie especially – who clearly interest McCann. Transatlantic’s early chapters feel somewhat distant, and it is perhaps no coincidence that these are the chapters about the great men of history, about the general that shapes the particular. Alcock, Brown, Douglass – however much McCann seems to enjoy burrowing beneath their mythical statuses to find the flawed men within, to bring them to life in fiction, his book truly comes alive when Lily cleans and dresses her dead son’s wounds, or when Lottie wakes from sleep to hear the gunshots that kill her grandson.
The language in the book’s early chapters is somewhat stilted by its own poetry, a bit too in love with the staccato rhythms of its descriptions. Douglass recalls his past: “There were times he was still walking into a church in Tuckahoe. The wooden crossbeams. The singular plane of light sloping east to west during morning services. The glimpse of a red-tailed hawk arcing out through the window. The high sound of the organ. The smell of grass carried in through the wide white doorway.” Or, during the transatlantic flight: “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.” These lists, short bursts of language, appear every few pages, as though McCann feels he cannot trust us to be moved unless we are hit repeatedly and quickly with the sentiment. This tic also has the unfortunate effect of rendering the opening chapters, and their four heroes, as stylistically interchangeable. We feel less that we are following Frederick Douglass or Jack Alcock (George Mitchell fares a bit better than the others) than that we are following artful creations of Colum McCann.
But this discomfort melts from the narrative when the men are left aside in favor of Lily and her family. The best pages of Transatlantic are littered with stray observations of haunting detail, as when Lily describes the wagons that bring piles of corpses into the field hospital each day – “the beds of their wagons were black with blood. It had fallen on the wheels, too, so that their lives seemed to circle and turn beneath them.” McCann’s style only strengthens as the book continues, widening in scope, shading in the personal histories that lurked at the peripheries of the opening, historical chapters. By the final pages, when we are finally given a chapter in the first person, the story flows smoothly and effortlessly towards its undeniably gut-wrenching (and yet, of course, uplifting) conclusion. McCann’s language no longer detracts, nor even distracts, from his masterful control of his sprawling tale.
McCann has reached far and pushed further, even, than the multi-voice chorus of Let the Great World Spin. The history of Ireland, the history of race relations on both continents, the plight of women in America in the twentieth century, the poisonous drain of violence, the lingering ghosts of the World Wars. And, at the human level, the wages of maternal sacrifice, the fraught negotiations of marriage, the invisible mutilations of lifelong grief. These are themes enough for ten novels, and if Transatlantic falters somewhat in its bustling attempts to establish the historical framework for its emotional excavations, this should not diminish the evocative, finely sculpted portraits of Lily, Emily, Lottie, and Hannah. Their resilience, handed down through the centuries, forms the book’s spine, even as history passes them by. As Lily, the illiterate Irish teenager who served dinner to Frederick Douglass, reflects when she sees him again all those years later:
He brushed past her to go downstairs. She felt her heart lift. All around her now there were women standing, and the applause rang out around the hall, a series of shouts, but Lily stayed seated, and what she felt was incomparable, singular, yet ordinary, too, all the living moments gathered together in this one…she understood that she had come such a distance, traveled all this way, she had opened a door, and her own daughter was in the room, her own history and flesh and darkness, standing there, leaning down by the light of an ancient lantern, to read.
Angelica Baker is currently pursuing her M.F.A. in Fiction Writing at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. She is the Editor-in-Chief for Issue #52 of Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art.