Transatlantic/Colum McCann: Reflections

Monday, June 24, 2013

Art. Yes. That's what Colum McCann produces, every single time. Read all his work. Read his short stories. You'll run out of ink underlining the extraordinary images, the soul-giant gestures, the coined terms, the Irishisms. You'll feel as if the clock of time just wedged itself apart, showed you its gears.

Transatlantic, the new novel, is no different. In fact, I feel this book transcends McCann's National Book Award winner, Let the Great World Spin. There is greater structural integrity, more generational reverb. Most reviewers seem to be talking about the elements of the book—the distinct chapters and historic characters that wend their way through the pages. A 1919 airplane flight. A glimpse of Frederick Douglass, the freeman, in 1845 Ireland. George Mitchell at the height of the Good Friday peace talks in 1998. I believe, however, that the genius lies in the seaming—in all that these chapters actually share, which is to say the generations of women who bind these historic crossings and events. Real people and imagined people populate this book in nearly equal measure. Both have been deeply imagined.

Look, for example, at these three paragraphs. The first two describe an historic character, one of the 1919 pilots. The second describes a McCann creation. History and possibility don't collide here, stiffly. They need one another:
At night Brown spends a lot of his time downstairs in the lobby of the hotel, sending messages to Kathleen. He is timid with the telegraph, aware that others may read his words. There's a formality to him. A tightness.

He is slow on the stairs for a man in his thirties, the walking stick striking hard against the wood floor. Three brandies rolling through him.

An odd disturbance of light falls across the bannister and he catches sight of Lottie Ehrlich in the ornate wooden mirror at the top of the stairs. The young girl is, for a moment, ghostly, her figure emerging into the mirror, then growing clearer, taller, redheaded. She wears a dressing gown and nightdress and slippers. They are both a little startled by the other.
Yesterday I wrote about the sound of McCann's sentences, the legacy he shares with Michael Ondaatje. Today I want to answer the NYTBR reviewer, Erica Wagner, who, in her very lovely review of the book asks why the final chapter of Transatlantic must be written in first person. I suggest (though I'll never actually know) that it all has to do with the book's final sentence. Which could not have been written any other way, and which left me weeping early this morning.


Katrina said...

Lovely review -- and now I have another novel to add to my summer reading list. I don't know how you have time to read all these books, but I'm so very glad you do.

Serena said...

I really loved Let the Great World Spin! This sounds like another good one.

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