Tuesday, July 9, 2013
My review of Colum McCann's TransAtlantic from last week's Melbourne Age and Sydney Morning Herald...
Ask a random American to name the first person to fly across the Atlantic and they will probably tell you “Charles Lindbergh!” It’s something every school child knows and it is, of course, completely wrong. The chilly narcissist and Nazi sympathiser, Lindbergh, was the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic but it was the British aviators Alcock and Brown who were the first men to fly non-stop across the ocean in pursuit of a prize offered by The Daily Mail. If Colum McCann’s wonderful new collection of short stories TransAtlantic sells only a fraction of his National Book Award winning, Let The Great World Spin, then many more Americans are going to know about the daring adventures of Jack Alcock and Teddy Brown.
TransAtlantic begins in 1919 with the two aviators contemplating their modified Vickers Vimy bomber “all wood and linen and wire,” months after the Great War has “concussed the world.” Dipping in and out of his account of their flight from Newfoundland to Ireland in all its icy, claustrophobic detail, McCann transports us back to the men’s boyhoods, their prisoner of war experiences, and the electric moment they meet at the Vickers factory: “Alcock and Brown took one look at each other and it was immediately understood that they both needed a clean slate. The obliteration of memory. The creation of a new moment; raw, dynamic, warless.”
The second story in TransAtlantic takes place in Dublin in 1845 during the visit of the great African American writer and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Douglass is feted everywhere for his eloquence and his talk of liberation, but the festive mood is tempered by the news drifting in from the countryside that the potato crop has failed.
The action then skips forward 150 years to 1998 as a weary American politician, Senator George Mitchell, criss-crosses the Atlantic in a desperate attempt to bring to an end the Northern Irish ‘Troubles’ which have been raging for nearly three decades. Suffering through verbose speeches and endless cups of tea in meetings with The Reverend Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams, Mitchell flies to Washington to brief President Clinton, and then back to London to talk to Tony Blair. He wonders how he ever got involved in any of it. He only said he would go for a week and “before he knew it, it was a year, then two, then three. The shadows of Harland and Wolff falling over Belfast. The vague hope of helping to turn back the long blue iceberg, the deep underwater of Irish history.” McCann, in this passage, cleverly mentioning without mentioning Belfast’s most famous trans-Atlantic gift to the world, the RMS Titanic.
Parts 2 and 3 of TransAtlantic unpack and interweave these stories taking us from a bleak homesteader’s shack on the American prairie to a wedding in dour 1920’s Belfast, to the death of a young man during the ‘Troubles’, a victim of the conflict’s confusing and fissiparous alphabet soup of paramilitary groups. The book ends with the story of one letter carried in Teddy Brown’s mailbag that had lain un-opened for almost a hundred years.
Colum McCann was born in Ireland in 1965 and moved to New York in the 1980’s. Like so many Irish writers before him exile has given McCann the space and perspective to write objectively about his homeland, and the most exhilarating sections of TransAtlantic are these forays into darkest Ulster or gentile Dublin on the cusp of chaotic industrial revolution and apocalyptic famine.
The thematically linked short story collection has been around for centuries but it was Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller that showed how subversive and post-modern a genre it could be. TransAtlantic bears comparison with Calvino and with David Mitchell’s, Cloud Atlas, and while not quite as revolutionary or as dazzling as those masterpieces it is McCann’s most accessible and intellectually stimulating book since 2003’s Dancer.
TransAtlantic could so easily have fallen into cliché but by skilfully avoiding the Titanics and the Lindberghs and other obvious voyages “over the water” McCann has shone a light on adroit fictional archetypes and genuine heroes who deserve to be better known in America and across the globe.