TransAtlantic (McCann)

This is a remarkably well-constructed book. The first half is a triptych of biographical sketches, the second a story of one of the characters in the second biographical sketches and her descendants. As the title suggests, the flight motif resonates throughout the entire book – not just in its literal meaning – what does it mean to fly, to cross from one place to another?

The first and third biographical sketches are fine. I gripped the book tightly while I read the middle one, about a visit Frederick Douglass made to Ireland, the one that sends the matriarch of the women in the second part of the book all the way across the ocean to America. As with many efforts to fictionalize historical figures, I wondered about the necessity of it. I was worried that my perception of the person would be violated. This was not an issue in the first part; I’d never heard of the two pilots. But why wasn’t it an issue in the third section, the one that follows George Mitchell as he negotiates the Good Friday accords? I was alive when he was around, but not (obviously) when Frederick Douglass was. Why did that section make me so nervous? Why was I so bothered by McCann’s intimation that Douglass flirted with other women? The image of Douglass lifting weights made from melted down metal that once bound slaves is incredibly powerful. But is it true?

I was more comfortable in the second part of the book, as we moved from one generation to the next. Ireland, I realized, is one of the main characters in this novel. McCann’s tone is melancholy here; his Ireland is a beautiful mess. “Ireland. A beautiful country. A bit savage on man all the same. Ireland” (39).

As always, McCann’s sentences, particularly his verbs, are artful. Describing a house, he writes that “[t]he rooms led into one another like fabulous sentences” (58). When he describes Douglass looking up at the night sky, he says, “The stars collandered the Wexford night” (70). Collandered? Remarkable. “The buskers beneath the awning, tromboning the raindrops down” (104). Tromboning? Stunning. Like collandered, it should be a word. “She bid him good-bye, ached her way into bed” (197). Don’t you wish you’d thought of that? More on the weather: “It rained. The sky did not seem at all surprised” (75).

And it is two of these sentences that illuminate both the form and content of this novel. McCann writes, “The tunnels of our lives connect, coming to daylight at the oddest moments, and then plunge us into the dark again. We return to the lives of those who have gone before us, a perplexing möbius strip until we come home, eventually to ourselves” (252).

In the end, though, we can’t come home. Our home has to be sold because a letter can’t be. The future is in front of us and “[W]e have to admire the world for not ending on us” (300). The story continues.


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