By Colum McCann
This book’s flights of fantasy arc over a world that author McCann never tires of spinning, his ear out for echoes to take up and turn into song. Awhirl in this, the sixth of his novels, are eloquent simulacra of Frederick Douglass and George Mitchell; personal histories of Ireland’s tragedies and Troubles; and three distaff Irish-American-Canadian generations, all twisted into a cyclone of language—awesome from afar, but often injurious up close.
“Transatlantic, trans atlas, trans antic,” scribbles Emily Ehrlich, a journalist covering what turns out to be the first transatlantic flight. The honor belongs (as it really did) to Jack Alcock and Teddy Brown, British WWI vets whose goal is “taking the war out of the plane.” Their flight opens and elevates the novel, choppy descriptions roiling to a powerful roar—the kind of dignified heroism that’s expected of McCann’s characters, here a pilot and navigator for whom “keeping to the prescribed course is a matter of genius and magic.” Handily, having built the plane in Canada, Alcock and Brown land in Ireland: “A beautiful country. A bit savage on a man all the same.”
In later sections, Douglass, traveling through famine land on a Quaker-sponsored speaking tour, has cause to agree. Mitchell, too, kept away from his wife and newborn son in New York by an obligation to broker what eventually becomes the Good Friday Agreement, sees everywhere in Belfast “the old hieroglyphics of violence”: a mark from an old petrol bomb, the sorrow of mothers nightly setting their dead sons a place at the table “in case of miracles.” In the Stormont, where the peace process moves glacially, Mitchell hears the arguments of more than a dozen political parties as “kites of language, clouds of logic, drifting in and out… caught on the moving wave of their own voices.”
At least the tip of McCann’s silver-plated tongue must be in cheek here, because as throughout TransAtlantic characters “gruff” their way into pajamas, stars “collander” the sky, spines are “unbuttoned” and rooms “lead into one another like fabulous sentences,” the moving wave of language (one wonders what other course of action is available to a wave) thunderingly threatens to drown out sense. At Hunter, where he teaches in the MFA program, McCann advises students to write what they want to know; a man of his word, he’s written novels about Nureyev, a Roma poet, and the builders and dwellers of New York’s subway tunnels. The people of TransAtlantic, in their work, share his concerns: Douglass in Ireland feels “the obligation of distance. The necessity to say precisely he meant. To clarify without condescending.”
By these parameters, TransAtlantic—as well as most of McCann’s other books—is a success. No one gets less than a fair, faintly elegiac share of humanity, whether via suffering at war, losing children to it, or, with some luck, finding a sliver of domestic happiness. But it’s precisely this abundance of “radical empathy,” appropriate to a saint, that’s finally confounding. “Our ancient hatreds don’t deserve capital letters,” a character thinks in the aftermath of the Troubles. But deserving or not, we still feed fat the ancient grudge—all the ancient grudges, and some new ones—while TransAtlantic, like his breakthrough book Let the Great World Spin, lets loose indiscriminately with redemption. I’d like to see it earned.