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“Truly, universally, relations stop nowhere,” Henry James wrote, and it’s a writer’s hair-pulling job to draw “the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so.”
As to threads and voyages, Colum McCann’s new novel TransAtlantic has the potential to go on forever, rippling sideways into an incomprehensible nothing and everything. Much of its accomplishment lies in the way it knows when to stop, pause at the right time, and when it does, it not only ties things up for the reader, but point towards the severed coasts, and what might lie beyond. Happily, as Henry James put it, we close the final page.
“A brand new thought: Transatlantic airmail. She tests the phrase, scratching it out on the paper, over and over, transatlantic, trans atlas, transatlantic. The distance finally broken.”
In 1998, American senator George Mitchell flies back and forth from New York to London and up to Belfast, living, not sleeping, and sharpening hundreds of minimal phrasings for a fragile Northern Irish peace process. On a tennis court he speaks to an old woman from Newfoundland who lost her grandson in the Troubles. She is the granddaughter of Lily Duggan, an Irish maid who stepped off a ship in New York in the late 1840s. In 1845, a twenty-seven year old American disembarks in Dublin. He is Frederick Douglass, freed slave, abolitionist and soon to become one of the great transatlantic intellectual. While in Ireland, he stays in the house where Lily works. McCann’s novel collects crossings like curious stones in a traveller’s pocket, to the point where the passage becomes the starting point, a home in itself, or as George Mitchell calls his British Airways airplane cabin: “this nation of cloud and air”.
“How had he ended up here, on the edge of the Irish Sea? What was it that brought such distances, rowing upwards into the past?”
This level of ambition along with the sheer number of characters could drive the reader straight to frantically sketching family trees, but where many multi-generational novels confuse, this one waits. It asks questions about belonging, mobility, and listens patiently. It has been a while since I was given time to grow used to each character in such a carefully expansive rhythm. The chapter structure, focusing on one major character at a time, has its problems. You are not rushed into a life, and by the time you leave it for another, you have started to care. McCann doesn’t simply alternate between parallel narratives and he never revisits a voice after he has left it.
The pacing does, occasionally, interfere with the process of reading. When introducing new chapters the text is sometimes so fast, the perspective so self-consciously tentative, that the story feels like the writing – the actual attempt to get to know your characters – rather than the finished product. You can imagine an author tapping out the scenes. On the other hand, because McCann mixes historical figures with imagined ones, this slow dipping into lives invites you to explore them as different people who share the crossing – the living in the middle – and in this way they are all made his own.
McCann’s sentences are experimental enough to make you want to savour this or that sentence, underline it, keep it. His imagery is inventive, but precise and in the service of the story. As a book that deals with themes of migration, even though almost exclusively a Western experience, it reminds us of the implicit violence behind displacement: war, poverty, and the ever present Atlantic triangle of the slave trade with reverberations into the present day. And yet, a peace process is also a catalyst for movement, as are emotional connections. McCann’s novel shows both, and how difficult they are to separate. What came first, and who started moving? What is origin?
“New York appeared like a cough of blood. The sun was going down behind the warehouses and tall buildings. She saw men on the wharfside in the ruin of themselves. A man barked questions. Name. Age. Birthplace. Speak up, he said. Speak up, goddamnit.”
Transatlantic fiction, or literature based on and over the puddle, has of course been around as long as the crossings themselves. TransAtlantic as a novel defies the idea of setting by focusing on the experience of passage, and there are elements in the book which prove how very difficult it must be to remain there, to not get lost. McCann sometimes reverts to traditional plot lines and easy symbolic objects – a letter, a house – which tie the narrative together as if using a life line. He still does what the best transatlantic literature manages: to complicate the idea of start and finish, centre and a periphery, proving that any origin is only imagined and the relations endless. Family history is its own geography. Reading McCann, then, is like looking at the diagram which one of the characters, the murdered grandson, imagines as a symbol for his family’s migratory pattern: “a nest in a tree as seen against a background of high-speed cinematography”, a home in movement.
“Let the gunman grow so cold that he cannot pull the trigger and then allow the silhouette to trudge dejected over the hill. To filibuster the son of a bitch, and then watch him climb out of the ditch and to thank him and shake his hand and escort him down the high-brambled laneway with the senatorial knife in his back.”
TransAtlantic was published in June 2013. Buy it at Foyles.