Here we go into the wild blue yonder again with Colum McCann. In his 2009 novel, Let the Great World Spin, McCann swooped readers up into the air with the French aerialist Philippe Petit, who staged an illegal high-wire stunt walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. Strictly speaking, Let the Great World Spin was not a Sept. 11 novel, and yet almost everyone rightly read it as one, since McCann's tale commemorated the towers at the literal zenith of their history. TransAtlantic is also heady and historical, and in the cheeky spirit of Let the Great World Spin, combines an air show with a juggling act: McCann compresses three crisscrossing narratives into this novel, which spans more than a century. It's a dizzying literary performance that deserves high points for technique even if the point of the whole show is a little opaque.
TransAtlantic begins in 1919 with the first nonstop aerial crossing of the Atlantic by two British pilots, John Alcock and Arthur Brown. The pair flew from Newfoundland to Ireland. (Eight years later, Alcock and Brown would be nudged into history's shadows by Charles Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic.) Bring your airsickness bags into this opening chapter because McCann straps readers into that open cockpit and throttles forward on his spinning and spiraling descriptions of early air travel. Alcock and Brown were both veterans of World War I and, in McCann's account of their historic flight, the men are attempting to reclaim flying as a joyous freedom rather than an instrument of death.
Freedom as well as war and peace are the big themes running throughout the other two history-based ocean crossings in this novel: Frederick Douglass visited Ireland in 1845 — during the Great Famine — on a lecture tour to promote his autobiography; and Sen. George Mitchell tirelessly flew back and forth from the U.S. to Northern Ireland in order to broker the peace accord of 1998, the Good Friday Agreement. No doubt recognizing that all this official history is a bit boy heavy, McCann also manufactures some fictional female characters — good women, as it were, standing behind the great men. The women's private life stories silently knit together the public exploits of the gents.
McCann's writing is studded with unpredictable language, sentences where the clouds part and rays of enlightenment stream forth. Describing her first anticlimactic sexual encounter with an out-of-shape older man, one of the young female characters reminisces: "The damp white loaf of his body shuddered." When Douglass is taken on a ride through a Dublin slum, his carriage is swarmed by the starving inhabitants. We're told: "The poor were so thin and white, they were almost lunar." And Mitchell's prolonged peace mission to Northern Ireland merits an especially striking image, inspired by the fact that the negotiations took place in Belfast, whose shipyards built the Titanic. Channeling Mitchell's thoughts, our omniscient narrator comments on "the vague hope of helping to turn the long blue iceberg, the deep underwater of Irish history."
It's all lovely writing, no question; but perhaps because these observations are all presented in the same elevated voice, the air of this novel gets a little thin. Maybe if McCann's language were less lovely, his lofty themes would stoop down once in a while to punch a reader in the gut. TransAtlantic is a book to admire, but not to lose yourself in. It keeps demanding that you appreciate the panoramic view, the dazzle of its metaphors, the pristine cleverness of its interconnected narrative structure. And so we do. But for all its polish, TransAtlantic never makes us care anew about these events. As in those rare instances where an airplane trip is so smooth that passengers are prompted to applaud the pilot's skill upon landing, we clap and deplane and instantly forget the ride.