“The engines throw out a taunt of red flame and then the Vinny hangs motionless a second, grows heavy, keels over as if it has taken a punch. The slowest form of falling at first. A certain amount of sigh in it. Take this weary effort at flight, let me drop.”
I listened to the first section of “Transatlantic” on the New Yorker podcast when it first came out (a long time ago). At the time, I assumed it was a stand-alone short story—serene, gripping, poetic. I read the first section again when I got my hands on the full book. And then I listened to the podcast again. McCann reads his own words and his approach is cool, dispassionate. He lets the words do the work, not his inflection.
The opening 31 pages are a gem. Threads of many stories to come are embedded in this opening. You may want to go back and read this again once you read the full novel. Characters that appear minor on first reading will jump out in sharp relief on the second.
“Transatlantic” tumbles back and forth. The vignettes intertwine. In “Let the Great World Spin,” the motif was Phillipe Petit’s high-wire walk between the World Trade Center towers. Here, the theme is right there in the title—the ocean, the distance, the separation. Transportation, communication, messages, signals, expectations, codes. And all this is balled up with the “long blue iceberg, the deep underwater of Irish history.” We meet historical figures and we follow multiple generations of women from the same family. All tightly interwoven.
“Transatlantic” is as much about growing closer as it is about growing apart.
“Let the Great World Spin” was one of my favorite novels of the past decade. I might like “Transatlantic” better. What does it matter? Both pack so much human weight you feel the aches. However, sentimentality (though there is a tincture here and there) is in on the run. When it comes, you feel like you’ve earned a tender moment or two, but McCann is incapable of self-indulgence. The characters breathe. We breathe.
The writing is exquisite. This is novel as montage. Or collage. Each section could stand alone. Together, the arc and power is clear.
In the story about George Mitchell (how does one choose a favorite section?), the Senator-turned-shuttle-diplomat looks out his hotel window. “A sea-wind. All those ships out there. All those generations that left. Seven hundred years of history. We pre-figure our futures by imagining our pasts. To go back and forth. Across the waters. The past, the present, the elusive future. The taut elastic of time. Even violence breaks. Even that. Sometimes violently.”
By the way, my version of Microsoft Word has underlined eight of the sentences in the paragraph above—sentences too short. “Fragment, consider revising.” Whatever. I happen to dig McCann’s pixilated, punchy style.
Describing the international reporters in Mitchell’s hotel, McCann nails the scene. (This is a scene I saw many times as a reporter, years ago). “They hang out in the piano bar, all times of the day. He has seen them often, the first drink placed down in front of them, practicing their posture, their casual disregard, their unreadability. They sit at the back as if the act of drinking has been forced upon them. Its obligation. And then all of a sudden the first drink is gone, and they are a half a dozen towards obliteration.” The reporters ponder other assignments and view Northern Ireland, Mitchell imagines, as a “slight melancholy demotion.”
The Mitchell section is brilliant. So much humanity rises from the page.
At the end, you’ll feel McCann’s skill as one nail-biting moment comes down to the decision of whether to open a letter. The decision lingers. The letter remains unopened. And then…
There’s a “natural entropy” to things. And people. And events. And, just maybe, the world.
“Transatlantic” is as good as it gets.