It’s a Small World, After All: Colum McCann’s Cosmic Novels Have a Tight Connection

His latest, though, might be a little too beautiful

Colum McCann. (Photo: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images
Colum McCann. (Photo: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images

Colum McCann writes better from female points of view than male ones. Among living male novelists I know of, this problem is unique. So the white Irishman is a brilliant ventriloquist of hookers and housewives who writes feelingly about African-American femininity. Yet with his white Irish male characters, for whom he writes in something like his own voice, the echo comes back dead. It is only one of the ways in which Mr. McCann, a self-described “international mongrel” (the term is Michael Ondaatje’s), evades identity lines. His style is assimilative, self-effacing, globalized and alienation-free. He might be the first European to have novelized America unironically. He has a superb imagistic eye—once you have read that, for example, a long-billed bird is like “a scissors moving across the sky,” the simile cannot be unseen—yet he seems to be more interested in empathy than observation. Gentleness excites him, as does trauma on a large scale, and all his books have at least one landmark calamity: the Troubles, the subway sandhogs, the persecution of the Roma, AIDS. He writes new takes on well-known disasters, propelled by a spirit of ultra-modern sensitivity.

It was only a matter of time until Mr. McCann addressed 9/11, and his National Book Award-winning 2009 novel, Let the Great World Spin, bore all of its author’s hallmarks: a large cast, oblique historical framing, an atmosphere of togetherness, multiple bereavements. That novel used the Frenchman Philippe Petit’s illicit 1974 tightrope-walk between the Twin Towers (“the art crime of the century”) as a metaphor for magical moments of connectedness. “The world is tiny,” one character typically remarks. But the dramatization of this kind of tininess required oversize literary effects. Mr. McCann has explained in an interview that the novel’s method was “Whitmanesque.” “A life is lived in so many ways—so many unopened envelopes,” a character thinks near the end. His new novel, Transatlantic (Random House, 320 pp., $27), returns to the theme of the smallness of the world by literalizing the image of an unopened envelope: a piece of unread airmail is passed down the generations, shuttled across oceans and between owners, and over time it accrues power as a symbol for strange connections, missed chances, new beginnings. It also accrues value. “It was … the first time he had ever come upon an actual living conceit,” says a male academic whom Mr. McCann portrays as forgivably crass.

Unlike Let the Great World Spin, which largely confined its high-profile personnel to walk-on parts, Transatlantic has narrators you can look up in history books. Arthur Brown, the English aviator, gets a section, as do Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist, and George Mitchell, the retired U.S. senator. The novel not only peers into but stays a while in the sanctums of great events—though it doesn’t always illuminate them, or escape cliché. When it comes time for George Mitchell to say something about Bill Clinton, he notes his “casual charm.” In other respects, though, Transatlantic is a recognizable McCannian construction, a multigenerational saga of four uprooted women who get knocked around by history.

Like Great World, Transatlantic works like a centrifuge, setting small-scale fictional plot lines in orbit around large-scale nonfictional events. The Civil War, the Great Famine and the Irish Troubles all come up. But these events, too, are swept up in a larger current: the revolution in trans-Atlantic travel, once a two-month trip of gaudy agonies, now a catnap above the clouds. Transatlantic is, in many ways, a novel about technology. In 1845, Douglass travels to Ireland, where, after an ordeal of “muck and adulation,” he will receive his freedom. In 1919, Jack Alcock and Brown complete the first transatlantic flight. And in 1998, Mitchell crisscrosses the Atlantic to oversee the Good Friday Agreement, an exemplar of late-century ease in the air. These are the novel’s centers of gravity. The fictional women, who suffer and migrate, revolve around them.

The women are related matrilineally, and their prime mover is Lily Duggan. A housemaid, she falls for Douglass, message and man, when he is a guest of her employers, and though the feeling is unrequited, she absconds to America anyway. There she outlasts two husbands, three sons and the Civil War to get rich. The gene pool attenuates after that. Her present-day scion is Hannah Carson, her great-granddaughter, a woman on the verge awaiting eviction in rural Ireland. She has lost a son to the IRA and an inheritance to inattention. “There’s only so much embarrassment we can bear,” she thinks. The unread letter is written by Emily Ehrlich, Lily’s daughter, a reporter covering the Alcock-Brown flight from its starting-point in Newfoundland, and it is Brown who takes it to Ireland. (“A brand-new thought: Transatlantic airmail.”) Hannah, its inheritor, could use the cash that selling it might bring, but can’t bring herself to break the spell cast by “its preservation of possibility, the slight chance that it contains a startling fact.”

Through it all, the domestication—and banalization—of the trans-Atlantic frontier is treated, broadly speaking, as a net positive. Mr. McCann compares writing to air travel. “The flick of ink across a page …” he writes. “There was something in it akin to a journey across the sky.” That a book dependent on the poetry of an unopened letter would also celebrate “the unification of the continents”—the opening of cultures—doesn’t strike Mr. McCann as an irony worth observing.

The result is an unlikely fusion of the writing style of Virginia Woolf and the philosophy of Virgin Airlines. Like all of Mr. McCann’s novels, Transatlantic is redemptive in affect but tragic in historical outline; it sweetens the received version by inserting “suspended instance[s]” into it—“the smallest moments,” as Lily thinks, which “return, dwell, endure.” And these depend on Mr. McCann’s prose. It is so beautiful that it may have a beautifulness problem. “The way these soldiers disappeared beyond the trees, as if they had become mute assistants to their muskets”—that is genius. But tragedy also presents a temptation to overdo it. “This fool-soaked war that makes a loneliness of mothers,” the illiterate Lily is made to think. Nonstandard word-use can be poetic, but in Mr. McCann’s hands it becomes a tic (“wide of chest”). There are lapses, at a micro-level, into camp. “A sudden thrust of drumlins”: how can so very careful a writer not hear the comedy in this?

I’m not sure that I believe in the existence of style without substance. Yet, as Mr. McCann time and again was bowled over into lyricism by landscapes, I got the impression of a writer not going anywhere in particular, covering up aimlessness with atmosphere. Only in the Alcock-Brown section, written with machine-age exhilaration, does the prose mobilize for a purpose. There is a sense that, like those pilots, Mr. McCann has “loved women but preferred engines.” No writer has responded more literal-mindedly to the Forsterian injunction, “Only connect”—as if, with the advent of air miles, it were so much easier now to make good on. His novels posit connection as an unqualified good, and a tiny world as a desirable one. But whether connection, in our modern sense, can also be a cause of melancholy, Mr. McCann isn’t saying. It’s a Small World, After All: Colum McCann’s Cosmic Novels Have a Tight Connection