McCann's Atlantic crossing is heavy going
IN 2009, Colum McCann became the first Irish writer to win the US National Book Award for fiction, unless we count the peerless Alice McDermott, who won in 1998 with Charming Billy, her satirical look at the more maudlin aspects of Irish-Americanism. McCann's book, Let the Great World Spin, attracted enthusiastic reviews in the United States and seems to have divided readers equally between the ravers and those who describe it unreadable.
What to do for an encore, was clearly the question McCann faced, and the answer is TransAtlantic which looks at links between the New World and the Ould Sod, between the 19th and 21st centuries. So, in 1919 Alcock and Brown fly the Atlantic and land at Clifden. A straightforward narrative here that works quite well. Back then to 1845 when black man Frederick Douglass, a former slave who has written a book, is feted by crowds as he visits Ireland. He meets Daniel O'Connell and the temperance priest Father Mathew, and sees some of the horrors of the Famine. Douglass fleetingly encounters Lily Duggan, a maid in a house where he's staying. She boards a coffin ship at Cove, bound for America; she will play a major part in the episodic story as she survives and eventually prospers in the New World.
There's a long section set in 1998, where Senator George Mitchell doggedly strives to create the peace process, flying back and forth, endlessly, across the Atlantic, known in all the airports, missing the comforts of home. This is perhaps the most convincing section of a novel that struggles to find anything resembling drama: where it's strong on verisimilitude, it is sadly lacking in the springs of tension to hold the reader.
Even the most devoted of McCann's followers would hesitate to call him a stylist in the English language, and here his search for literary effects leads to poetic pretentiousness that sometimes veers into sheer clumsiness. "Dawn unlocked the morning in increments of grey." "The nerves unbuttoned the length of his spine." "The stars collandered the Wexford night." "This fool-soaked war that makes a loneliness of mothers." And so on, in a novel constructed almost entirely of short, staccato sentences.
Neither could Colum McCann be charged with the possession of an abundant sense of humour. On and on it plods, this monument of solemnity, with little of the light touch to give us reason to continue, little charm in the writing, few rays of insight into his prosaic characters that belong more to the flat world of the documentary than to the boundless grace of fiction.
In the end, in 2011, the great-granddaughter of Lily Duggan, the penniless girl who took the ship from Cove, remembers her dead son, shot in 1978 at the age of 19 as he sat peacefully in a boat on a lake in Northern Ireland.
Now almost penniless herself, she reflects that it hardly matters any more if it was the IRA, the UVF, the INLA or some other gang that killed him.
It has come, in a portentous way, the proverbial full circle. But for one reader anyway, the sense of industrious contrivance and a search for significance make for relentlessly heavy going.