Colum McCann: “Transatlantic”

04/15/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, April 16, 2012.

It’s funny that I find myself so resistant to reading non-fiction, while at the same time lapping up historical fiction, i.e., an author’s fictional accounting of an actual event, in this case the first ever non-stop transatlantic flight of Alcock and Brown in 1919. (It helps, too, that I didn’t actually know for sure if they’d make it or not.) But reading McCann’s excellent prose helps to clarify why I have such strong feelings: a story, no matter how compelling, is only as strong as the actual telling of it, and too often, non-fiction tomes are weighted down by the necessity of facts, useless dates, unfleshed people, etc. Fiction allows enough leeway, even within the confines of what actually happened, to imagine something greater than the event: i.e., not the ramifications, but the immediate experience.

How does McCann manage this striking effect? Well, for one, he chooses to write in the present tense; secondly, he uses short, choppy sentences. If you want to go even further into it, yes, he’s got lists of facts, but he’s not using them simply for accuracy, but in a way in which his recitation mirrors the endless preparations and recitations of the two pilots, emphasizing just how much had to be in order, and how easily it would be for any one single thing to fall apart and bring them down. (An interesting, stakes-raising note: it comes out that neither character can swim, which means that even if they survive the crash, they’ll surely die in the ocean.) Moreover, McCann finds a chopping, pulsing, propeller-like rhythm even for raw data:

All the rivets, the split pins, and the stitches are checked. The pump control handles. The magnetos. The batteries to warm their electric suits. The shoes are polished and their flight suits are brushed. The Ferrostat flasks of hot tea and Oxo are prepared. The carefully cut sandwiches. Horlicks Malted Milk. Bars of Fry’s chocolate. Four sticks of licorice each. A bottle of brandy for emergencies.

He also provides the objects with context: “The sandwich is made delicious simply by where they are, and how far they have already come,” he observes at one point; at another, an attempt to scrape ice off the petrol-overflow gauge, “to guard against trouble with the carburetor,” we’re made to understand just h0w vital this tiny object is (as opposed to some of the other parts that have sheared off the plane so far).

Those are just objects, though; what really matter are the two characters, and McCann fills them up, too, with quick flashbacks to their experiences flying bombers or reconnaissance in the Great War, getting shot down and taken prisoner, and the somewhat listless feeling of returning home. “What they both wanted was a clean slate. The obliteration of memory. The creation of a new moment: raw, dynamic, warless.” It’s not clear how many liberties McCann has taken in ascribing feelings to these characters, but it’s a clear mark of storytelling skill that he draws such deft comparisons between the War and this Transatlantic crossing. Whereas bombers shattered the world, the reconfigured Vickers Vimy (a modified bomber) will bridge the world and piece it back together; the entire world is rooting for this particular plane to succeed (at least, according to the newsmen below). And yet, listen to the language: this “warless” moment comes through the “obliteration” of memory — something must always be destroyed in order to make peace; thankfully, in this case, it’s merely a record — or the meadow that they dynamite to pieces in order to create an adequate landing strip (“an intricate aerodrome”).

Finally, McCann knows how to build momentum, breaking between the thrilling tribulations of the pilots (the weather turns against them, clouds confuse everything) to interject moments of song (“The Maple Leaf Rag,” which was the last song they heard as they drifted off to sleep on the eve of their flight, presumably what keeps them sane as their ears are now shaken to bits by the rattling engine); to add the perspective of their favorite reporter, a newswoman named Elizabeth, who casts the event in grander terms (“The first human victory over the war, Elizabeth thinks, the triumph of endurance over memory”); and even to briefly flashback to Brown’s childhood, though this is perhaps the one piece of the story that’s unbalanced enough to justify cutting. (It’s an effective note on how “heroes” are just ordinary people in costumes, but it’s a bit untethered.)

Flight is a terrific subject — doesn’t it still seem like magic, from a distance? — and McCann embraces every aspect of it, capturing both the elegiac and the celebratory notes that the newsmen pre-write (not knowing yet what the outcome will be, failing to grasp that it can be both), and the meditative notion that the point of flight is “To get rid of oneself”; it is not a literal escapism to fly away, above it all? “Uplifting” indeed!


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