A dozen years ago Colum McCann told an interviewer that novelists who write about real historical figures are, in his opinion, guilty of a failure of imagination. A week ago McCann told an interviewer that what interests him, increasingly, is the “real that’s imagined and the imagined that’s real.”
In the dozen years since the first of those two interviews, McCann has published four novels that testify to this evolution of his novelistic enterprise. The novels all used real historical figures, to varying degrees and with widely varying degrees of success. First came Dancer, in 2003, built around the ballet sensation Rudolf Nureyev — his youth in Russia, his defection to the West, and his flowering in the hot house of 1970s New York City. It was followed three years later by Zoli, set largely in Slovakia, the fictionalized telling of the life of a renowned Gypsy writer of poems and songs. Then came McCann’s break-out novel, Let the Great World Spin, which won the National Book Award in 2009. And now he is out with TransAtlantic, a novel built around three very different voyages across the ocean, from the New World to Ireland, that took place in the 19th and 20th centuries.
In this new novel, as in everything he has written, McCann brings deep historical research to his story. This is very different from saying he writes “historical novels,” a term he claims to detest. On the other hand, he has also admitted to the truism that all novels are, in some sense, historical.
McCann’s use of historical figures in his fiction has produced what I have come to think of as an inverse barometer of his work’s quality: the more heavily he relies on historical figures, as distinct from history, the weaker his writing is; the more sparingly he uses historical figures, the stronger the writing is. And when he places imagined characters in historical settings, his writing shades toward the sublime.
For these reasons, I think his 1998 novel, This Side of Brightness, stands as his strongest book. It tells the story of the immigrants, the sandhogs, who dug the train and subway tunnels beneath the streets of New York City, then it telescopes to tell the story of a homeless man living in those tunnels years later, trying to live down a lifetime of dark regrets. These fictional characters come to vivid, bruising life precisely because of McCann’s meticulous research, which serves as the springboard for his fertile imagination and wickedly beautiful prose style.
Dancer, on other hand, is a work of portraiture that feels handcuffed by its historical backdrop, rich and grim and florid as it sometimes is. We meet Andy Warhol, Margot Fonteyn, President and Jackie Kennedy, among others. But the story never takes flight, despite some plush writing, such as this sketch of a popular gay cruising spot in Central Park in the 1970s:
oh the Rambles! all the scraddlelegged boys strung out in silhouette! all the tramping of weeds! all the faces shoved into brambles! all the bandanas in back pockets! all the drugs fermenting in all the bodies! all the horsewhips and cockrings and lubricants and chewable delights! all the winding paths! the soil indented with the patterns of knees! the moon out behind a dozen different trees! Johnnie Ramon with his shadow long on the grass and oh so tautly bowed! yes! Victor and the Rambles know each other well, and not just for nature walks, once or twice he has even accompanied Rudi there, because Rudi sometimes likes the tough boys, the raucous ones, the hot tamales who come down from the Bronx and Harlem.
Even such firecracker prose cannot ignite the novel. Zoli is just as closely based on historical figures, and it feels just as tightly handcuffed and inert. Perhaps sensing that he needed to change direction without changing horses, McCann opened Let the Great World Spin with Phillippe Petit’s breathtaking hire-wire walk between the Twin Towers in 1974 (at about the time Rudi Nureyev was cruising the Rambles for rough trade). After that bravura opening, McCann pulls back to examine the lives of a handful of fictional New Yorkers who witnessed Petit’s historic walk, and the result is some of his best writing since This Side of Brightness, writing that brings all layers of the city to life, high and low and middling, then peoples it with a diverse gallery of characters and takes us not just into their minds but into their marrow. It’s a blissful marriage of the imagined and the real.
Coming in the wake of that performance, TransAtlantic feels like a relapse to many of the flaws that bedeviled Zoli and, to a lesser extent, Dancer. The first half of the new novel — what I have come to think of as the male half — unspools the story of three trans-Atlantic journeys that end in Ireland: the first non-stop airplane flight, in 1919, by two English veterans of the Great War, Jack Alcock and Teddy Brown; the former slave Frederick Douglass’s trip by boat in 1845 to lecture and write and raise money for the cause of abolition; and the years of repeated crossings by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell that resulted in the Good Friday Accords in 1998, bringing an end to the Troubles that had tortured Northern Ireland for more than a generation.
These historical figures do not come to life on the page. They are little more than ideas and the roles they must play to advance McCann’s novelistic scheme. We never enter their marrow because they are little more than dots awaiting connection. Fortunately, McCann returns to form in the second half of the novel — the female half — telling the stories of several generations of women, some of whom were introduced as minor characters in the first half. Now we’re inside a Civil War hospital, we’re learning how ice was harvested in the 19th century and what the streets of St. Louis looked and sounded like. Our guides through these worlds are the remarkable women who descended from Lily Duggan, a maid in the house where Douglass stayed during his Irish sojourn, a woman who made her own trans-Atlantic crossing to America in 1846 to escape the coming famine.
McCann employs a style here that seems like a willful repudiation of his ability to write gorgeous prose. I can only guess that he was striving for an incantatory tone. To my ear, the effect is merely jarring, as in this description of George Mitchell musing in his Belfast office:
He cracks the window further. A sea-wind. All those ships out there. All those generations that left. Seven hundred years of history. We prefigure our futures by imagining our pasts. To go back and forth. Across the waters. The past, the present, the elusive future. A nation. Everything constantly shifted by the present. That taut elastic of time. Even violence breaks. Even that.Sometimes violently. You don’t know what this means, Senator.
Fortunately, there are also flashes of the kind of writing that made This Side of Brightness and Let the Great World Spin so unforgettable. Here’s the scene aboard a ship setting sail from America in 1929: “A bell rang and a cheer went up. The boat was far enough to water. An opera of anti-Prohibition toasts unfolded. The air itself seemed to have already drunk several glasses of gin.” Here’s how Emily, a journalist, confronts the terror of sitting down to write: “Stories began, for her, as a lump in the throat. She sometimes found it hard to speak. A true understanding lay just beneath the surface. She felt a sort of homesickness whenever she sat down at a sheet of paper.” And here’s Emily interviewing Teddy Brown at his home for a 10th-anniversary article about his historic flight aboard the Vickers Vimy: “This was his performance now, she sensed, he brought a breezy irony to his fame. She laughed, drew back a little from him. His days now were an ovation to the past. She knew he had probably talked the Vickers Vimy out of himself, hundreds of interviews over the years. She would have to turn away from the obvious, bank her way back into it.”
I could have used much more fine writing like this. Here’s hoping that next time out Colum McCann sticks with the history he does so well, writes the kind of prose only he can write, and steers clear of his Alcocks and Browns, his Douglasses and Mitchells. Real historical figures are a crutch this wildly gifted writer doesn’t need. His imagined characters are so much more vivid, alive and real.