"Transatlantic"
by Colum McCann
Originally published in the April 16, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.

Okay, I’ve come back to the top of my post after writing my thoughts on “Transatlantic” below. So I now preface those thoughts with a plea: warn me if it seems I’m just becoming a finicky reader who cannot be pleased, because my unusually negative reactions to last week’s story and to this week’s story have made me wonder. It doesn’t help that I’ve just finished Eric Chevillard’s fantastically fun Demolishing Nisard (review to come), a novella about an obsessed man who wants to do all he can to destroy a nineteenth-century critic — Nisard — whose conventional, narrow, life-sucking views on literature have tainted everything. Of course, in this obsession, the narrator himself becomes fairly life-sucking and bitter and worries about his own Nisardification. Please warn me if I, too, am becoming unbearable and unopen, like Nisard.

The inclusion of this “short fiction” in The New Yorker ticked a couple of the wrong boxes for me. First, according to the interview McCann did with Deborah Treisman (click here), this is an excerpt from a novel in progress. In “Transatlantic,” for me more than usual, it is obvious its inclusion had little to do with its qualities as an independent, cohesive piece of short fiction. It’s advanced advertising in the guise of short fiction, something award-winning authors can depend on from time to time from The New Yorker. I have nothing against these writers. This is good for their work, but I believe it is bad for readers. Yes, this advanced advertising sometimes works on me, I know. For example, I was very excited to read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad after reading the excerpt “Ask Me If I Care” (click here for my thoughts on the short story and here for my thoughts on the novel); in fact, that excerpt is the only reason I rushed to read that book when it came out rather than wait. And by far the best part of Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! was the excerpt published in The New Yorker, “The Dredgeman’s Revelation.” I’m also not under the illusion that publishing excerpts of upcoming works is something new; William Maxwell, the esteemed fiction editor of The New Yorker for forty years who helped bring us the brilliant short work of John Updike, John Cheever, J.D. Salinger, Alice Munro, among others, even had an excerpt from his own novel published in the magazine.

The other wrong box: timeliness.  It’s hard not to look at this piece — “Transatlantic” — and not think it was included in this week’s issue primarily (solely?) to mark the centenary of the tragic transatlantic journey of the Titanic. Indeed, the transatlantic journey recounted here took place in 1919, albeit by plane. Ahh, perhaps I’m just being silly. I’ll move on.

“Transatlantic” tells the relatively unknown story of the first non-stop transatlantic flight, accomplished by John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown. The two took off on June 14, 1919, from St. John’s, Newfoundland, and landed in Clifden, Ireland. I’m sad to say that that is just about all this story does. It’s not that a historical story is not worth writing or reading, but this one was dry, straightforward, and simplistic. I actually really enjoy similar short stories that take on the zeitgeist of scientific discovery and adventure, such as those by Andrea Barrett, but this one was dull. Here is how it begins:

The Vickers Vimy. A modified bomber. All wood and linen and wire. She’s wide and lumbering, but Jack Alcock still thinks her a nippy little thing. He pats her each time he climbs on board and slides into the cockpit beside Teddy Brown. One smooth motion of his body. Hand on the throttle, feet on the rudder bar, he can already feel himself aloft.

What he likes most of all is rising up over the clouds and then flying in sunlight. He can lean out over the edge and see the shadow play on the whiteness below, expanding and contracting on the surface of the clouds.

Brown, the navigator, is more reserved — it embarrasses him to make such a fuss. He sits forward in the cockpit, alert to whatever clues the machine might give. He knows how to intuit the shape of the wind, but he puts his faith in what he can actually touch: the compasses, the charts, the spirit level at his feet.

It could be that my misgivings with “Transatlantic” began with the first three sentences. I’m not a fan of serial sentence fragments to begin with, but I really couldn’t figure out the reasoning behind starting this piece out in such a stuttering manner. The remainder of the section simply introduces and contrasts Alcock and Brown, but they’ll be contrasted throughout the entire piece, so for me this entire section, introductory as it was, did not accomplish much other than to defer my entrance into the story.

Alright, I need to stop for a moment. My feelings for this piece are obvious now, but I don’t attribute its failures to McCann. I cannot understand why a story in this state would be published in a magazine known for high editorial standards. Or, rather, I suspect I understand it: advanced advertising and timeliness were given prominence over quality. My complaints against the story are really complaints against Treisman who, in my opinion, should have been a more vigilent editor. For example . . .

Its structure, a series of fairly short segments, though primarily chronological still managed to come off as unorganized. It was like McCann had written a bunch of segments and, rather than fit them together and allow them to build off one another, just placed them side by side. This is certainly how it felt when I got to the segment on the experiences of Alcock and Brown during World War I. Even this segment, short and lifeless, felt like it was there simply to provide a redundant contrast of these two men: Alcock is a bit wild, gets off on the thrill, while Brown is cautious and deliberate — we get it.

Moving away from the structure to the characterization, it’s even a bit more frustrating that these personalities are reduced to a contrast when — without the help of the story — we know that Alcock dies in a plane crash just months after this flight and Brown dies thirty years later by overdosing on Veronal. None of that is in this story. Such facts, of course, don’t need to be here, but shouldn’t the story suggest more depth to these two than can be incorporated by the binary of making one reckless and one cautious?

And so the story moves on through these segments. There’s preparation, a scan of the newly-developing publicity machine, and finally we get to the takeoff. My goodness, even the takeoff is boring, hampered as it is by those serial fragments, by poorly chosen words (“attends”), and by badly divided sentences (“There will, later, be a good moon.”):

A strong wind attends takeoff. Arriving from the west in uneven gusts. The fog has lifted and the long-range weather reports are good. No clouds. The initial wind velocity is worrying, but will probably calm to about twenty knots. There will, later, be a good moon. They climb aboard to scattered cheers, secure their safety belts, check the instruments yet again. Contact! The swing of the starting handle. Alcock opens the throttle and brings both engines to full power. He signals for the wooden chocks to be pulled clear from the wheels. The mechanic leans down, ducks under the wings, armpits the chocks, steps back, throws them away. He raises both arms in the air. A cough of smoke from the engines. The propellers whirl. The Vickers Vimy is pointed into the gale. A slight angle to the wind. Uphill. Go now, go. The incredible engine roar. The waft of warming oil. Speed and lift. [. . .]

In that mountain of detail where we watch the mechanic remove the chocks in slow motion, the best detail is one we’re about to get to: “They say nothing.” But then it reverts to the what we’ve had before — “Hang on, hang on.” To be fair, I did get excited when the journey was underway. They’ll be flying above icebergs, flying blindly through clouds, but the story never quite transcends above its simplistic trajectory, and we go on about like that until we land in Ireland —

Ireland.

A beautiful country. A bit savage on a man all the same.

Ireland.

That’s the end, and it’s also the only time in this story that we really hear about Ireland, so to understand why Ireland is set up with repetition and that ominous line about being both beautiful and savage one has to go to the interview to find out more about McCann’s book. As it stands, it’s like the author just threw it in there.

So, for me a very dry skim on a transatlantic voyage. What have I missed?

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By |2016-07-13T21:26:15-04:00April 10th, 2012|Categories: Colum McCann, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. Isabel April 11, 2012 at 9:30 am

    Trevor
    Sorry to mook and gripe about your (wonderful) mooking and griping, which is always fun to read, but, for me, this is one of the best pieces of fiction TNY has published in a while. It is the travel issue after all. I had no idea that the Atlantic had been crossed before Lindberg. Each to her own form of travel, I suppose … but I loved those short sharp sentences. I felt as if I was travelling in the plane itself. Leave Nisard behind —
    Isabel

  2. Trevor April 11, 2012 at 11:01 am

    The question is, which of us has fallen victim of Nisardification! :)

    I know you’re not the only one who thinks this was one of the best stories so far this year, Isabel. At Perpetual Folly, Cliff Garstang said it was “the best of the year so far” (click here).

    In his post he brings up something that McCann brings up in his interview: that he’s playing with the line between fact and fiction. I’m probably being dense, but I don’t see how that comes across in the story. Sure, McCann had to decide where to stick to facts (and which of the contradictory facts to go with) and when to invent in order to make this story feel “emotionally real,” but from my perpsective every author who writes about a historical event has to do the exact same thing — has done the exact same thing for centuries — millenia.

    I’m just not seeing it yet, but I certainly appreciate and welcome dissenters who believe, to whatever degree, otherwise. If I’m being blind, better I start to see.

  3. Isabel April 13, 2012 at 3:19 pm

    Trevor
    From what little I know here, McCann has negotiated a minefield of misinterpretation and misdirection. There are all sorts of Alcock and Brown myths on the web in particular (wing-walking, drunken escapades in the sky, suicide in later life) and it seems that he has honed the story down to the essence of a distinct and distinctive truth. A pilot I know just read it and said it was incredible, he had never read anything like it. I felt as if I was travelling in the plane. No mean feat. It is an experiential piece of fiction. It carries us away from ourselves.

    So many stories stare at their own belly buttons only to learn that they are full of lint. We critics make a job of pretending to stare at the belly buttons of others, when really we are talking about ourselves.

    Any form of story telling is continually an act of reinvention and it seems to me that the job of writers like Docotorow and McCann is increasingly to make fiction valuabale, and so they question the very nature of the word. Both those guys are always talking about “shaping” stories. They engage in history and make it real. For me there would be no ragtime unless there was “Ragtime.” So too with “This Side of Brightness,” where I learned what it meant to be a homeless person. And the Civil War of Doctorow’s “The March” made me know/experience the war in a way as profound if not more so than Ken Burns’ docu. And then you should also read “Dancer” but I’m rambling …

    It’s good to gripe and mook … try Cyril Connolly for size! Thansk for your page

    I.

  4. Trevor April 13, 2012 at 5:03 pm

    I certainly can’t and don’t want to take away from anyone’s experience reading this or any story. If it took you away, it’s a success for you, and who would want it to be otherwise? I think, like comedy, one either experiences a piece like this or one doesn’t — no amount of explanation can help.

    That said, I’m still not convinced there’s anything interesting going on here — meaning this story and not McCann’s bigger project or his other work — in regards to the act of writing or reading historical fiction. I expect some of that is because this is an excerpt lacking a great deal of context.

  5. jerry April 14, 2012 at 9:16 pm

    I don’t think its the best this year but I really enjoyed it. I also had no idea the Atlantic had been crossed that early.

    I do wish though TNY would lay off the excerpts from forthcoming novels though, agree with Trevor on that.

  6. Aaron April 15, 2012 at 12:52 pm

    Trevor, for now, you’ll continue to be alone. I also thought this was one of the stronger stories published in The New Yorker in quite some time (and fitting for an issue about “Journeys”); I don’t often enjoy fiction about historical events, but as I explained on my blog (http://bit.ly/HWxWoB), I enjoy *this* because it’s the opposite of dry. The choppy sentences are justified as they may represent the choppiness of the twin-propellers; their staccato tenseness threatens, at any moment but especially during the riskier moments of flight (exciting to read, c’mon!), to drop them (and us) to their death. (Neither can swim, as the story notes.)

    Additionally, there’s much storytelling craft in calling out comparisons between the Great War and this Great Flight: beside the fact that the Vickers Vimy is a modified bomber and the reporter’s grandiose statements about how this plane can bridge the gaps and reunite the world, there’s also the clever stuff between how Alcock loves to fly during the day (because at night is when he bombed people) and how it’s far better to rise of your own volition than as a result of dropping bombs. (“A sudden lightness to the machine. A kick upward into the night.”) And that’s just in the first few paragraphs, so whether this is part of a longer work or not, it doesn’t feel like fragments flung together, nor does the story feel incomplete — Ireland, beautiful Ireland, beautiful land.

    There’s a section that I don’t think McCann hasn’t quite managed to fit into the story, but I think its point is quite valid — that’s the one about Brown’s childhood at the racecourse and rodeo. He cycles out to to Gorton to see the shiny headdress of those heroic Indians, but sees only normal people. Does this not exemplify the effect of McCann’s story, in that heroes are always, once you strip everything else away, simply ordinary people? Is that not what’s happening, piece by piece, to their airplane as their equipment is sheared away piece by piece? That heart-stopping cold as they are made more and more naked, more and more human, as they cross?

    I could continue to gush, but since I’ve been on the other end of not connecting with stories that everybody else has seemed to enjoy, I won’t. Not everything works for everybody!

  7. Trevor April 15, 2012 at 5:21 pm

    I don’t mind having a different opinion than everyone else, but I’d much rather it be because I liked the story : ). I’m off track on this one, hoping to join you all in the greener pasture this coming week.

  8. Ken June 10, 2012 at 5:00 am

    Well, I’ll split the difference. I found this entertaining (once I got past the technical details-which I find alienating although some people love that kind of stuff) and thought it improved and was, as noted by Isabel, nicely experiential. Still..I found this rather lacking in depth or subtext and often heavy-handed (as Trevor points out) in its “meaning.” I felt this was more like genre fiction which is not what I expect, nor desire, in the New Yorker.

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