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