The 2013 Booker Conversations is a series of in-depth, spoiler-free discussions between BookerMarks bloggers about this year’s nominated titles.
Today, Aaron Westerman, Michelle Williams, and Mike Cohen partake in an in-depth spoiler-free discussion about Colum McCann’s novel TransAtlantic.
Aaron is Opinionless. Except of course when it comes to books or movies. He’s the co-founder of Typographical Era where he blogs on a regular basis about the latest in translated literature, foreign cinema, and more.
Michelle Williams is an avid “reader” of books and a “rider” of bicycles. When she is not cycling you can catch her reading and when she is not reading, well, she is probably pedaling about somewhere. Her blog, A Reader and A Rider journals her reviews of literary fiction.
Mike sometimes sails historic ships in New York Harbor, jockeys a computer other times, and blogs nearly never at 40gigsandamule.com.
Colum McCann’s Man Booker Prize longlisted novel TransAtlantic blends historical fact with fiction as it ambitiously attempts to document just how profound an effect our past actions can have our future.
Aaron: To me, TransAtlantic was an interesting yet flawed experiment. With this novel McCann is providing social commentary on Ireland’s struggles from the colonial era up through the present, and he’s using fictional versions of famous historical people to do so, but there’s also something far greater at work here. Intertwined with this vivid history lesson is a story about the perseverance and endurance of multiple generations of women.
Does it matter that the author is male? Did it sound authentic to you and/or do you think that it would have been completely different if it was written by a woman?
Michelle: NO! I don’t think the sex of the author matters here. I am not partial to the sex of an author and it does not enter into my reasoning for choosing a certain book. The only reason I read this one or wanted to read it was because McCann wrote it. Let the Great World Spin was totally awesome. TransAtlantic on the other hand is flat and I did not connect with the characters. McCann lost me in the beginning with the very long and drawn out accounts of Fredrick Douglass and the old senator, George Mitchell. Interestingly, these are two of four main male characters in the first part. McCann’s portrayal of both characters grated on my nerves from the beginning. I did not know much about the history of Fredrick Douglas but I had always thought Mitchell was an interesting and fair senator and enjoyed his BALCO/Major League Baseball investigation. I was expecting to like these characters. Yet, I could not wait to discard the book to move onto something better only to have to pick the novel back up for the Booker. So, whether Carole McCann or Colom McCann wrote the book, I was frustrated by the tedious beginning long before the main female characters were evident.
So Mike, what do you think about authors that have huge success with one particular title as McCann? I loved Let the Great World Spin and jumped for joy when I found out that McCann was publishing TransAtlantic. I wanted to really like it. Is TransAtlantic getting the Booker nod just because the past judges did not recognize Let the Great World Spin whereas the National Book Award judges gave it the NBA?
Mike: Before getting to your question, I have to note what a different reaction we had to the characters. While I didn’t love the characterization of George Mitchell, I really enjoyed the Frederick Douglass section, and Alcock and Brown as well. Amongst the female characters, it was really only Lily whom I felt held her own. This makes me wonder whether Aaron’s question should have addressed the gender of the reader as well as the gender of the author!
I too really wanted to like this book. It started strongly and thrillingly, and I was sad when it slowed and slowed and slowed.
I have not read Let The Great World Spin. But I do find that in reading a book by an author who’s work I particularly like, I try — sometimes too hard — to give them the benefit of the doubt. As an example, I love Murakami, and I really tried to like 1Q84, and finally had to admit that it was just plain bad (IMHO of course).
I also think with last year’s winner being a repeat customer, this book will get some extra attention. You make an interesting point about Let The Great World Spin not being recognized last time, but I think the judges would balk at awarding a “consolation prize” in that way.
A question for Aaron: Are you with Michelle in preferring the stories of Lily and her descendants, or with me in preferring the (eventual) peripheral characters? Depending upon your answer, I wonder how you react to my comment above about the gender of the reader?
Aaron: Oh if only McCann had borrowed a page from Murakami and had Senator Mitchell spend page upon pages worrying over the size of his boobs. That at least would have made his narration somewhat bearable. The chapter titled Para Bellum, in which he features prominently, was hands down my least favorite. In direct response to your question, I think I’m somewhere between the two of you, as I enjoyed and disliked pieces from both sides in equal measure. In my opinion the novel started strong with Alcock and Brown’s flight and ended on a high note with Hannah’s financial dilemma. It’s the in-between bits that caused all kinds of turbulence for me.
But it is an interesting point you bring up Mike, and it’s one that’s worth exploring. It does feel like McCann was trying way to hard to reach the adult male demographic, no? Those pesky people that we’re repeatedly reminded about with regards to the fact that they supposedly never read, or if they do pick up a book here and there we’re told that they tend to lean only toward massive non-fiction tomes in the vein of Unbroken.
So McCann comes up with this story that he steeps in the historical in order to lure that elusive audience in, but then he has this oh shit moment of clarity where he thinks, “but women are the primary readers of fiction, how do I reach them?” He winds up pulling what feels like a nearly successful bait and switch at best or a clunky compromise at worst, trying to please both demographics, and the story just never quite comes together as a direct result. Of course I doubt that was his actual thought process while planning or writing, but I think you’ve successfully managed to tap into the very thing that’s been bothering me about the book that I just could quite put my finger on until now. There’s a clear division of the sexes in terms of both storytelling and character building that feels somewhat trite.
Here’s my next question in regards to this, and I think it’s apt, since we’re this far into the discussion are we still haven’t moved past the subject of gender with regards to the work. Up to this point we’ve talked about both how both the gender of the author and reader could color the reading experience, but what about the characters themselves? Is it significant in any way that McCann introduces historical male figures every step of the way, but every major female character that appears is instead a product only of his imagination? Certainly there have to be some strong women of note in Ireland’s tumultuous past that he could have drawn from? Katharine Tynan and Mary Robinson certainly come to mind. What, if any, is the point that he’s trying to make by ignoring them so completely?
Michelle: I have been thinking about this question for days and can not come up with an inkeling of an idea why McCann chose the three seemingly unrelated historical male characters and linked them with fictional women. So I googled it! In a PBS Interview, McCann discusses the fact that he wanted to show that women get overlooked in history. His quote from the PBS interview:
Women, as we know, get the short shrift in history.
It’s been largely written and dictated by men, or at least men believe that we own it, and women have really been in those quieter moments at the edge of history. But, really, they’re the ones who are turning the cogs and the wheels and allowing things like the peace process to happen.
So, for me, I took these imaginary characters and put them in the narratives of the larger characters. And so I have a maid from Ireland. She is inspired by Douglass. I have a reporter from Canada, and she sees the first Alcock and Brown flight. And then suddenly you begin to notice that all of these stories, they’re connected. This is the big fabric that we live inside.
According to the tone of this article, it appears as if McCann was trying to honor women by connecting the dots between the male historical characters, but I think he missed the mark on this one.
What do you think Mike?
Mike: I agree that he was trying to honor women by connecting the dots, but it comes across as a bit of an afterthought – even in the interview. Almost as if his story wasn’t going where he wanted to and he had to rethink the plan.
Where I think he ultimately fails to honor the women is summed up, again in the interview, by his saying “a maid is inspired by Douglass,” and “a reporter watches Alcock and Brown.” While they are cogs in history, as he says, they are reacting, not inciting. There were plenty of real women (or he could make them up as well) who have made changes in history, not just reacted to them.
Aaron, Lily during wartime was one of my least favorite sections of the book. But that is because it disturbed me to the point where I didn’t want to read it – and if I had that visceral a response to it, I suppose it was a success rather than a failure. And that section does wrap up with this wonderful transition:
She knew she was going with Jon Ehrlich. He didn’t even question her when she sat up on the wagon and straightened out the folds in her dress. She looked straight ahead. She could hear the soft rip of grass in the mouths of the horses: the way it moved and crushed.
Rather than asking a specific question, I’d just like your overall view of this section of the book. Did McCann achieve what he was going for?
Aaron: Certainly it’s the most difficult section of the book to read. I submit one of the opening passages of it as an example of how McCann jarringly moves from the perspective of a modern day US Senator at the close of Book 1 to that of civil war nurse at the start of Book 2:
She came down the stairs, through the open doors, into the wide heat. The wagons were already backed up on the road. A curious quiet. The men had exhausted their shouts. They were left with small whimperings, tiny gasps of pain. The ones sitting appeared to be asleep. The ones lying were packed so close together, breathing in unison, that they appeared as one mass. A contortion of blood and limbs. Rotting leather breeches. Stinking flannel shirts. Flesh ripped open: cheeks, arms, eye sockets, testicles, chests. The beds of their wagons were black with blood. It had fallen on the wheels, too, so that their lives seemed to circle and turn beneath them.
Talk about waking the reader up! While we can’t say for certain what McCann was going for without asking him, I’d wager that the idea was similar to each of the other chapters that were narrated by one of the women.
I don’t mean to come off as dismissive when I state this, but isn’t every female perspective provided in the book told from a point of misery and/or heartbreak? Lily’s chapter comes at midpoint of the saga and it’s also serves as the height of the physical trauma. Don’t worry though, McCann has more than enough mental anguish stocked up and ready to dish out over the last 200 pages or so. It all starts to get sort of old after awhile, almost like enough is enough, I get it, life is pain, point taken, let’s move on already.
Aaron, Michelle and Mike are all founding members of the BookerMarks project, which is a yearly collaboration between 8 bloggers who shadow the Man Booker Award and try to predict the winner. So far, they’re 1-for-1.