New novel suggests we may be on the verge of a transformation for the Irish novel
McCann’s ‘TransAtlantic’ a remarkable tapestry of fiction and reality
Colm McCann, with former minister Mary Hanafin and actor Gabriel Byrne at an event in New York. Photograph: James Higgins
Nowadays, because understandings of the world come plummeting at us through wires and space on a 24/7 basis, there seems little need for the kind of meditation the novel once offered as a reason for its existence. Many people still think they read novels, but generally read soap operas migrated to paper to escape or divert themselves.
But, with the newspaper industry brought to its knees by the trendy folly of its immediate custodians, the novel may be about to enter a phase of renewed connection to mainstream culture and reality.
This thought struck me reading Colum McCann’s fine new work, TransAtlantic, which seems to rest in a unique gully between fiction and reporting.
TransAtlantic is a book about Ireland, set in the world – a remarkable tapestry of fiction and reimaged reality. It ties together the stories of four outsiders whose lives have touched the spiritual life of Ireland: the peacemaker George Mitchell, the flying pioneers Alcock and Brown, and Frederick Douglass, a black American anti-slavery campaigner who visited Ireland during the famine years. But the true-arch of the book follows a line of fictional Irish characters, starting with a Dublin housemaid, Lily Duggan, whose life and those of her descendants intersect with the trajectories of the book’s “nonfictional” heroes.
McCann started out as a journalist, and retained the reporter’s disposition towards “facts”. Of course, the essence of a fact is not that it is the antithesis of fiction, any more than the essence of myth is that it is the opposite of truth. Great novelists have always known facts exist at a deeper level than man-built structures.
Interviewing Bono of U2 20 years ago for a “factual” book I was writing about the assassination and resurrection of Irish culture, he half-joked that Joyce created Ulysses as an act of revenge on the English: they’d screwed up our country, so he screwed up their language. The attempts to retrieve and describe some sense of ourselves mislaid in the mutilation of our language and culture led Irish writers to create webs of words that weaved around the truth about ourselves but never quite nailed it.
Irish fiction has latterly – if you judge from the self-congratulatory tone of the literary pages – been going through a minor golden age. But this is may be a function of the Irish novel’s absorption into British culture, where Irish writers box slightly above their weight in contests for various literary prizes. Yet, the Irish novel has not of late been remarkable for any capacity to cause Irish society to stop up short and look keenly at itself.