There are times–months later, years later, a decade later even–that it strikes Lottie how very odd it is to be abandoned by language, how the future demands what should have been asked in the past, how words can escape us with such ease, and we are left, then, only with the pursuit.
God damn you, Colum McCann. He is so good at this. Making us feel known. Better here, even, than in Let the Great World Spin, which I dearly loved, but took too personally, for selfish reasons revolving around a vain claiming of grief for my own. But here–here! Following them through time. Not knowing that’s what he was doing, at first. America so very young. That’s what it shows you, this quiet padding after bloodlines–how few generations it takes to get to now; how young we are. How I love his idea of my country. What he thinks it could be, or is, or was. His tender treatment of wars not his own. His invocation of it elsewhere–the blue and the gray–he has made himself conscious of pain he doesn’t have to bear. I know, I know, it’s not a gift. But you can read it as one. A blanket around the shoulders. He comes from a place of such loss. He knows it; it’s everywhere; he hasn’t made himself blind to it or exchanged his own history for another’s. And he still has room for us, too. There is such tremendous generosity in that.
My phone is full of pictured quotes. No time to write them down. I thought I would post them one by one but there are too many. I kept waiting for the vignette I didn’t like, that I didn’t feel was true. Kept waiting for the female character who would make me embarrassed to share my sex with her. But there was not one. Not one. Lily, whom I misunderstood at first, didn’t understand why I was being asked to look at her, but. A woman of second and third chances, one smashed right after the other. How you can feel the changing times in the collapse of what used to keep her alive. Ice produced by machines. Machines which will never again take someone’s husband and two grown sons in one fell swoop. And her daughter–obviously–furniture made of books, a world of men, outwardly tolerated but thrashed against in words, a brittle personality. So few people to love. The respect she shows Brown. Her understanding him without needing to show him she understands. A humility in that. Such dependence on Lottie and the difficulty she thought would rear its head in letting go, just vanishing. It being so much easier than she expected, the thing she has watched everyone around her do with such pain their whole lives. The passing on, pushing forward, of care and progress and the world’s concerns, and then. Falling back. Across the Atlantic. To the town with so many houses “perched on the cliff, looking out to sea, as if in a last-ditch attempt to remember where they came from.”
And Lottie. Her being well now but not always having been so, even with the ease of her camera and words and her long lean tennis body–there having been doubt to her, a suspicion that Ambrose in his easy affection might be hiding some terrible sadness waiting to pounce on them both. Her having known sadness herself, for two decades it sounds like, between the flare of youth and the familiar safety of age. But her knowing it wasn’t actually safe, how could you think it safe in a town fraught daily with bombs and kneecappings–the familiarity of that fear (solipsistic again) to an American told to duck down in her seat while her father fills the tank in case of the DC sniper, and of course the papers telling you to tape up your doors and windows and Dad’s train running late, waylaid by bomb-sniffing dogs acting on a tip-off…how you settle into the comfort she paints for you with her memories and her family, the only off thing being a distrust of a son for his stepfather. How she sweeps you up into her worry, the awareness that something could and might and would and will go terribly wrong out there, even now, even surrounded by warmth and the security of having “made it.”
And how she’s right.
I balked at the existence of this book when I heard of its pending publication; I loved the short story and listening to McCann read the short story; I’d pressed play many times and caught the differences in text and resented them. “You wrote a near-perfect story, man, and read to us a perfect one–why are you doing this?” I didn’t want the other people in there, wanted only Alcock and Brown, the lift, the spin, the almost-death. The people running toward them in the field. I didn’t want the weight of what came after.
What he thought we had to give the world, though. What we managed to, even despite ourselves.
His conviction is like a hearth.