The Empathy Man

Ruth Gilligan

On April 23rd of this year, Irish author Colum McCann was invited from his home in Manhattan to visit Newtown High School, Connecticut. The school’s English department had decided that all senior students, a number of whom had recently lost relatives in the nearby Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, should read and discuss McCann’s novel Let the Great World Spin, a polyphonic tapestry of disparate voices which coalesce around the startling image of Philippe Petit’s tight-rope walk between the World Trade Center towers in 1974. McCann has subsequently described this high school visit as one of the true pinnacles of his career to date, witnessing first-hand as his novel became a vehicle to explore grace and healing, for he had always believed in the use of his work “in relation to other things”.

This is not the first time McCann’s masterpiece has been employed for such redemptive means. Indeed, many term it the greatest 9/11 novel yet written, New Yorkers finding solace in the creative genius of the Dubliner’s allegorical cacophony. But by looking back over his entire canon – a body of work which reaches from Mexico to Russia to Newfoundland to Derry, making both ethical and imaginative leaps along the way – we may discover just how exactly McCann evolved into this role of empathetic spokesperson, a twenty-year journey to becoming the voice of hope in the face of wars on terror or school homicides alike. And as his latest book marks a literary homecoming, we might also consider what McCann’s writings have to say to us here in Ireland as we learn to cope with our own, entirely different yet keenly felt sense of loss.

The short story collection Fishing the Sloe-Back River was published in 1994, the same year in which the Irish Reporter released a special issue entitled “Ireland – the Global Nation”, and also the year after The Irish Diaspora Project published its first ever newsletter. Migration was in the air. With a titular nod to Joyce, the collection opens with “Sisters”, a tale of diametrically opposed siblings, one of whom emigrates to America while the other stays behind. However, this early instance of escape is undone when the dream of the New World falls apart and the sexually promiscuous Sheona is raped, imprisoned, and deported back across the Atlantic – an ocean which will be traversed ad infinitum over the course of McCann’s canon.

Conversely, in “A Basket full of Wallpaper”, Ireland acts as the point of arrival when a wartime immigrant from Japan (where McCann himself had spent time) moves to a small Irish village, compelling the entire community to construct a myth around this stranger. Myth is employed elsewhere in “Cathal’s Lake”, Irish and Jewish fables combined to depict an escalation of death across the countryside while the title story sees mothers out fishing for new sons in the river since their own have recently been killed. This engagement with violence, loss and marginality, as well as the intensely visceral language, all plant the first seeds of McCann’s future oeuvre, but the frantic grappling between magic realism, intertextual allusion and lyrical meditation show that the young writer has not yet established how best to manifest his concerns.

So to McCann’s first novel Songdogs, published two years later, which also begins with an image of a parent out fishing – Conor Lyons’s father, in a polluted river – but the son is not dead, rather has just returned from an epic journey, retracing his parents’ own migration from Spain to Mexico to America and back to Ireland again. In searching for his mother, as well as something far less absolute, armed only with a handful of photographs and a lifetime of stories, the layers of Conor’s memory, history and familial identity begin to intertwine. Meanwhile, the camera itself comes to embody a symbol of creative power, a gesture towards the fact that “making it up” may be just as important as any “real” act of discovery. The novel was well received, although some criticised its lack of plot, even if it was precisely the issue of narrative (self or otherwise) which McCann hoped to challenge. But at a time when Ireland was host to an emerging dialogue about its diaspora, such an international, wandering quest for identity was undoubtedly a resonant subject for a writer already comfortable so far from home.

This Side of Brightness is often referred to as McCann’s breakthrough novel, a mildly crude but ultimately accurate accolade. Prefiguring Let the Great World Spin in many ways, this evocation of the dark underworld of the New York subway tunnel community similarly succeeds in locating moments of hope and redemption which shine all the brighter for the bleakness of their backdrop. McCann is drawn to the “equality of darkness”. The book’s protagonist, Treefrog, a homeless man wracked with unspoken guilt, is of Irish, black and Native American descent. As in Songdogs, his ancestral story is woven alongside his current plights, revealing how the Irish diaspora arrived in America and fused with other “others” around them. Given that the book opens in 1916, McCann thus suggests that such tales have as much to do with the concept of Irish history and identity as the traditional narrative of local struggle back home. Furthermore, this conglomeracy of “others” was crucial to McCann’s own method of creation, employing his own Irishness to persuade the black community to allow him to descend into their subaltern labyrinth to cast his unflinching researcher’s eye. As he says: “I was never seen as part of the established order, the system. I was outside. And they were outsiders too.” The affinity between the black and Irish marginalia was one to which he would later return, but through the evocation of jazz music, cartography and physical balance, the contours of liminality are exquisitely rendered, and redemption is afforded without a single trace of romanticism.

Now officially deemed a literary force to be reckoned with, McCann switched his focus back home, dealing with what The New York Times termed as “the albatross around the collective neck of Irish writers”, the Troubles. Everything in this Country Must is a collection of two stories and a novella, but unlike his previous forays into short fiction, all traces of fable or magical realism are distinctly absent. This is not to say that McCann deals with the albatross straight on; rather he focuses on three, distinctly minute family units on the fringes of society and indeed, the fringes of the conflict. But where his fiction in the past revealed the great unifying potential of human empathy, here the three child narrators are instead united by the fact that no one is free of the terror of the political situation at large. As the young girl in the title story tells us: “I was wearing Stevie’s jacket but I was shivering and wet and cold and scared because Stevie and the draft horse were going to die since everything in this country must.” The characters do attempt escape – in the novella Hunger, thirteen year-old Kevin and his mother leave Derry for a Galway caravan, yet soon the young boy becomes more obsessed than ever with the Troubles via the figure of his uncle, one of the ten men involved in the hunger strikes. The idolisation of his late father’s brother becomes a sort of mythologisation in itself, yet the stark contrast of the numerical diary of the man’s emaciation “Day One – 147lb – 66.8kg” keeps the physical reality ever-present until the discomfort builds to a devastatingly understated climax.

Such understatement is mirrored in the prose itself, pared down to a chiselled point, all former lyricism necessarily elided. As a result, the collection was sometimes accused of being too bare or drab, the form apparently overstating the bleakness which the content had managed to keep allusory, and yet there is no doubt of McCann’s dedication to his dictionary decisions, remarking: “Our language is so deeply influenced by landscape, and vice versa. But mostly for me it has to do with rhythm and sound. As a writer you have to try to find the music of that place. If it’s the west of Ireland it’s a different music to what it is in New York.”

This acknowledgement of his powers as a prosaic chameleon were shortly to be put to the test, McCann leaving Ireland behind altogether and entering instead into entirely foreign territory. That said, it is unclear if he merely jumped or if he was in fact pushed, since he was also widely criticised for his audacity in covering the albatross at all. As he recalls: “Because I was born in Dublin, a number of people said ‘How dare you write about Northern Ireland?’” Where in America his star was rising by the day, back home many refused to listen to what the empathetic spokesperson had to say – a point crucial to note later when McCann returned to tackle the Troubles once more, this time by entirely different means.

Now sixteen years an emigrant, McCann’s third novel, Dancer, was published in 2003. Notably, this period was also that in which Ireland was “booming”, or more precisely, disfiguring into something McCann has often criticised; thus the turn away may have been deliberate. But above all, in writing a novel so removed from his own experience – the alternative biography of a Russian Cold-War ballet dancer– McCann was afforded the chance to take his transformative abilities to a whole new level, whilst also wrangling with wider questions about the form and the very nature of fiction itself.

Of his writing, McCann has insisted that he despises the term “historical novel”, deeming it too “well-mannered”, too suggestive of stasis rather than rawness, yet in Dancer he took on the historical figure of Rudolf Nureyev and engaged in extensive research thereon; travelling to rural Russia, pouring over volumes on dance theory and communist thought. As he now admits, by the end of each writing experience he feels as if he has just completed a PhD, upending the traditional maxim to “write what you know” to encourage rather writing “what you want to know”.

But the issue of knowing is right at the heart of Dancer, a tapestry of history, rumour and myth woven together from which may or may not emerge a portrait of a man until, as in Songdogs, the notion of imagination is hailed superior if not equal to any possibility of factual absolute. However, unlike Conor Lyons’s lone pursuit, here a vast number of points of view – voices that would not otherwise be heard – collaborate their individual impressions of the elusive man, McCann’s distinctive polyphonic technique now focused on a single person rather than a place or event. And by the end of the novel, this placelessness is crucial, the protagonist’s homelessness mirroring the narratological process at large, as critic Eoin Flannery writes: “Just as Rudi the exile remains unbounded by geographical borders, the textual Rudi constantly evades final signification.”

Signification formed the core of McCann’s subsequent novel, Zoli, published in 2006. From anecdotal beginnings, his fascination with and extensive research into the Roma Gypsy community reached obsessive levels but the ethical dangers at hand were also more problematic than ever. For few groups have been as resoundingly “othered” by society in the way the gypsy community has, a fetishisation and distortion surrounding them even long before Channel Four’s tasteless string of nuptual-based documentaries. Thus, just as McCann used Polish Romany poetess Papusza as the inspiration for his protagonist, Zoli Novotna, so he projected his own guilt and responsibilities regarding the representation via the journalist character Stephen Swann. Swann, like McCann, pays visits to gypsy camps and becomes enthralled by their oral culture – the ritual of singing and songwriting; the inter-generational inheritance of lyrics which thus renders each perfomance an entirely different piece of art. So arises the fatal threat of having these works committed to paper, as Swann and publisher Stransky attempt. On a metafictional level this precisely embodies another, far more troublesome aspect of McCann’s own utopian desires, for the line between bringing this marginalised voice to the public domain and objectifying her in a political gesture nothing short of colonial orientalising, is precariously narrow. In the end Swann betrays Zoli, now also his lover, explicitly displaying the perils of such empathetical leaps.

That said, Zoli throughout does equate silence with death, and is determined that her story must be told. As such, the novel is written in the first person – a tale she is telling, orally, to her daughter. Similarily, at the end of the book we witness the staging of an academic conference entitled: “From Wheel to Parliament: Romani Memory and Imagination” – a self-reflexive symposium of people who also try to come to “know” what should potentially remain “unknowable”. These formal nods to the task at hand thus manage to acknowledge without undermining the process at large. Indeed, in an interview elsewhere, McCann has stated: “Imagining the life of the ‘other’ is the greatest privilege of all,” this sense of “privilege” necessarily altering the power balance inherent in such an act and again revealing a profound sensitivity alongside McCann’s desire to give voice to those unheard.

Now translated into thirty languages, McCann’s 2009 masterpiece Let the Great World Spin runs little risk of going unheard. Furthermore, unlike his previous forays, the overall crux was not an unknown figure or a liminal portion of history, but the event which has come to define our century thus far. Indeed, after the fall of the Twin Towers, McCann himself mused on the impossibility of capturing such an event, such an untold well of grief, the whole of New York having suddenly morphed into one significant, mourning motif: “…everything had meaning: it was like the whole city was infused with meaning. The lone fire hydrant. The flowers on the window of a car. A bit of ash that tickled the back of your throat.” But while grappling his way through this “grief machine” he found himself returning, time and time again, to the image of Frenchman Philippe Petit, tightroping between the towers on August 7th, 1974. So McCann decided to walk with him – to go back in time and, as with his earlier attempts on political and historical minefields, take the albatross instead from an unexpected, less shackled angle.

And yet, the allegory is resonant throughout – the fixation on the towers; the problem of war in the air; the fall of the novel’s two key pillars, early on – prostitute Jazz and self-serving Irish monk Corrigan. But what distinguishes the novel most profoundly from its recent reality was that what occurred on the World Trade Center that 1974 morning was not a destruction, but rather, as McCann himself terms it, “a spectacular act of creation”. Indeed, here creativity abounds – like the gypsy poetess and Russian ballet dancer before them, we now discover a perfomance artist, two painters, a graffiti photographer, all striving for beauty within the city’s grit and filth. Yet again a polyphony of voices begins to chime, a microcosm of which can also be found in the Vietnam mothers’ group – a collection of mourning women who come together to discuss their late sons, and their personal struggles with bereavement. Or indeed, as the character Gloria puts it, to escape discussing precisely that: “I didn’t want to think about my boys anymore. In a strange way, all I wanted was to be surrounded by another, to be part of somebody’s else’s room …” This quest for empathy then traverses the gaping class difference between Gloria and Claire, as an unlikely friendship forms between these black and Jewish women united by grief and the sharing of their stories – a small but profound portrait – and no doubt, an exemplar for the Newtown High School students with whom McCann subsequently met. Art and reality, empathetically aligned.

And now to McCann’s latest novel, TransAtlantic. Published last month, it is woven together by a brand new cast of mourning mothers as the characters fly, sail and dream across that omni-distancing Atlantic Ocean. After the unparalleled (and unparallelable) success of Let the Great World Spin – winner of the 2009 US National Book Award for Fiction and the 2011 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, to name but a few – it was always going to be telling where McCann went next. However, few might have expected the answer as it transpired: home. Published in this, the year of the much-disputed Gathering, the sense of return is bolstered throughout the novel by the conglomeration of familiar McCannian elements, the text itself reading like something of a curtain call for all that has gone before. Firstly, it begins midair – this time not on a tightrope but with a flock of gulls and then a World War I Vickers Vimy plane, piloted by Jack Alcock and Teddy Brown as they attempt to complete the first transatlantic flight from Newfoundland to Ireland. The minutiae of the journey are impeccably rendered, as are the personas of these two historical figures – by now, of course, we would expect nothing less – but soon after we witness another flight, this time almost seventy years later, from JFK to Belfast, and this time taken by a real, living figure: Senator George Mitchell. Political hero and Upper East Side neighbour of McCann’s, the senator has come to facilitate the Northern Irish Peace Process; thus through “imagining” the actual McCann is now taking on the Troubles, head first. Indeed, as we follow Mitchell through the Stormont corridors, drink tea with the famous participants, pause to admire Tony Blair’s hair, all former surreptition appears to have vanished entirely.

Elsewhere another historical figure is brought to life – Frederick Douglass, an American slave who journeyed to Famine-stricken Ireland in 1845 to promote the abolitionist cause. Where elsewhere the plights and outcast-status of the black and Irish communities have been placed side by side, here McCann explores them outright via “the black O’Connell”, the character himself musing on the similarity between their respective struggles: “Something in him felt aligned to those he met.” This emblematic figure is later the focus of Dublin University Kenyan-born academic David Manyaki, a colonialism scholar who deals with the sort of issues the novel has been questioning throughout – like the conference at the end of Zoli, here academia offers a self-reflexive nod by which to acknowledge the ethical and moral issues at hand. Meanwhile, this final, present-day section also takes place during the week in which both Queen Elizabeth and President Obama visited Ireland – yet more historical arrivals – the latter figure at the core of McCann’s original conception of the novel since Barack offers the perfect book-end for Douglass, a parallel which certainly does not go unnoticed.

Within these significant ends, instances of emigration and exile weave together the gaps between the real characters, spanning 177 years and thousands of miles as the novel itself extols: “Life is an accumulation of small shelves of incident. Stacked at odd angles to each other.” Indeed, the prose is replete with similarly weighted soundbites: “We return to the lives of those who have gone before us, a perpelxing möbius strip until we come home, eventually, to ourselves”, McCann ensuring always that the impact of his polyphony is keenly felt: “We prefigure our futures by imagining our pasts. To go back and forth. Across the waters. The past, the present, the elusive future. A nation.” However, by the end of the novel, this slight tendency to overstatement is surprising if not somewhat alarming, particularly within a book where so much which has been hitherto implicit in McCann’s work has suddenly become explicit and direct. Could it be that the author doesn’t quite trust his readers to fully grasp the nuances that connect the eras? Or worse still, that he doesn’t trust himself?

The truth in fact may be that McCann has wavered in his trust for us. Ireland. Home. A hint of overstatement born out of despair. I have already mentioned the Gathering, but so has he, defending Gabriel Byrne’s comments and criticising the enterprise as a self-serving cash cow. A one-way dialogue trying to draw the money in ‑ but what about what we give out? Or what we might discover ourselves by looking within? In a recent Irish Times interview McCann lamented Ireland’s recent fall from grace: “We had another chance at history. The reimagining of ourselves. A new way of belonging. And unfortunately, we failed.”

But it is through this very act of imagination that there may yet be hope. Indeed, McCann has taken to referring to his new novel as an “alternative Irish history” – a means by which to reconsider both the legacy of the strangers who made our country what it is, and the perseverance of our ancestral strangers gone before. As for the rest of his canon, the emigrant experience which so predominates is now more alive and well in (or more precisely, out of) Ireland than ever. Thus we may endeavour to read back and glean a host of insights on how best to embrace our renewed diasporic state. To take examples from others. To lick our wounds and be redeemed.

Last week, alongside Lisa Consiglio and Luis Urrea, McCann launched a new initiative entitled Narrative4. The online scheme defines itself as “a group of writers, artists, musicians, educators, students, and activists dedicated to creating social change through storytelling”, an e-tapestry of disparate voices, an act, McCann says, of “radical empathy”. The programme is primarily aimed at children, such as those at Newton High School, who struggle in the face of such immense tragedies and long for a means to cope. But though our national loss is of a wholly different variety, in this, our time of weakness, perhaps we too should follow the Americans’ lead and look to our very own, homegrown, empathetic spokesperson. To forget any recent notions of being at the centre of it all and rather re-enter the utopian dialogue. To embrace our liminal place and let McCann and his creative power guide us, once more, aloft.

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