Colum McCann’s new novel, “Apeirogon,” is based on an uplifting true story. It’s about two fathers — Rami Elhanan, an Israeli, and Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian — who each lost a young daughter to senseless violence. They have become friends and work together, through an organization called Combatants for Peace, to bring the opposing sides together.
McCann takes their story and drops it to the ground, where it shatters. To read “Apeirogon” is to watch him pick up the shards. As befits a writer who ruminates about the nature of storytelling, there are 1,001 of these shards, each numbered, in a homage to “One Thousand and One Nights,” the collection of Middle Eastern folk tales.
This is an early warning sign. It is possible to admire “One Thousand and One Nights” while having learned through hard experience that a writer who derives too much inspiration from it is generally one to avoid, unless what’s desired is a self-inflicted intellectual glitter-bombing. The Time magazine film critic Stephanie Zacharek, writing on Twitter, recently called “storytelling” a “jazz-hands word.” “Apeirogon” is a jazz-hands novel.
In many of McCann’s 1,001 shards, we follow Rami and Bassam in something like real time. They attend meetings, give lectures, worry about crossing border checkpoints. In others, we flash back to earlier points in their lives. From multiple angles, we witness the events that led to their daughters being killed.
Rami and Bassam no longer want to silo their suffering. They want for their grandchildren what the narrator of the Israeli writer David Grossman’s exquisite novel “See Under: Love” wanted, “to live in this world from birth to death and know nothing of war.” You sense you would like Rami and Bassam if you got to know them.
But we are not allowed to settle into the texture and nuance of their experience. We’re evicted from the narrative on almost every page so that McCann can tweezer in arty and only vaguely relevant facts about birds, or about John Cage’s music, or about the Dead Sea Scrolls or the derivation of the word “dextrose.”
He’s going for a collage effect. He’d like to chime with Shirley MacLaine in “The Apartment,” who looks into a broken mirror and says to Jack Lemmon: “I like it that way. Makes me look the way I feel.”
McCann’s shards are set apart from one another on the page by a thumb’s-width of white space. They are bricks without grout. This trending method of organizing a novel (c.f. Jenny Offill) is not yet insufferable but has a trap door: It exaggerates a writer’s weaknesses.
Offill’s weakness is that, despite her comic tone, her wit can fizzle. McCann’s is that, even in his best novels, such as the National Book Award-winning “Let the Great World Spin” (2009), his work can be humorless and self-important.
“Apeirogon” — the title refers to a shape with a limitless number of sides — is so solemn, so certain of its own goodness and moral value, that it tips almost instantly over into camp, into corn. It’s as if the author were gunning for the Paulo Coelho Chair in Maudlin Schlock.
In an author’s note at the front of this novel, McCann writes: “We live our lives, suggested Rilke, in widening circles that reach out across the entire expanse.” McCann has a gift for quoting others at their most flatulent: “The only interesting thing is to live, said Mitterand”; “Hertzl wrote: If you divide death by life, you will find a circle.”
For added effect, McCann repeats lines he likes, such as the Mitterand quote, again and again. Often these phrases are his own, such as “the rim of a tightening lung.”
McCann’s numbered shards — they ascend from 1 to 500, then turn and begin to descend — offer structure in place of content. “Apeirogon” is not a meal but a table littered with ingredients: a paw of garlic, a frozen lamb shank, two potatoes, a big knob of celeriac, three peas.
When you insist on a lot of white space between paragraphs and sometimes between single sentences, and if your work is humid, the effect can unintentionally verge on the amusing. Each sentence has an apricot-colored scarf tied around its neck. And it’s as if the reader has been given 10 seconds and a bong hit between each one; time to squint and nod and say, “So true.”
A sampling of those sentences: “He had learned that the cure for fate was patience”; “In a letter to Rami, Bassam wrote that one of the principal qualities of pain is that it demands to be defeated first, then understood”; “The geese are said to bring news of the dead to the heavens.”
As with Bob Geldof speaking of Ethiopian famine at the time of Live Aid, McCann’s ardor is unmistakable. He is a well-meaning man. But his analysis of the predicaments that face the Middle East is not raw or original or sophisticated. His message is optimistic — we need to talk more, and understand each other’s humanity — and banal. “Apeirogon” is like a political memoir that bangs on about the importance of bipartisanship as if the senator had, just this morning, arrived at the idea.
Great writing, Walt Whitman wrote, is composed of words that are “whirled like chain-shot rocks.” Enough rocks have been whirled in the Middle East. And this novel is only tossing around pillows.
Sahred From Source link Arts