BASS 2015/Pushcart XL: Colum McCann, “Sh’khol” from Zoetrope, #18.3

A novella had arrived from the publisher in Tel Aviv eight months before, a beautifully written story by an Arab Israeli from Nazareth: an important piece of work, she thought.
She had begun immediately to translate it, the story of a middle-aged couple who had lost their two children. She had come upon the phrase sh’khol. She cast around for a word translated, but there was no proper match. There were words, of course, for widow, widower, and orphan, but none, no noun, no adjective, for a parent who had lost a child. None in Irish, either. She looked in Russian, and French, in German, in other languages too, but could find analogues only in Sanskrit, vilomah, and in Arabic, thakla, a mother, nathkool, a father. Still not in English. It had bothered her for days. She wanted to be true to the text, to identify the invisible, torn open, ripped apart, stolen. In the end she had settled upon the formal bereaved, not precise enough hardly, she thought, no mystery in it, no music, hardly a proper translation at all, bereaved.

Parents strongly cautioned: This story will rip your heart out in six different ways – yet leave you loving it for doing so.

And I’m not even a parent.

I need to be particularly spoiler-sensitive about these comments, however, because the story shifts and moves like the sea that plays a part throughout. It is indeed about the loss of a child, a phrase that is itself ambiguous. “He lost his daughter” means something very different from “He lost his keys.” Or does it?

I can imagine a logical reason for the paucity of words indicating a parent has lost a child. The death of a spouse, or of parents when one is young (you wouldn’t refer to a 30-year-old whose parents just died as an orphan), is a change in one’s societal status, unlike the death of a child. Even though the emotional effect is, of course, profound, would you want to be labeled as “the parent who lost a child” by a single word? The Sh’khol Jones, analogous to The Widow McAllister? I don’t think so. But it’s one thing to consider this from the calm, cool, analytical point of view, and quite another from the heart of the mother who fears she has lost her child.

This is what McCann does so effectively: radical empathy. Becoming the other, a theme from the Fiction of Relationship course. Telling another’s story. Getting to know another well enough, to understand the nooks and crannies of how they feel, and why, to tell the story. McCann has worked with a group of creatives to form Narrative4, a non-profit that brings together kids from disparate neighborhoods – most recently, Newtown, CT, and Chicago (“Twenty-six murders in one day, twenty-six murders in one month, you tell my story, I’ll tell yours”, about the 1:01 mark).

I remember reading an excerpt from McCann’s novel Transatlantic in The New Yorker a couple of years ago, and being amazed that I could be so mesmerized by a story that takes place primarily in the cockpit of a 1919 aeroplane. Here again, I was spellbound by the story of Rebecca and Tomas. McCann not only has the radical empathy he values so highly, the empathy he credits with changing lives and possibly the world, but he’s able to create it in others using only text on a page.

The writing is astonishingly beautiful. I always hesitate to say something like that, because I still have this nagging question: is writing that calls attention to itself able to do the job of writing, the transport of one person to another situation? When I stop reading, transfixed over these words: “I have, she thought, made a terrible mistake”, am I still in the story? That sentence is a flashing neon sign. It demands I stop, pay attention. Why is it broken up like that? The story – about brokenness – is about loss, the loss of a child, but the sentence starts with, “I have,” takes a breath with “she thought,” then understates the obvious. The sentence stays with me. I suspect, the next time I make a big mistake, it will be this sentence that comes to mind.

The interaction of Rebecca and her ex-husband is just as arresting. When they were married, they had the Good Life, and she left it for this tired cottage until crisis brings him back to her:

– I’d like to be alone with my wife, Allen said.
Rebecca lifted her head. Wife : it was like a word that might remain on the page, though the page itself was plunged into darkness.

The story kept changing as I read. I can understand why T.C. Boyle, in his Introduction, compared this to a novel. In technical terms beloved by high school English teachers, a short story is not only readable in one sitting, but takes place over a limited period of time. The plot of this story takes place in the space of a few of days. But the story is far longer, going back perhaps to Eve losing both her sons – a scene not included in Genesis, by the way. Because it’s too horrible to contemplate – or because it’s so well-understood?

Because the character Rebecca is a writer, a translator of literature, McCann has, I think, greater leeway to have her thoughts be beautiful even in her anguish and fear. Just as inside Jack’s head, in “Jack, July” was a unique place, so is inside Rebecca, and McCann puts us there, offering us radical empathy – or rather, the story requires it of us.

Sh’khol. She knew the word now. Shadowed.

So many ways to lose a child.

Colum McCann: “Transatlantic” from The New Yorker, 4/16/12

British commemorative of Alcock & Brown's flight

British commemorative of Alcock & Brown's flight

When they met for the first time, in the Vickers factory in Brooklands, Weyridge, in early 1919, Alcock and Brown took one look at each other and understood immediately that what they both wanted was a clean slate. The obliteration of memory. The creation of a new moment: raw, dynamic, warless. They did not want to remember the bombs that had dudded out, the crash and burn, the cellblocks they had been locked into, or the species of abyss they had seen in the dark.
Instead, they talked about the Vickers Vimy. A nippy little thing.

I didn’t expect to like this story, based on the true account of the first two men to cross the Atlantic, from Newfoundland to Ireland, by plane (“but what about Lindbergh,” I kept thinking – aha, he was the first to cross solo, but these guys did it first). But it’s a marvelous story, suspenseful, poetic, and thoughtful. The text isn’t online, but you can listen to McCann read the story; I listened to the very end, and it’s quite nice. Total play time is about an hour.

It starts with a page of backstory, nicely bracketed by the introduction of the plane, the Vickers Vimy. Alcock and Brown were soldiers in WWI, both fliers, both POWs. As you can tell from the above quote, they’re ready to move on, and this begins a swords-into-plowshares theme that runs steadily through the piece. I typically underline and bracket passages that seem important as I’m reading, and with this story, for all the suspense of the flight itself, most of what I bracketed was similar to the above, such as:

It is that time of the century when the idea of a gentleman has almost become myth. The Great War has concussed the world. The unbearable news of sixteen million deaths has rolled off the huge metal newspaper drums. Europe is a crucible of bones.

and

The bomb bays have been replaced by extra petrol tanks. That’s what pleases Brown the most. They are using the bomber in a brand-new way: taking the war out of the plane, stripping the thing of its penchant for carnage.

The story succeeds in other dimensions as well. The scene of their take-off, about a half-page, is positively gripping – and that’s just the take-off. The discomfort they endured – extreme cold, confinement in a single seat – is related effectively, without feeling oppressive (I have a feeling I might’ve needed a blanket and hot-water bottle had Jim Shepherd written this, and while some may see that as a slight flaw, I’m perfectly happy with the way it turned out). The landing in Ireland is hair-raising, funny, and poetic, all at the same time.

The two men are portrayed as individuals, with Alcock, the pilot, most interested in planes, and flight – “he loves women but prefers engines,” and Brown, the taciturn navigator, more of a numbers man. In his Book Bench interview, McCann relates the difference to:

…the contemporary condition of the novelist. Are you the navigator or the pilot? Do you chart possible routes or do you force the movement across an unknown space?

There’s one thread that seems unnecessary and neglected: a woman reporter and her daughter see the plane take off. Turns out this is part of a novel-in-progress (McCann also discusses this at length) about visits to Ireland by Frederick Douglass in 1845 and George Mitchell towards the end of the last millennium; this piece falls in between and links them together. The reporter is more important to the novel than to this particular section.

That’s the trouble with novel excerpts: they just aren’t short stories.

There’s also an exchange I find puzzling: shortly after takeoff, over St. John’s Bay, Alcock comments that he can’t swim:

Brown is momentarily taken aback – the thought of ditching at sea, of floating for a moment on a wooden strut, clinging to the rolling tanks. But surely Alcock swam to safety after he was shot down over Suvla Bay? All those years ago now. No, not years. Just months ago. It is odd to Brown, very odd, that not so long ago a bullet pierced his thigh and now, today, he is carrying a fragment of that bullet over the Atlantic toward a marriage, a second chance….Alcock can’t swim? Surely that’s not true. Perhaps he, too, should tell the truth. Never too late.
Brown leans down into the mouthpiece of the phone, decides against it.

There’s a reference to this again later, during a particularly treacherous moment of the flight. Is Brown really worried because he truly can’t swim, and he assumes Alcock is joking? Why would that be such a terrible secret? If it’s that important, haven’t they discussed it prior to this? Or is there another truth, one we don’t discover in this story, one that’s revealed later in the novel?

The novel isn’t even finished yet, so I guess I’ll have to wait a few years to find out. But the piece worked, even if it isn’t really a short story.