I will preface this by admitting that I am one of those awful human beings who not only managed to escape school with a bare rudimentary scrape of historical knowledge, but further does nothing to patch the leaky sinking boat, floundering in a sea of ignorance. Therefore I devoured Mr. McCann's story in the April 16th edition of the New Yorker in a state of giddy bliss, the will-they-won't-they dynamic providing the perfect "tug" through to the end.
Then I consulted Wikipedia. There needs to be a new word in the dictionary (not like lol or cougar, but a legitimately new word) to describe the desire to have a "save game" and "re-load" feature in reality. Enough people experience this emotion on a daily basis (and now have a model for it in the form of videogames) that it should be classified as a distinct emotion. I wish I could go back and re-read Transatlantic with the benefit of knowing all about Misters Alcock and Brown, because I don't know if the story would have had such a strong effect on me if I had.
To be fair McCann is adept with characters. Brown is the rightful center--conflicted internally and externally, with enough at stake to intensify the flitting dangers of the flight. Alcock is part foil, part mirror. While reading I never felt that I needed to know more about him, but looking back I see an elusive character, slipping in and out of the story. The supporting characters are just present enough to root the piece in its setting. But the attachment I felt towards Brown and Alcock was heavily influenced by the uncertainty of their fate which, if I were a better student with a proper knowledge of history, I would have known at the beginning of the piece.
Unlike, for example, Jim Shepard's Love and Hydrogen, which inserts two fictional characters in the familiar historical setting of the Hindenburg, Transatlantic portrays people who actually existed; people whose fates are a simple internet query away.
The tension that builds in Love and Hydrogen, and which is also evident in pop culture epics like Titanic, comes from the reader's knowledge that, despite whatever the characters contend with in the foreground, there is about to be some kind of grand reckoning which the characters may not survive. It is a sort of pre-cliff-hanger; it creates the sublime irony of reader dread vs. character petulance.
Transatlantic is not as structurally complicated. It is an adventure piece: man vs. challenge, and while there is a decent amount of back- and side-history, it really only serves to heighten the anxiety the reader feels in not knowing whether Alcock and Brown will survive their flight. And of course, I felt a euphoric sense of relief and triumph when Alcock and Brown crashed into the bog. But if I'd known it all along, how would I have felt? I'd love to discuss this with someone who read this without the pretense of ignorance.
Working in reverse, there are elements of the story that are gently diminished by historical knowledge, and then there are those that become especially beautiful. Most of the dramatic action--the breaking of the fuselage, the almost-crash into the pine trees--reads dopier now. The urgency is diffused in knowing that Alcock and Brown survived. But McCann is clever to put the story in the present tense, and when it becomes crucial he slips inside Brown's mind--Good God, Alcock, lift her!--which manages to stir me even on a second read, even after the Wikipedia. I wonder why McCann chose not to have Brown climbing onto the wings to sort them out as in reality.
Curiously, on this read it is Alcock who makes the bigger impression. He died just six months after the transatlantic flight, crashing the newest version of the plane that had carried him from Newfoundland to Ireland. Knowing this, his character now feels ephemeral instead of obtuse. It reminds me of the DVD extras for the film Stand by Me. Someone, I can't recall who, points out the moment that River Phoenix's character waves and vanishes at the end of the film. Trite in the film, tragic in the context of the actor's short life. Recontextualizing stories provides us a stronger means of enjoying them. I now see Brown as the sole survivor. There is something to tie him to the ground. Alcock is leashed to the sky; his daredevil antics are the mark of hamartia, his bravado will be his demise.
Without asking McCann himself, it's difficult to know whether he expected his readers to know the history of Alcock and Brown. It feels, paradoxically, important and utterly irrelevant. I'm glad for the introduction and his story lent a well of rich emotion to what would otherwise be a two-paragraph entry in an encyclopedia. This is the power of writing fiction about real people. Like Pynchon does in Mason & Dixon, McCann creates a bridge between fact and sentiment. Even (in Pynchon's case especially) where the fiction divulges from reality, it feels charmingly honest because it gives us an opportunity to develop a relationship with a character who takes on the attributes of a living person.
One of the follies of my mind is that I find it difficult to conjure images of people who are long-since deceased. Even history's boldest figures are little more than bytes of information to me. It is only when someone is bold enough to recreate that figure in fiction that I can begin to extend my sympathies. We sometimes say books are our friends with absolute sincerity. It is only because the author has been adept enough to smoke life out of language: to make a thing that gives us as much pleasure, resentment, sadness, hope, and fear as our closest friends, dearest lovers, most hated enemies.