Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Not So Bright

"This Side of Brightness weaves historical fact with fictional truth, creating a remarkable tale of death, racism, homelessness--and yes, love--spanning four generations. Two characters dominate Colum McCann's narrative: Treefrog, a homeless man with a dark and shameful secret, and Nathan Walker, a black man who came north in the early years of the century to work as a "sandhog," digging the subway tunnels beneath Manhattan. Walker's tale is told in alternating chapters with Treefrog's, who, before his slide into homelessness, chose a hazardous profession- a construction worker building skyscrapers." -- from Review

This Side of Brightness
by Colum McCann
(3 Scoops)

While I loved Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, I had a hard time engaging with one of his older novels, This Side of Brightness. I read this book over the course of a week or so, one or two chapters before bed. Now, I know this is how most folks read, but it is atypical of my reading habits which border on obsessive. I usually consume a book in an evening, sacrificing sleep until I've finished. If I really love a book and I want the experience of reading it to last I will spread my reading out to three or four days, but that can start to drive an (impatient) girl crazy.

So, it was strange to find myself content with just a chapter or two. At first it was because the chapters were rich with characterization and lovely prose and seemed to stand alone, like well written short stories. Soon though I realized that it was because I was sort of bored.

By the time I got to the ending I realized that I didn't particularly care about one of the protagonists and the lyrical prose was more confusing than illuminating. I don't think I understood the ending- either from a practical this-is-what-happened point-of-view, or a more thematic understanding of the take away message McCann was aiming at. The beginning of the book was reallyinteresting though, when the story centered around the "sandhogs" and their work digging the tunnels underneath Manhattan and its surrounding waterways. I felt transported to another time and was fascinated by the historical fiction that helped produce this place where I work and live. When it switches to the modern tale of Treefrog's experience with homelessness and mental illness I was less intrigued.

As the two stories began to weave together, a McCann structural staple, I was annoyed by the heavy-handedness of the tunnel metaphor and the "meaning" implied by the contrast between the generations. Maybe all of that is there in Let the Great World Spin too, but it is way better written, with sentences so gorgeous they just filled me up with joy and possibility.

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