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An ambitious novel takes off

By Maggie Shipstead

In the first 60 pages of “The Great Circle” by Maggie Shipstead, there are two plane crashes, the start of a Hollywood rendition of a plane crash and a sunken ship. There is childhood abuse, adultery, and suspected postpartum suicide. There is a 2 year old orphan and a father sent to Sing Sing as a result of his choice to save his toddler twins from the aforementioned sinking ship. There is also a brush with death inside a rusting car in the middle of a rushing stream.

In senior school, I had a teacher who warned against “starting too high”. She would raise her arm in the air and tell us, “If you start here, you have to know that this is where you have to stay.” The debut of Shipstead’s book – his third, after “Seating Arrangements” in 2012 and “Astonish Me” in 2014 – is exciting and complicated, with many different threads and carefully and richly crafted stories; for the next 500 or so pages, I felt the fear I feel when a student’s work begins strong, when other novels open high – knowing that, more often than not, high heights cannot be supported. But “The Great Circle” starts high and maintains the altitude. You could say it is skyrocketing.

The Story of Shipstead follows the story of two women. The first, Marian Graves, is one of the shipwrecked twins. Her decision to devote her life to flight is immediate and relentless: a biplane, “abrupt and magnificent”, descends so close to her, “it seemed that she could have touched the wheels”. It happens when Marian is 12 years old – “at an age where the future adulthood shakes the child’s bones like the bars of a cage” – and, from there, a pilot is all she wants to be. . It’s one of those romantic origin stories that leaves no room for questions, but Shipstead manages to pull it off.

The other main character (although her story doesn’t take up Marian’s time or space) is Hadley Baxter, the recently disgraced and fired star of a “Twilight” film series, who is expected to play Marian onscreen. . In one of my favorite details, the film is based in part on a newspaper found floating in her own life jacket in the Arctic, years after Marian’s plane was lost as she attempted to do the longitudinal tour of the globe.

When we meet her, Hadley is on a path to self-destruction (as are many of the best Hollywood starlet romance interpretations). She’s deeply lonely, lovingly misguided by her former co-star’s (and ex-boyfriend) married agent. She might also have a crush on supporting the film. Mischief ensues.

Told in the first person – Marian sections are told in the third – Hadley’s part of the novel offers an intimate and biting perspective, combining the worn and jaded glamor of Hollywood with the vulnerability of a girl attempting to leave his old self behind. Here is Hadley, describing lying in bed with her then boyfriend’s agent as the boyfriend waits for them to join him at a restaurant: “We had been having sex, but we were lying there in talk, doing those first big carefree and joyful digs when everything about someone is new and unfamiliar, before you have to pull out your little picks and brushes, laboriously working around buried fragile objects.

Marian’s twin brother Jamie – a sensitive, vegetarian and animal-loving painter – is another character close to our hearts. The same goes for their alcoholic uncle, a painter who does not do good, who welcomed them when their father went to jail and when he decided not to be a parent after his release. While still a teenager, Marian married a wealthy bootlegger; their relationship is oppressive and becomes violent, causing her to escape to Alaska, where she joins an all-female pilot contingent during World War II. She will find love there, and it will be more dangerous and risky than thefts. There will also be immense losses.

“The Great Circle” can seem a bit baggy at times, but that seems to be Shipstead’s intention. This is a book explicitly invested in sweeping. Here is Marian, in her diary: “I want to measure my life in relation to the dimensions of the planet”; and Jamie, on his art: “I started to think that what I really want to paint is too big.”

It is a novel filled with back stories of tangential characters. We have an overlay of the story of Charles Lindbergh; we follow some of the events in Amelia Earhart’s life and travels. We get “An Incomplete History of Missoula, Montana” which begins with the phrase “Fifteen Thousand Years Ago”. But this vast expanse is as much the project of this novel as any of these individual lives – including all the ways that each life exists in the context of so many others, the way the natural world informs and shapes us. , all the ways in which we are still alone and especially ourselves.

Novels are about parts, but then the parts have to work together to create a whole. Perhaps being a less ambitious novelist than Shipstead, I was thinking of all the other novels that could live inside of this one. What’s so impressive is how deeply we care about each of these people and how the shape and texture of each of their stories collide to create a story of their own. The ending manages to pull each thread in a way that is both exciting and inevitable.

At a time when so many novels seem invested in a subverting form, “The Great Circle” follows a long tradition of Big Sweeping Narratives. I hope we still have literature that forces us to reconsider what the form can hold, but also: one of the many things that novels can offer is an immersive sense of fun, the feeling that something you have already seen is done. although he feels new and uniquely alive.

“Le Grand Cercle” grasps and finally achieves something extraordinary. He achieves this feat through individual phrases and sensations – making sure every secondary and tertiary character is correct. Thinking of flight (and ambition and artistry), it is suggested that the greater the reach, the more a stable foundation is needed. Here we have an action-packed book rich in character, but it is at the level of the sentence and the stage, salient but unforgettable little detail, that the books ultimately succeed or fail. In this, “The Great Circle” is always, often breathtaking, a sound.

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