It’s a strange time for a novel as full-hearted as Apeirogon. It feels as if the situation in the Middle East is always a reflection of its age. In the optimistic 90s we had the Oslo Accords and a real sense that some solution to the conflict could be found through diplomatic channels. Now each side has retreated into belligerent isolation, with Donald Trump gleefully fanning the flames of discord. But perhaps that’s the point – the desperation of the situation has brought forth a work of art whose beauty, intelligence and compassion may go some way to changing things. Is it absurd to suggest that a novel might succeed where generations of politicians have failed? Perhaps, but then Apeirogon is the kind of book that comes along only once in a generation.
The book offers few if any of the usual satisfactions of the novel. But as a compendium of facts, a homage, a kind of creative response to the brave, sad work of Aramin and Elhanan, it is both insightful and moving. The amassing of all the incidental detail is what really adds up: we learn that when she was killed, Smadar was wearing a Blondie T-shirt and listening to Sinéad O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2U” on her Walkman, while Abir had just bought a candy bracelet. “I began to think,” says Aramin, “that I had stumbled upon the most important question of them all: what can you do, personally, in order to try to help prevent this unbearable pain for others?” You can honour the story - the stories, rather. Which is exactly what McCann has done.
As Jewish-American writer Nathan Englander has remarked, in a sly reference to McCann’s previous novel Let The Great World Spin, “Colum McCann loves a high-wire act”. The courage with which McCann walks his vertiginous tightrope here, given the potential for alienating the more militant on either side, is commendably audacious. He is already, it hardly needs to be reiterated here, one of the finest writers of his generation, Irish or otherwise. Apeirogon can only further consolidate his reputation.
This is a work of creative non-fiction premised on the problematic belief that literature should do good in the world. It is a commendable achievement. It is also ponderous, worthy, sentimental and self-important. The lyrical prose, presumably meant to elevate the subject matter to “novel” status, is mostly second-rate. “Walking through the 10-acre environmental centre… is like walking the rim of a tightening lung”: an overdone image repeated throughout the novel. (Anyway, lungs don’t have rims.) Apeirogon is a 1,001-piece jigsaw puzzle, painstakingly glued onto a board then framed and hung proudly on the wall — where no-one will ever mistake it for a real painting.
The two men bond in their grief and work together on a peace project, with other activists from across the divide. The book’s descriptions of living under Israeli occupation are richly detailed and feel true. McCann, an author of seven novels, began his career as a reporter for The Irish Press. However, this novel doesn’t quite work.
McCann’s central problem is that a novel is not a piece of music. Put in too many repeated refrains, experiment with too many disjointed rhythms, omit too much plot, and your readers will get confused, bored or exhausted.
With Apeirogon, this bold novelist enters fraught political territory with courage and imagination. There is no simple way to approach this kind of material, and so McCann takes the novel form and cracks it open: the book is composed of 1,000 chapters, some only a single line long. They are numbered up to 500 before heading back down to one again — recognition that stories such as those of Elhanan and Aramin can have no linear trajectory.
The free-associative approach is also reminiscent of the cult documentary maker Adam Curtis, whose films find weird connections between seemingly unrelated moments in history. But McCann’s unpredictable leaps in both form and content often leave your brain feeling more exhausted than enlarged. At times, Apeirogon strains too hard for connections and patterns, which distract and detract from the story’s emotional core. McCann aims to hover over vast tracts of history, but often comes across as flighty instead. I’m not sure how much I needed to know about John Cage’s exploits in a reverberation-free “anechoic chamber” or how many gallons of water it takes to fill the average swimming pool.
“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.”... 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.