“Where Life Is”: Maggie Shipstead, Great Circle

shipsteadHe knows the airplane and its deafening drone and its gasoline reek. He knows the shape of Marian’s elbow and knee visible through the cockpit doorway. He pencils his neat log of figures, updating the distance they’ve covered, the time they will arrive . . . He feels the lines of latitude sliding underneath like the rungs of a ladder, watches the whitecaps through the drift meter, measuring the difference between where they are going and where they mean to go. That’s where life is, that wedge of discrepancy.

Great Circle was a perfect choice for my end-of-term reading treat. It is capacious, immersive, and suspenseful—this last even though you know a lot, right from the beginning, about where the story is going. Paradoxically, the narrative has more, rather than less, momentum because of this: you want to know how we get there, you want to be a part of it. It seems to want to be told, the way that characters in the novel often remark that airplanes want to fly. The novel, in other words, has lift. (Flying metaphors are such a temptation!)

I’ve lost the completist urge (or maybe just the patience) to include plot overviews in my posts, so I’ll just briefly explain that Great Circle tells two stories, though not in equal measure. One is the story of Marian Graves, a pilot who disappeared with her plane in 1950 while attempting to circumnavigate the globe. This part is a robust, textured historical novel that takes us from New York to Missoula, Alaska to Antarctica. It is full of details about bootleggers and artists and madams and World War II ‘fly girls’—but the research (while obviously extensive) never weighs the novel down. The other part of the novel is the story of Hadley Baxter, a Hollywood actress who takes on the role of Marian in a film she hopes will salvage her scandal-plagued career, perhaps even moving her from fantasy franchise sensation to Oscar contender.

shipstead2I was initially fine with the alternation between the past and present plots. By the middle of the novel, I had become impatient with Hadley’s sections, which felt at best peripheral to Marian’s much more interesting character and experiences, and at worst seemed gratuitous or even anxious, as if Shipstead lacked confidence in historical fiction, as if she felt that on its own it was somehow insufficient. The modern-day plot felt more like a device than a necessity—but a device to do what, exactly? I hoped that by the end of the novel I would realize the work the modern parts were doing and the two strands of the novel would prove integral to its overall vision.

It did not quite work out this way. Hadley’s story does turn out to serve one key function for the plot, but things like that can always be done another way. Hadley’s feelings of inquiry, connection, and ultimately discovery about Marian also do become more meaningful over time: “maybe the past had something to tell me,” she reflects at one point and maybe it does. But I still didn’t feel that we needed her; I couldn’t find any way to read her as in some sense an heir to the quests (literal but also metaphorical) that Marian is on. In this respect it seemed telling that she does not get as much space in the novel as Marian.

That said, Hadley’s exploration of Marian’s life story—which is mediated first through Marian’s ‘lost logbook,’ then through a novel about her (the basis for the film Hadley will star in), and then through letters she is finally given access to—does introduce metafictional, even historiographical questions that might (might) have been hard to engage with otherwise. It turns out that the version of Marian’s life story that we get is in many respects hidden from Hadley until almost the end of the novel. Aspects of it—especially what we might sum up as queer aspects of it—are occluded both by the sources available (including Marian’s own account) and by people’s imaginations, which shape and (we know, because we know the reality) limit the assumptions they make about what her life was like and what the people in it meant to her. In this way the novel’s account of Marian’s life is an alternative history, not “just” historical fiction, and the book’s two parts create an explicit space for awareness or self-consciousness about this.

great-circle-maggie-shipsteadjpeg-bookerStill, I think you can open up room to highlight questions about how stories are told in lots of ways, and even if this is one way to make sense of Hadley’s role in the novel, it doesn’t quite make up for how much less vivid and interesting her sections are than Marian’s. There’s so much wonderful writing in the novel, and pretty much none of it is in the Hadley parts. One reason is that the prose is at its best (appropriately) when Marian is flying, the language rising in a crescendo of vividness and intensity up to what sometimes seems like a limit of what words can convey:

 In the thin air, the plane traveled faster, nearly four hundred miles per hour. She couldn’t stay long. Up, though. She needed to find out what was up there, to be away from what was below . . . Cold now. Much too high, but only a little bit farther and she would know what she wanted to know. She was sure of it. The engine seemed to grow quiet, but still the altimeter’s arrow swept to the right. The sky turned midnight blue at the edges of her vision, darkness bleeding up and inward as though she were sinking into something.

If the whole novel was like that, it would be too much, but most of the time the narrative is brisk and unelaborate, which makes the moments when it pushes towards the sublime feel both earned and ecstatic:

For much of the flight the sky is not only free from cloud but so transparent there seems to be no air at all. At the pole, the stars hover against the black of the universe. Below, a frozen ocean is lit by starlight and the thinnest paring of moon, its platinum surface pushed up into broken dunes, shadow rippling in the trenches between. Where the tides have tugged rips in the ice, narrow channels of open water breathe fog as they freeze over. Never has Marian seen a landscape so suffused with hush, so monochromatic and devoid of life.

I found it hard to come back down from these moments to catch up with Hadley’s bad romantic decisions, though I suppose that contrast—which can feel almost like a descent into bathos—might be deliberate, as Hadley is looking to Marian for inspiration, struggling to shape her own life into its own embracing circles. For me, Great Circle is Marian’s book, though; Hadley is in it but not truly of it. Shipstead’s epigraph is from Rilke’s Book of Hours; it ends “am I a falcon, / a storm, or a great song?” Marian, it turns out, is all of these things, and so it is right that she has the last word in the novel, but also that Hadley’s last words are an invocation of what Marian sought and finally found: “And then I must have slipped back into being Marian Graves because, for a second, I felt free.”