“An Impossibly Complex System”: Maggie Shipstead’s “Great Circle”

It has for some time now been fashionable to suggest that writing big books is unfashionable. Grand narrative is not, according to this shibboleth, en vogue; the saga, the epic, the sweeping story, is a preference of a bygone age. Every time one of these sorts of book pops up, then, it is posited as going against this notional grain.

But this cliché is demonstrably untrue. The dominant narratives of our time are all megatexts, entire worlds whose stories are expanded outwards constantly: the Marvel Cinematic and Star Wars Universes are the obvious examples, but modern media’s taste for adapting and re-adapting makes this ever more the case: from Lord of the Rings to The Wheel of Time, big books are once more not just fashionable but the default.

This isn’t just a genre or cinematic phenomenon, however. In the literary world, too, the big book – if it ever went away – is now once more common, and among the most popular example of the form. Hilary Mantel has won the Booker Prize twice for doorstop novels with a spread of decades; Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries was intricately plotted and expansive; from Could Atlas on, David Mitchell has cobbled all his novels into a megatext. All three of these writers have been adapted for television; surely Paul Auster’s shortlisted alternate histories of 4321 will also get their time.

The appearance of Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle on this year’s shortlist, then, is not the oddity that some reviewers might suggest it to be. In the New York Times, Lyn Steger Strong suggests that, “At a moment when so many novels seem invested in subverting form, Great Circle follows in a long tradition of Big Sweeping Narratives”; as I’ve argued, Great Circle is part of a zeitgeist, not running against it; but Steger Strong gets other things right: “it’s at the level of the sentence and the scene, the small but unforgettable salient detail, that books finally succeed or fail,” she writes, subtly suggesting that the novel’s greatest achievements are not in the execution of its breadth, but in its many solitary moments of depth.

Certainly the novel is discursive, and much of it is concerned with plot, with stuff happening: ships are wrecked, cars are crashed, the Lindberghs spy on Germany, Amelia Earhart goes missing; wars happen, lovers love, people die. The novel’s two main strands – one following the life of an Earhart-ish figure named Marian Graves, who goes missing in 1950, the other focusing on Hadley Baxter, a Hollywood startlet who takes a last chance to save her career by playing Graves in a movie of her life – are constantly interspersed with the stories of other characters, families, localities, nations. The earliest event described in the novel happens 15,000 years ago. Shipstead is not afraid of scope.

Amid all this, the novel’s length – around 600 large pages – is the way it works enough human-level detail into proceedings to make us care. Marian and Hadley alike struggle through worlds not set up to make life easy for them; they, along with many other women in the novel, suffer sexual assault and abuse, but – like all the other women in the novel – they also persevere. Marian’s story is told in the third-person, Hadley’s in the first – but both connect, albeit in very different ways (perhaps Marian’s as tragic-comic, Hadley’s as comi-tragic). They include a rich cast of secondary characters, and a repeatedly euphonic set of recurring motifs.

From sea-going vessels to flight, complicated romances to the perils of public opinion, the relationship of small things to larger is the critical theme of the novel. For one new mother, “the horro of the birth had merged with the horror of the war” (p. 24); for another the movement is in another direction, all the ambition of “her labour […] almost forgotten to make back what had been spent” (p. 135). Ultimately, the novel moves through a world in which “ungovernable forces come to roost inside heroic human bodies or are shrunk down and carted around in vials and briefcases” (p. 107).

The great circle of the novel’s title is the circumference of the cut side of a sphere’s perfect half, “the largest circle that can be drawn on a sphere” (p. 3). This emphasises the interrelatedness of everything in the novel, the mirror images and fitted echoes that structure its often baggy storytelling. Characters from one narrative show up in another, older and with messages from the past; the editorial choices of Marian’s biographers, and in turn the director of the movies made of those books, reflect and refract the realities of her life; Marian’s heroism – but also the facts of her quotidian existence – inspire and enhance Hadley.

A recurring concept in the novel is that of bravery: Marian is routinely described as courageous, but as a pilot she is trained to be “safe, not brave”. Another character is accused of cowardice when he acts to save two children, even imprisoned for it; on Hadley’s social media it feels, in the face of the legion of trolls online, bold even to post a photo. In the ambivalent way it treats courage – is it selfish to be bold? – the novel offers a complex treatment of an issue many of its characters are seeking to reduce to an over-simplistic core. The central figure of Marian – literally and unexplainably absent at the heart of her own story – offers a fulcrum around which they gather. To them, she is a cipher; to Shipstead’s reader she is anything but.

At one point, Hadley expresses scepticism about a biography of Marian: “it was trying to force Marian to be something – someone – more familiar and reassuring than she actually was” (p. 257). Certainly in its capacity for granular detail as well as sweep, Great Circle creates in Marian the figure of a real human being, complex and difficult. But I’m also less sure that the novel creates truly strange human beings; it reads much as one might imagine a book of this sort to read, like Sunnyside by Glen David Gold or Life After Life by Kate Atkinson: episodic and wise, informed by history but also willing to take liberties with it. This novel, too, could rather easily be adapted – perhaps into a Netflix limited series. It is not unfamiliar.

That expresses my experience of reading Great Circle in a nutshell: for all its imaginative sympathy, roving focus and layered themes, it didn’t feel like a transformative novel. Throughout Great Circle, characters try in various ways to take flight; it closes with one of them “held aloft by pure possibility, as though she were about to see everything” (p. 589); the novel tries to evoke that feeling whilst also compensating for the distance height provides with copious on-the-ground detail. I’m not sure it quite achieves the right balance here, and ultimately the novel felt to me rather more firmly anchored than it might have been – even, perhaps, a tad leaden.

That being the case, which of the shortlisted novels should win this evening? I’ve not yet written about Richard Powers’ Bewilderment here – that review will be appearing soon (ETA: here, in fact!) – but, spoilers, I don’t think it should win … yet it’s possible, in its capturing of the COP26 moment of existential dread, that it might do. The best book on the shortlist – as opposed to its most relevant – is, however, Damon Galgut’s The Promise. Like Great Circle, it achieves breadth; but like Bewilderment it also has focus. It is neither reductively aphoristic like Patricia Lockwood’s novel nor overly abstract like Anuk Arudpragasam’s. Perhaps for me it’s biggest rival is Nadifa Mohamed’s The Fortune Men – but Galgut, I think, not just avoids Mohamed’s structural issues but has written a novel which is entirely without seams. Indeed, I’m not sure the contest is even especially close: The Promise is the finest novel of these six by some margin. Good luck to it tonight.

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