Apeirogon (Colum McCann)

An apeirogon is a generalized polygon with a countably infinite number of sides. I can’t claim to understand the phrase “countably infinite,” but I am quite sure that Colum McCann chose this title as a metaphor for the conflict in the Middle East. Perhaps, in a related move and also as a nod to Arabian Nights, has written what he calls his “hybrid novel” in 1,001 chapters. They run from 1 to 500, then there is chapter 1,001, and then 500 back down to 1. The story centers on two real-life fathers, both of whom lost children because of the conflict. That said, the book is decidedly fiction. As for the determining the line between the two, I’ll leave that for others to discern.

The chapters are, not surprisingly, short – from one line to, at most, a few pages. The reason for the particular order of them is not always clear. McCann, who can be quite a lyrical writer at times, is much more detached. He lets the details speak for themselves which is wise, I think, because there is such a power in them – the candy bracelet, the shoe that doesn’t stay on, the headlight that goes out.

This is not a book you can read a few minutes at a time. Though there are 1,001 chapters, there are no real chapter breaks. It is in the accumulation of chapters that the power of the story resides. As with anything that attempts to speak to the Middle East, there is always a possibility of bias. McCann makes one clear move to try to demonstrate balance, right in the middle of the novel. I suspect that more conservative Jewish readers will argue that it favors the Palestinian story or argument, but as a less conservative Jewish reader, I found it difficult to argue with what seems to be the book’s conclusion – Israel needs to end the Occupation.

Please don’t misunderstand me. This book is not didactic. It is not non-fiction. There is a powerful story here, that of two fathers absolutely wrestling with their grief and trying to figure out how to move their lives forward. And by staying out of the way of their stories, McCann makes sure they will get to your heart. You may argue with this book, you may cry about this book, you may claim it’s unfair – but it will make you feel and it will make you think. What more can we ask?

Charles Ellenbogen is the author of the teaching memoir, THIS ISN’T THE MOVIES: 25 YEARS IN THE CLASSROOM, and teaches high school English in Cleveland, Ohio. He lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio with Kirsten, his wife, Zoe, their daughter, Ezra, their son, Lincoln, their dog, and Chocolate Scales, their snake.

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