Last night, a friend of mine who loves New York made my day by gifting their copy of Let The Great World Spin to me. I had tried to buy a copy several times during April but it had never worked out and I’m glad it didn’t because it was a lovely way to receive the book and fitting somehow, in light of its themes.
McCann wrote the book as a personal response to 9/11. In the face of that “huge, cloudy symbol” that is seared in the contemporary consciousness, McCann was inspired to go back a generation and set his novel underneath a different sky-high symbolic act, Philippe Petit’s renegade high-wire walk between the two Trade Center buildings in 1974.
This is not however, a novel about how we are interconnected by grand narratives alone. The event of the high-wire walk has its place and punctuates the novel but is really there to point to the people, living, breathing, failing, thriving (and yes, spinning) below. This dialogue was fascinating to me and made me think about the role of the artist and the gift that they give– how powerful to create a symbol that finds life in the meaning it has for each person, one that throws everything into sharp relief for a moment and points to something ‘other’, even if the whole point of it was not so much why? but simply because (p. 243).
Let The Great World Spin is made up of a series of the different stories of a disparate cast of 1974 New Yorkers and as you read further, the connectedness of their lives becomes more and more apparent. McCann pulls his own high-wire feats as an author, artfully pulling together this web of narratives into a non-linear but sensical plot. Not to mention the fact that the voices of all twelve characters are both convincing and compelling.
However, to me this book is more than just clever, it’s special. It’s as if, as a writer, McCann truly loved and understood each and every one of his characters; from the prostitute, to the judge, to the super-geek phreakers, to the middle-aged high-class lady. In the most light-handed of ways he presents the hopes and tragedies of their lives with such tenderness and insight that some pages left me devastated.
And the writing itself, oh boy. There are some writers who pen sentences that make me want to stop even trying to write fiction because I feel reminded that the gap between my ongoing hit and miss attempts and their virtuoso demonstrations is just too daunting. McCann writes lines that carry a weight of truth greater than themselves and are often pure poetry:
“The watchers below pulled in their breath all at once. The air felt suddenly shared. The man above was a word they seemed to know, though they had not heard it before.” p. 7.
“That’s what I like about God, you get to know him by his occasional absence.” p 27.
“Some swallows scissored out from underneath the rafters. Seeding the sky. They didn’t call out to me.” p. 70.
“Every now and then the city shook its soul out. It assailed you with an image, or a day, or a crime , or a terror, or a beauty so difficult to wrap your mind around that you had to shake your head in disbelief” p. 247.
OK, so you’ve probably guessed, I am a big fan of this book. I don’t mean to sound gushing, I’m just full of respect. Colum McCann said in the interview at the end of my edition that this book knocked the stuffing out of him and wrenched him emotionally and I am not surprised, it really shows. Well done Mr. McCann, what a great work, thank you for writing it.
* Page numbers refer to the 2010 Random House Trade Paperback Edition.