LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN by Colum McCann
â[New York] was a city uninterested in history. Strange things occurred precisely because there was no necessary regard for the past. The city lived in a sort of everyday present. It had no need to believe in itself as a London, or an Athens, or even a signifier of the New World, like a Sydney, or a Los Angeles. No, the city couldnât care less about where it stood. He had seen a T-shirt once that said: NEW YORK FUCKINâ CITY. As if it were the only place that ever existed and the only one that ever would. â
Reviewed by Poornima Apte (JUL 15, 2009)
Just when you thought he couldnât get any better, he does. Column McCannâs latest novel, Let the Great World Spin, is a masterpiece of seemingly disparate stories set together into one beautiful whole. The action takes place in the New York of the â70s specifically on one day in 1974 when Philippe Petit made his tightrope walk across the Twin Towers. Even if this is supposed to be a âNew York story,â this is not a sprawling saga with detailed descriptions of time and place. Instead McCann makes the city come alive through the voices of a variety of beautifully painted characters whom he breathes into life in the novel.
McCann makes Petitâs tightrope act the pivot that holds different threads of storyline together. There is Corrigan, a monk from Dublin, whose life is narrated through the voice of his brother. Corrigan moves to New York and tries to make life a little easier for a gaggle of prostitutes all of whom end up worshipping him and his small acts of kindness. âHe consoled himself with the fact that, in the real world, when he looked closely into the darkness he might find the presence of a light, damaged and bruised, but a little light all the same,â Corrieâs brother writes of him.
Thereâs Jazzlyn, one of the prostitutes, and her mother Tillie, whose story McCann narrates in a superb clipped writing style. Down at the other end of town, on the Upper East Side, lives Claire Soderberg mourning the death of her son in Vietnam. She has had a few meetings with a support group comprised of other moms in the city who have also lost their sons to the war. Claireâs tentative and awkward friendship with a black woman from the support group, Gloria, is one of the many gorgeous pieces of writing in Let the Great World Spin. It is hard to write more about these wonderful characters without giving away their connections to each other, one of the fundamental backbones of the novel. Itâs enough to say that as the book progresses, a larger (and satisfying) picture slowly emerges.
As with his earlier works, Dancer and Zoli, McCannâs writing is really poetic. For instance, when the tightrope is eventually slowly reeled in after Petitâs act, McCann likens it to âwatching a childâs Etch A Sketch as the sky shook itself out: the line kept disappearing pixel by pixel.â
The singular, most striking aspect of McCannâs new novel is just how much it lacks a sense of time. The fact that it sets the action around a spectacular act in the â70s actually serves to accentuate this fact even more. It is striking how many of the stories in here are so timeless they could be happening today. Grieving Claire, for example, could be a shoo-in for any mother who has lost her son in Americaâs more recent wars. McCann, who has said he considers himself a political writer, is not shy about writing about war. âThe war was about vanity,â thought Claireâs son about Vietnam. âIt was about old men who couldnât look in the mirror anymore and so they sent the young out to die. War was a get-together of the vain. They wanted it simple, hate your enemy, know nothing of him.â
âI thought I knew what Vietnam was we would leave it all rubble and bloodsoak,â says another character. âThe repeated lies become history, but they donât necessarily become the truth.â Sound familiar? McCann seems to be pointing this out to us: The more things change, the more they remain the same.
Except of course they didnât. On page 237 is a picture of Petit on the rope with a plane just going past one of the World Trade Center towers. It is hard not to gasp when you see this picture. A photo is like a tiny novel, McCann has said, and this one certainly is. It speaks volumes.
The last chapter in the novel is set in 2006, five years after 9-11. It is after McCann makes this leap, that you set a sense of where we have been, how things have changed and how they have not. âA man high in the air while a plane disappears, it seems, into the edge of the building. One small scrap of history meeting a larger one,â he writes. âAs if the walking man were somehow anticipating what would come later. The intrusion of time and history. The collision point of stories. We wait for the explosion but it never occurs. The plane passes, the tightrope walker gets to the end of the wire. Things donât fall apart.â McCannâs expert touch lies in having the reader make this leap forward with him and fill in the gaps.
âLiterature can remind us that not all life is already written down: there are still so many stories to be told,â he writes in the credits. And seeing as how McCann is on a roll, we can rest assured that he will be there for the telling. I for one, will be licking my chops and waiting.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 439 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Random House (June 23, 2009)|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||YES! Start Reading Now!|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Colum McCann|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||Read our review of:|
- Fishing in the Sloe Black River: Stories (1993)
- Songdogs (1995)
- This Side of Brightness (1998)
- Everything in this Country Must: A Novella and Two StoriesÂ (2000)
- Dancer (2003)
- Zoli (2007)
- Let the Great World Spin (2009)
- TransAtlantic (June 2013)
July 15, 2009
Âˇ Judi Clark Âˇ 3 Comments
Tags: 1970s, Colum McCann, Real Event Fiction, Time Period Fiction Âˇ Posted in: 2009 Favorites, Facing History, Literary, National Book Award Winner, New York City, y Award Winning Author