LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN by Colum McCann

Book Quote:

“[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 couldn’t care less about where it stood. He had seen a T-shirt once that said: NEW YORK FUCKIN’ CITY. As if it were the only place that ever existed and the only one that ever would. ”

Book Review:

Reviewed by Poornima Apte (JUL 15, 2009)

Just when you thought he couldn’t get any better, he does. Column McCann’s 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 ‘70s 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 “New York story,” 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 Petit’s 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. “He 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,” Corrie’s brother writes of him.

There’s 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. Claire’s 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. It’s enough to say that as the book progresses, a larger (and satisfying) picture slowly emerges.

As with his earlier works, Dancer and Zoli, McCann’s writing is really poetic. For instance, when the tightrope is eventually slowly reeled in after Petit’s act, McCann likens it to “watching a child’s Etch A Sketch as the sky shook itself out: the line kept disappearing pixel by pixel.”

The singular, most striking aspect of McCann’s 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 ‘70s 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 America’s more recent wars. McCann, who has said he considers himself a political writer, is not shy about writing about war. “The war was about vanity,” thought Claire‘s son about Vietnam. “It was about old men who couldn’t 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.”

“I thought I knew what Vietnam was we would leave it all rubble and bloodsoak,” says another character. “The repeated lies become history, but they don’t necessarily become the truth.” 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 didn’t. 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. “A 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,” he writes. “As 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 don’t fall apart.” McCann’s expert touch lies in having the reader make this leap forward with him and fill in the gaps.

“Literature can remind us that not all life is already written down: there are still so many stories to be told,” 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: stars-4-0from 439 readers
PUBLISHER: Random House (June 23, 2009)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Colum McCann
EXTRAS: Excerpt
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July 15, 2009 · Judi Clark · 3 Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: 2009 Favorites, Facing History, Literary, National Book Award Winner, New York City, y Award Winning Author

3 Responses

  1. Mary Whipple - July 16, 2009

    I’m about 2/3 of the way through this, Poornima, and I agree with every word you say about this monumental achievement. I find it astounding that an Irishman who has moved to New York can convey its wonders and its traumas with such clarity, but maybe it’s because he see it fresh (?). Whatever will McCann be able to do for an encore? Best, Mary

  2. MFadmin - July 20, 2009

    Mary Whipple’s review of LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN can be found here.

  3. Judi Clark - November 19, 2009

    National Book Awards were announced last night…. LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN won the 2009 Fiction NBA award!

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