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Let the Great World Spin: Seriously Good Stuff.

First, let me say that I will try my very best.
Second, forgive me if I fail.

Because this, BookSnobs, is going to be difficult.

It’s tough sledding to describe a novel as good as Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCannI think it’s the best book I have read since I started all this nutty blog goodness.

You know the type of book I’m talking about. The kind of book that stays with you a long time. Even after the reading is done, even when you can’t remember the details, you remember it reached you. The English Patient. The Corrections. The God of Small Things.
We all have our list.

I slowly read the last page, then again for good measure (no, no, please don’t end), turned back to the front cover, resisted the urge to begin again. Sighed.
Good god, Colum baby, that was soooooo good.
Lit a cigarette.

If you haven’t read it yet (because you will, you must), here’s what you do.

Go into the bookstore. Stand there, at the table at the front, where it surely will be sitting with its shiny, proud National Book Award Winner sticker. Waiting.

Right there in store. Read the first three pages. Inhale deeply. Buy it.

McCann describes Philippe Petite’s incredible feat in 1974: a steel cable, strung between the World Trade Towers, 110 stories in the air. A skipping, running, sitting and turning man on a tightrope, high above the city.

Spectacularly, this part isn’t fiction. The incredible, choppy, tense, and suspenseful prose belongs to McCann. But the drama is real: check out this CBS video clip.

Petite steals into the World Trade Center, does something secretive, illegal, and outrageous. He baits cops to the roof and brings helicopters to the sky, captivates the imagination of the entire city and possibly the world as well. But yet all the while, McCann does not ridiculously point out that a scene we may have missed in 1974…in 2001, was ingrained in our memory forever.

Buried somewhere after page 200, there is one simple photograph of Petite on the wire with a large airplane at the edge of the frame. A character actually carries this photograph in 2006 and says about it:

“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. 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.”

The image brings past and present together. And Let the Great World Spin delivers the power of 9/11 without hitting us over the head or insulting us. Beauty.

While the tightrope walker is an indelible image, it is just one side to the story itself. McCann himself says: “The more I worked it, the more interested I became in the ordinary people on the street, the ones who walked a tight rope just one inch off the ground.”

We meet Corrigan, the headstrong man of God who tends to the lost souls of the Bronx and struggles with the conflict of carnal desire. Tillie and Jazzyln–mother and daughter prostitutes, addicts and survivors of turning tricks under the Deegan. Claire, the fragile and lonely mother of a Vietnam vet who longs for friendship from her posh perch on Park Avenue. Lara, the artist, and Judge Soderburgh and Gloria…It’s a crafted collection of characters who are connected at first by the tightrope walker, and then in ways we couldn’t imagine.

A question at the back of the book asks: is this a book that needs to take place in New York, or can the characters be anywhere?

My answer: this is New York. A character in the novel says about NYC: “He had said to his wife many times that the past disappeared in the city.” This was before the tightrope walker, before a plane took down two buildings. NYC experienced, dangerously close-up, the excitement of Petite and the soot and dust of two falling towers. Through this, they are now intimately connected by something bigger than their own lives. We all are, I know. But the proximity somehow gives them more weight. The New York context matters.

But they do, after all, press on.
They move forward, like an electrical current we know or imagine as New York.
“The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough.”

Is it enough?


The Vagrants–Join our virtual book group in March.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Katy,
    This sounds great! I’m buying it today. I need a new book.
    great to hear from you in the blogosphere!
    Rob E

    March 4, 2010
    • Rob! So great to hear from you. Definitely pick it up–and let me know what you think.

      March 4, 2010
  2. Reader 1 #

    No, it is not enough! While I absolutely loved this book (captivating story line, fantastic, fully fleshy human characters, and amazing writing style) I found it incredibly sad—and, I guess, in that sense is what makes it truly a post 9-11 novel. This is a reflective type of sadness like the sadness we feel thinking about something or someone that has been lost.

    Why do I find it sad? Well, the characters are lost, lonely and damaged—their connections to one another are ephemeral. And then comes along this amazing event that ties them all back together, gives them hope…makes them look UP. But it is not enough for these characters—the tightrope walker is a momentary ray of sunshine but you know their lives will continue to crumble the next day. Furthermore, for the reader (unlike for all but a few of the characters) we are burdened with the additional knowledge of knowing that the towers no longer exist—their destruction complete and horrific—with no chance for an amazing event like this to happen again. What really connects us any more these days (besides the Booksnob blog?!)? Our lives are likely more interconnected more than ever these days (think LinkedIN, Facebook, 24/7 news cycles) but many feel less connected, less grounded, less happy (hence the recent birth of the happiness industry). I think this was McCann’s intention to get us to think about that concept and he accomplished it with surgical precision.

    March 5, 2010
    • Thanks for your great comments! I love this take on it–as I didn’t necessarily see this at first. I did feel the sadness that the towers were now gone, but didn’t necessarily translate that to the fact that the characters’ relationships were fleeting as well. (Though young Jazz and Claire were not, right?) But I think just the depth of what you said here shows to people what a rich read it is. Many different ways to take it.

      March 5, 2010
  3. mb #

    This book is truly amazing, in no small part because of the characters you become engaged with from the very first pages. They aren’t just introduced to you in the stories of this novel, they invite you into their complicated, messy lives with all the intimacies and contradictions that come with them. Upon finishing the book you will feel like you have hunkered down in the various burroughs of New York City and spent time with old (and, yes, damaged) friends. But not enough time – I wished my stay was longer. The book is very sad, yes, filled with grief and loss and sorrow. But it left me with optimism. Why, when it was so depressing? While the characters’ stories were extraordinary, their struggles were not. Why else would the words and feelings of a mother who introduced her only daughter into prostitution and heroine resonate with me? And why did I connect so intimately with a priest who has rejected ever material and personal comfort in favor of faith since his father abandoned him as a young boy? It is because there are universal struggles we all share: grief and loss, peace and grace, faith and spirituality, finding our place, fighting our demons, making our way, intimacy and engagement. It is of comfort to me that, despite our flaws, our differences and our potential for self-absorption, we share common struggles and our lives intersect in powerful or ordinary ways. The characters of this book remind me that we all have our stories, wildly different stories, but we have an amazing opportunity to be intimately connected. This capacity for intimacy, kindness, connection is practiced in small, but meaningful ways all the time, even among those who are so imperfect as those we meet in Let the Great World Spin.

    March 5, 2010
    • I also found optimism in the stories. And if you think about–the characters all cross some boundary to be connected to someone not like them at all. (Gloria -> Claire, Corrigan -> Tillie etc.). Thanks for your thoughtful post–it reinforced what I felt, which that this book could be discussed for hours on end!

      March 5, 2010
  4. I just sat down to write about this book, because while I’m only on page 90 I’ve already fallen in love. I wanted my friends to know about this asap since it’s so amazing. It’s so fabulous that I just needed to shout from the rooftops, or at least from the blogosphere!
    While I’m still in the beginning, I think you’re right. There is something inherently New York that cannot be taken out of the novel. I especially love the way McCann describes the city as I think we tend to move so fast through our lives, we don’t look around as much as we could. I’m a relatively new “New Yorker,” but I’m no stranger to the floods of people moving so quickly through the streets and consequently, through their lives. McCann’s prose actually make on stop and look about. I love that about this book.

    May 25, 2010

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