Let the Great World Spin: Seriously Good Stuff.
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 McCann. I 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.
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?
GET ON THE SAME PAGE, DARN IT!
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