Colum McCann – Let The Great World Spin

Posted on | July 10, 2011 | 7 Comments

Let The Great World Spin New York, 1974. The magnificent twin towers are unveiled to the world, and the consensus is that they are ugly compared to the splendid sky-scrapers that grace the New York skyline (the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, Rockefeller Centre etc). But, a marvelous feat from an athlete, Philippe Petit, almost changes the perception. Petit walked across a tightrope between the towers – he danced, he entertained, he wowed, and he enjoyed himself thoroughly, as the New Yorkers below looked up in awe, wondering if the man dancing with the clouds was suicidal, crazy, or if he had some perfectly legitimate reason to be doing what he was. After all, it’s not often, you see someone dancing with the clouds.

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.

In McCann’s award-winning Let The Great World Spin, on the day Petit takes on the skyline, lives of various New Yorkers intersect. Almost a six-degrees-of-separation kind-of premise, the chapters tell the stories – some in first person, some in third person – of these New Yorkers. Amidst other things, love and loss bring them together. Some live in South Bronx, others in Park Avenue; some are prostitutes, others judges; some have lost one son to the ‘Nam war, some three; some are escaping their drug-addled past only to confront yet another battle, and some are looking for a new future. But – the nameless figure in the sky (in McCann’s book, Petit remains an un-named person; his performance a mere backdrop.), and grief bring them together.

The simple things come back to us. They rest for a moment by our ribcages then suddenly reach in and twist our hearts a notch backward.

The book starts slowly with an introduction to two Irish brothers, who have immigrated to New York as adults – Corrigan, a radical monk living amidst the prostitutes and pimps in the Bronx, and Ciaran, aimlessly trying to find his place in life. The next chapter cuts to Claire, living in Park Avenue, mourning the loss of her son in Vietnam. A group of other mothers who lost their sons will be arriving at her penthouse apartment later in the day, so as to find comfort in each other… but, when people come from totally different walks of life, there is more that divides them than what brings them closer. And then there’s the next story: an artist in her twenties, with a history of drug abuse (now cleaned up), is in the passenger seat during a fatal hit-and-run accident – an incident that is bound to ensure that her life will change forever. And then – then we go back to the beginning, where Tillie, a thirty-eight year old prostitute recounts her life’s story, while at court: slightly hackneyed, quite unsurprising, marginally apologetic. Jazz, her daughter, is a prostitute as well, and while Tillie doesn’t make any excuses, there is a tinge of contriteness to her recap. All this against the historical event of the man on the wire.

It was America, after all. The sort of place where you should be allowed to walk as high as you wanted.

The emotional aspect of this book is what makes it so riveting. Claire’s hesitance and tentativeness, Ciaran being overtly protective of his magnanimous brother, Tillie’s raw honesty… how different people cope with grief, and how they try to fathom the crazy world around them. It’s a novel of massive scope, heartbreaking but not depressing… hinting that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and eventually, hope is not in vain.
The diversity of characters is incredible, and one can’t help but cheer on all the primary characters, although… some of the backup characters (including some of the mothers in Claire’s support group) – the less said, the better. It’s so real, so… non-fictional. The irony, of course, is, the one event that seems fictional (i.e. the grand walk across the towers) is what is non-fictional.

In the wake of 9/11, the significance of this walk seems so much greater. Everyone stood up and took notice of this marvelous feat, and in spite of all the grief in the world, on that fateful day, Petit’s act was what was on everyone’s mind, and they all came together to witness that… and then there was 9/11, which, for completely different reasons, brought the city together again, and showed just how resilient, brave, strong and heroic the people are – in spite of the horrors that life brings in its wake.

Erin @ ErinReads has scheduled this as her Reading Buddies read for the month of July. Pop over to see more thoughts and discussions on this book, for I really don’t think my post has done an incredible book much justice.


7 Responses to “Colum McCann – Let The Great World Spin”

  1. carolinareads
    July 11th, 2011 @ 5:59 pm

    Great read. This characters sound amazing, especially for me because I’ve a thing for somewhat troubled characters.

  2. Stephanie
    July 12th, 2011 @ 4:12 am

    I have never seen this particular cover before. I am excited to read this one!

  3. JoAnn
    July 12th, 2011 @ 4:25 am

    This is such a great book! I had the most amazing experience listening in the car (one of my all-time favorite audios) then reading at home in the evening. Can’t wait to check out the other posts.

  4. Alex (The Sleepless Reader)
    July 12th, 2011 @ 1:39 pm

    Have you see the documentary about the stunt? It’s really REALLY good. It’s called Man On Wire. If I’m not mistaken it won the Oscar for best documentary a couple of years ago.

  5. K @ BaffledBooks
    July 13th, 2011 @ 12:37 am

    Wow, that book sounds really good. Good Review!

  6. Joanna
    July 18th, 2011 @ 10:45 am

    I’m trying to read several books about New York this year and this one’s next. It’s an amazing story and, as you say, one with a lot more impact and emotion to it in our post-911 world.

  7. Natalie ~ the Coffee and a Book Chick
    July 19th, 2011 @ 10:48 pm

    This sounds incredible! I will definitely put this on the list. How unique of a storyline to intersect these random New Yorkers living life and put the World Trade Towers as a primary setting and event!

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