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[286] Let the Great World Spin – Colum McCann

“What, I wondered, were the sounds filling those rooms? It had never occurred to me before but everything in New York is built upon another thing, nothing is entirely by itself, each thing is strange as the last, and connected.” [III, 306]

In late morning of a summer day in 1974, eyes of the people in lower Manhattan were drawn to midair about a quarter mile above the ground. A stick figure against the vast expanse of the sky was running, dancing, and leaping between the twin towers on a cable. The aftermath of the stunt kicks off a series of narratives about a slew of ordinary lives that are loosely related. The snippets concerning each individual are not presented in a coherent manner in Let the Great World Spin, which makes it possible to discern the sequence of the events only upon completion of the book.

It was a torture shop for him, worrying about the world, having to deal with intricacies when what he really wanted was to be ordinary and do the simple thing. [I, 67]

The incident of the tightrope walker, Philippe Petit, loosely connects everyone. But these people are bound more powerfully by grief—how they cope with it; and how in anguish they have found comfort and redemption in one another. The tales are interwoven in a way to depict one story, on one day, in one city. The proper sequence of events begins with Petit’s appearance in the courtroom (which McCann has deferred to later part of the book) of Judge Solomon Soderberg, who, anxious to get Petit to spice up the day, has quickly dispensed with a petty larceny involving Tillie and Jazzlyn Henderson, mother and daughter hookers. Jazzlyn is acquitted, but is killed on the way home in a car accident. Her ride John Corrigan, a priest who ministers to hookers on the streets, is also killed. Surviving Corrigan is a Guatemalan nurse with whom he is in love. The hit-and-run driver, Blaine, has led a wildly careless and libertine lifestyle. His wife, Lara, feeling guilty, makes inquiry on the victims and becomes acquainted with Corrigan’s brother, Ciaran, with whom she will form an enduring relationship. At home having breakfast with a group of mothers who mourn the death of their soldier sons is Claire, the judge’s wife.

Some people think love is the end of the road, and if you’re lucky enough to find it, you stay there. Other people say it just becomes a cliff you drive off, but most people who’ve been around awhile know it’s just a thing that changes day by day, and depending on how much you fight for it, or you hold on to it, or you lose it, but sometimes it’s never even there in the first place. [III, 304]

McCann contrives to show how even the least relevant lives, at one frozen moment, in one slice of time, might overlap at the edges. As these lives coalesce, to the least of their expectation, they find not only comfort but a sense of consolation and redemption.

The thing about love is that we come alive in bodies not our own. [III, 275]

This novel has some remarkable word-smithing that gives it some essence of literature. But the occasional flowery sentence is not enough to offset that tedious inner thought process dialogue. The attempt to show the n degrees of separation that hold the city together does not hold together itself. As a result it gives the book somewhat a backward momentum. It does convey a clear theme: although many people have seen and heard about the tightrope walker, we all have different things going on in our lives.

I wonder why McCann has chosen the tightrope walker as the device to link all the individual stories. As much as the novel deals with love and loss, the choice of the twin towers, even in 1974, can’t help refresh raw memories of the more recent attack. That the playful and unforgettable act of the stunt is being carried out between two buildings that would be one day be so viciously destroyed is more than enough to haunt the readers. To my delight, the audio version seems to capture the essence of the author’s intention more effectively.

349 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]


15 Responses

  1. I’m glad you decided to give the audio version a chance! I found it added so much to my overall enjoyment of the book. I did appreciate how McCann brought all those very different lives together.

    • Why is Solomon
      eager to be the judge for Petit’s case? On page 257, at the bottom, Solomon says, “The heroes
      of the system were the judges who disposed of the most cases in the
      quickest amount of time. Open the sluice gates, let them go.”

      Is he being sincere (saying what he really means) or ironic (using a word – in this case, heroes —
      to express the opposite of its literal meaning)

  2. Thanks for the review. I’ve been wanting to read this one for a while, and it was interesting to read your thoughts on it. I’ll keep my eyes open for the audio version.

  3. I still need to read this one. I’m focusing on the Orange shortlist and Pulitzer finalists first, but I hope to get to it this summer. I’ve heard mixed reviews, but the subject of the book intrigues me.

  4. Have you seen the documentary Man on Wire? FABULOUS. One of the best documentaries I saw last year. It is hard for me to vocalize why I think this was the perfect event to grace the periphery of this story. Yes it is poignant, given what happened thirty years later. But just the audacity of someone to do such a thing! The boldness! The imagery of “up there” and “ground level”. Anyway, I’ll just shut up. YOu know how much I loved this book, how it affected me. It will most undoubtedly be one of my favorite books of the year. I suppose I should be happy I listened to it on audio, as I think that might have made all the difference!

  5. I think I will try this on audio although I do have the printed copy on my shelf at home already.

  6. I’m not sure that the tightrope walker was necessary, honestly. These individuals’ connections could have come out on their own without him.

  7. I’m really glad I read your review of this. I’ve almost bought this book several times over the past few months but was never fully convinced I would like it. I think I would enjoy the story because I tend to like stories that connect the lives of different people, but I think I’ll probably just check it out after reading your review.

  8. My review of this will be up on Tuesday — my experience in print and in audio was not as happy as yours and Sandy’s, however.

  9. I’ve heard so many good things about this book and there is such a buzz about it, I’m sorry to hear that it disappointed you. I’m not so sure anymore if this is really the must-read I thought it would be.

  10. […] mid-read query that mirrors my own ambiguous feelings about the trajectory of the book, and then a final review after he switched to the audio […]

  11. To build on what you said, I felt the flowery sentences detracted from possible strength in the actual plotting (the small bit there was…). I’d also go one step further, though, and say “skim” and “borrow”. It’s not actually that spectacular a book…

  12. I checked this one out from the library, got about 75 pages in, and had to return it. Your review points out some of my concerns, but I think it’ll be worth the read. Such buzz for this one!

  13. […] Name a case in which hype ruined your reading experience. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. I still don’t understand what’s so great about this book. It’s […]

  14. […] a slog from start to finish. The magnitude of disappointment, though, is much greater for Let the Great World Spin. Although I didn’t give it a toss like I did to Theft, it was more disappointing because I […]

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