“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]