Thursday, March 24, 2011
Just Read :: Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann
"Those who saw him hushed."
The novel opens with a snapshot of New York, stunned and silent at the sight of Philippe Petit walking a tightrope between the towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. McCann then proceeds to take us through what ultimately feels a heady race through the lives of characters whose fates will all cross before the close of the novel. Ciaran narrates the story of his borther, John Corrigan, a Jesuit priest, struggling with his faith and trying to give a refuge to prostitutes in the projects of the South Bronx. Fernando Y. Marcano dreams of being a photographer but for now tags subway walls with spraypaint in places no one can see. Claire lives on the Upper East Side, embarrassed by her wealth and grieving for her son killed in Vietnam. Lara and Blaine are artists, married, leaving the city after a night-long drug binge for their 1920s lifestyle in upstate New York. Gereth, Compton, Dennis, and Sam are in California, writing computer code and prank calling pay phones in New York; they hear the narration of the tightrope walk from two bystanders.
These narrations are only half the book. It's a little dizzying, but keep reading, because it comes together, and McCann knows how to throw in a sharp phrase and terse dialogue. In a scene set in a hospital, we read "A pair of oddly frightened eyes, looking way beyond the camera. 'And the girl?" (137). These phrases and structures catch you and make you see the narrator's world. McCann briefly narrates Petit's preparation and walk in between sections, imagining the strength and discipline it took to accomplish the sensational feat.
The overall reviews of Let the Great World Spin are positive. Some challenge that he employs stock characters. The fallen priest, the tragic woman of the street, the hipster artist, and the self-conscious socialite wife are all common figures. But in a novel of this scope, with this great a cast, stock characters not only work, but become necessary--and a case can be made that McCann's characters are thoroughly developed enough to be much more than stock. I can't tell you if you will love them or hate them. I often faltered between the two myself, which is why I feel that they were real and multidimensional. Regardless of your take on the extent of cliche characters in this novel, they will make you feel. McCann is not afraid of grit or melodrama, and employs them both. The language is sometimes strong, not so much in the sailor's-mouth sense, but in that it is hard and solid and occasionally grotesque. I read this book quickly but not lightly.
McCann, along with nearly ever reviewer, acknowledges that it is impossible to read this novel without thinking of the ultimate fate of the World Trade Center nearly ten years ago (can you believe how long it's been?), and I must agree. It doesn't cloud your thoughts constantly, perhaps, but it continually shades the narrative, which itself seems to be spinning towards imminent disaster. What McCann does, however, is bring up a touch of life from the disasters that strike, and the narrative does not end in utter defeat, but instead reaffirms that life will keep moving, always.
Ultimately, I have to recommend it. It makes you feel and pause. The heady and hurried narrative and the constant crossings and additions of characters all form a living New York, 1974, and make you feel that no matter where you are, even a small town in the midsouth, the world and peoples' lives are constantly going on and perpetually intertwined.
if you are looking for the book, it can be purchased online through Better World Books here, or you can check your local library. if you choose to purchase it in a bookstore, i recommend finding a local store and supporting them. they can often order a book they don't have in stock for a discount. if you are in louisville, please visit a reader's corner in st. matthews. they are wonderful and i spend obscene amounts of money there when i have it. usually, they can give you at least 10% off any new books, and their used copies are often less than half price.