He believed in walking beautifully, elegantly. It had to work as a kind of faith that he would get to the other side. He had fallen only once while training – once exactly, so he felt it couldn’t happen again, it was beyond possibility. A single flaw was necessary anyway. In any work of beauty there had to be one small thread left hanging. - from Let the Great World Spin, page 160 -
On August 7, 1974 Philippe Petit – a 24 year old daredevil - walked a tightrope wire strung between the twin towers 1350 feet above New York City. His feat stunned New Yorkers who marveled at the ease at which he traversed the wire – not once, but seven or eight times – before handing himself over to police. It is this event which opens Colum McCann’s novel Let the Great World Spin – a novel less about New York City and more about the connections between people and how life continues forward despite unfathomable loss.
Let the Great World Spin introduces nearly a dozen characters to the reader who at first seem unconnected. But as McCann allows them to tell their stories in alternating chapters, the synchronicity of their lives begins to unfold. At first it seems they are only related to each other through the feat of the tightrope walker – it is only by reading through to the end of the novel that the reader recognizes their connections on a deeper level.
It had never occurred to me before but everything in New York is built upon another thing, nothing is entirely by itself, each thing as strange as the last, and connected. – from Let the Great World Spin, page 306 -
John Corrigan is a spiritual man who immigrates to America. He finds himself living in the Bronx among the prostitutes and pimps, the crime and the poverty. He is a gentle man who is searching for a greater meaning. His character represents the quest for the simple things in our lives which bring comfort and beauty – the yearning for light in the darkness.
What Corrigan wanted was a fully believable God, one you could find in the grime of the everyday. The comfort he got from the hard, cold truth – the filth, the war, the poverty – was that life could be capable of small beauties. He wasn’t interested in the glorious tales of the afterlife or the notions of a honey-soaked heaven. To him that was a dressing room for hell. Rather he consoled himself with the fact that, in the real world, when he looked closely into the darkness he might find the presence of a light, damaged and bruised, but a little light all the same. – from Let the Great World Spin, page 20 -
Throughout the novel, the reader is reminded of the darkness in the world – the wars, addiction, crime. A judge finds himself cynical and overwhelmed despite his desire to make a positive difference in the world. A group of women meet each week to share the stories of their sons who have died in the Vietnam War. A prostitute examines her life from behind the bars of a prison cell.
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. - from Let the Great World Spin, page 247 -
My big tall boy, shaving. Long ago, long ago. 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. – from Let the Great World Spin, page 81 -
Yet, McCann does not leave his readers in the darkness. The novel is also full of hope and that little bit of light which Corrigan seeks. At its heart, Let the Great World Spin is about moving forward despite the flaws in our world, overcoming our losses, and leaning on each other.
It was America, after all. The sort of place where you should be allowed to walk as high as you wanted. – from Let the Great World Spin, page 262 -
When the twin towers fell on September 11, 2001 New York gasped, mourned, hugged each other closer, and then kept on going. That resoluteness in the face of unspeakable tragedy is mirrored in McCann’s book. The prose is rich, the characters infused with grace and courage, and I found myself drinking in the story, letting it wash over me.
McCann’s novel also takes a look at a pivotal point in American history – the final year of the Vietnam War, a war which took a huge toll on young lives, and forced us to look deeply at what brings us into conflict and the cost of such decisions. Decades later, it seems we are still learning the same lessons, and so it seems fitting that the final pages of Let the Great World Spin take place in 2002, as America totters on the cusp of yet another controversial war.
Colum McCann won the 2009 National Book Award for Let the Great World Spin – and it is easy to see why. This is a complex novel peopled with unforgettable characters.
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