Let The Great World Spin
A novel by Colum McCann
Published June 2009
In 1974 Philippe Petit walked across a steel cable hung a quarter of a mile in the air. It connected the two towers of the World Trade Center. Colum McCann's new novel begins with Petit's first step on the wire, and then dives downward into the drudge-filled streets of New York in the seventies. The novel follows a diverse cast of characters that are united by coincidence, will, history and fate. McCann's novel is not only a portrait of seventies New York and it's people, but of the world today.
The attacks of September 11th 2001 have been milked of their emotional worth by artists and politicians alike and even almost eight years later when it's discussed as the basis for a work of fiction or film there is a certain tension that builds in a spine. Issues of bad taste plagued those that came right out of the gate, and now any attempt at the subject seems tired. As McCann's subject is supposed to act as a parallel to the attacks, and it thus brings about a certain level of scrutiny.
McCann's novel starts very promising as it builds the mounting tension surrounding Petit's walk. However in the following two sections, one about two Irish brothers in deterorated Brooklyn, and another about an aristocratic woman on Park Avenue there begins to build a feeling of discordance. The stories are complete in their own right, but they fail to amount to a novel. The disconnect is too large, to difficult to move from one to another. This seemingly unbridgeable gap, the "fault" is just part of the genius of McCann's novel.
As McCann guides the reader through seventies New York, he acquaints them with narrator after unexpected narrator. Footnote characters in one section inevitably end up carrying the book twenty or forty pages themselves. As the narrator's shift, the intricate web of lives McCann has woven becomes increasingly apparent until the great divide between these opening sections is little wider than the gap between cracks in the sidewalk. What seems at first to be a short-story-novel becomes interconnected short stories, and finally a novel as all the character's stories finally meld into one.
When McCann says that his characters are united by Petit's walk, he doesn't lie but he dangerously undersells his novel. In fact, only one of the narrators witnesses the walk for themselves, and it doesn't happen in the book. McCann speaks to the unity in New York post-9/11 not only by uniting the city in a single event but uniting their very lives. It's a book about humanity and history, unity and survival. It is the kind of book that can make want to believe in the world again.
Almost as impressive is what McCann achieves in the book's brilliant execution. Each narrator is powerful, and unique and none more important than another. As the lives collide, the book is stronger for already having been in a character's mind. It boarders on painful to watch the present narrator attack or watch in dramatic irony a former one. Already being aware of their thoughts and feelings, the reader can project exactly how substantially words and events weigh on them. McCann brings the readers as close as possible to a united consciousness with all the characters, and it only helps to further his goals.
This near-perfect novel is topped off with some absolutely stunning prose with pin-point specific word choice. The book is quotable on dozens of occasions, and specific lines will leave a reader reeling at their weight, craftsmanship, and exactitude.
McCann's novel is brilliant. It accomplishes so much, and it's so very wonderful. It's a shame that it took as long as it did to come out, because amidst the propaganda and zeitgeist riders it would have risen above and been so much more. In the end, it's still an outstanding achievement, and a wonderfully written book.