I approached Let The Great World Spin with considerable trepidation. The tragedy of 9/11 and the destruction of the World Trade Center towers has led a number of very good writers (John Updike and Don Delillo come to mind) to write books that I found to be sorely wanting, to the point of being better left unpublished. There has also been what I would call a WTC “echo” phenomenon — works that feature the 1974 tightrope walk between the towers by Philippe Petit. For example, Man on Wire, a documentary based on Petit’s 2002 book, To Reach The Clouds, won this year’s Academy Award for documentary, after winning several festival prizes.
(EDIT, Oct. 14 — Let The Great World Spin was named to the National Book Awards fiction shortlist today. It is a worthy contender — and the only finalist that has been reviewed on this blog. Nov. 18 — And today it won the prize, a minor surprise. It is a good book.)
Colum McCann’s novel opens as that tightrope walk is taking place. Born in Dublin, McCann lives in New York and my fear was that yet another New York-based author felt it was necessary to use the World Trade Center image to justify his presence there. I am most happy to report that that is not the case — Let The Great World Spin is about New York, but it is an extension of the tradition of novels about that city that extends from Edith Wharton (reviewed here) through Steven Millhauser (reviewed here) to Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy. Just as Petit used a balancing pole while performing stunts on the wire, McCann uses that event as a pole around which he winds a number of stories that are happening on the ground in 1970s New York — and ends up producing a valuable addition to the list of fine novels that have been written about the city.
The most prominent story thread of the novel is narrated by Ciaran Corrigan, the older of two brothers born in Dublin. His younger sibling, known as simply Corrigan for most of the book, has developed a notion of God by the end of his teenage years:
What Corrigan wanted was a fully believable God, one you could find in the grime of 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. He wanted, quite simply, for the world to be a better place, and he was in the habit of hoping for it. Out of that came some sort of triumph that went beyond theological proof, a cause for optimism againt all the evidence.
“Someday the meek might actually want it,” he said.
Corrigan eventually enrols in a semi-monastic order of similar independent, undisciplined souls. He takes himself to New York, with a fifth floor apartment in a broken-down tenement block near the hooker stroll under the Major Deegan expressway. It is the stroll for the too-old, too-damaged prostitutes who once worked Park Avenue. The “small beauties” that Corrigan brings to his client population are a place to pee (and freshen make-up, but definitely no shooting up) and occasional deliveries of pastries to them on the work-site, for which he is periodically ritually beaten up by their pimps. Ciaran searches for his brother, finds him and becomes a reluctant partner in this life work.
The central character in the second most prominent narrative stream is Claire Soderberg, wife of Solomon, a State Supreme Court judge, who lives on the upper floor (she doesn’t like to call it the penthouse) of a central Park Avenue apartment. Claire’s problem, besides being guilted by the luxury of her life, is the loss of her son Joshua in Vietnam. Joshua wasn’t even in the U.S. armed forces, he was a computer geek developing a program that would produce an accurate total of the American dead for the President and cabinet when he got blown up in a Saigon cafe. Claire has found an ad in The Village Voice for a support group of mothers who have lost sons. Needless to say, the other four mothers are much poorer than Claire — since they meet at each others homes (to inspect the room of the departed child) she is anxious about displaying her affluence when it is her turn, which just happens to be on the day that Petit performs his walk.
There are other streams and McCann develops amplifications and improvisations on all of them, including worthwhile development of characters too numerous to mention. Poverty, race, war, exploitation, authority, anti-Semitism — all are in the book, but none are central. It is a survey of what this world of New York in 1974 looked and felt like, not a judgment about any of its particular flaws.
All of this is contrasted periodically with brief snippets from Petit’s preparation for his daring moment and the minutes of that act itself. (For those who were around at the time, it is hard not to contrast it with Andy Warhol’s “fifteen minutes of fame” — Petit seems to have outdone all of Warhol’s proteges.) The symbolism of escaping that miserable, dreary world, if only for minutes, to soar above it, literally on a tightrope, may be obvious, but McCann does not push it too far. It also creates the scenario the author needs to tie all of his various streams together as the book draws to a close — perhaps a little too tidily, but I was willing to grant him the licence. All the while, the great world spins on.
For anyone who has read Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn (reviewed here) and appreciated the way that he captures the New York of the early 1950s (and he does), it is almost impossible to believe that Let The Great World Spin is set only a little over 20 years later. An incredible amount of change took place in those two decades, not just in New York — sometimes it takes good fiction to remind us just how much.
As might be guessed, I am a fan of novels about “the City” — perhaps because so many excellent writers have chosen it as a venue. I wouldn’t argue that this is the best of those novels, but, as I said at the start of this review, it is a valuable addition to the shelf.
(While Let The Great World Spin has been released in North America, it is not scheduled for UK release until Sept. 7. Assuming McCann has retained his Irish citizenship, that would make it Man Booker eligible this year. While I think it rates longlist consideration based on quality, I suspect the New York focus will keep it off the list — in some ways, it may turn out to be 2009’s version of Natherland.)