Review: Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

Petit

“… even though the book takes place primarily in 1974 – so much of it began for me very shortly after 9/11. I had read Paul Auster’s collection of essays The Red Notebook, where he wrote about Philippe Petit scribbling his name across the sky between the World Trade Centre towers. Then – when the towers came down in 2001 – the tightrope walk popped out of my memory, one of those eureka moments, and I thought, What a spectacular act of creation, to have a man walking in the sky, as opposed to the act of evil and destruction of the towers disintegrating. I certainly wasn’t alone in this. It was almost part of a collective historical memory. The same image ran true for a number of people, not least of course Philippe Petit himself. And I wanted to write a song of my adopted city as well, and maybe to confront some things that were on my mind about issues of faith and recovery and belonging.”

– Colum McCann,
from an interview conducted by Bret Anthony Johnston.

I’d been hearing about Colum McCann for a while but hadn’t read any of his novels. Then, at a friend’s house, I saw a copy of Let the Great World Spin, winner of the 2009 National Book Award for fiction.  I asked my friend if I could borrow it. He’s one of my few male friends who has as much love for fiction as I do and probably reads even more than I. He has given me many books over the years, though sometimes his tastes run ahead of my own into the works of writers I find rather difficult and opaque, like Boltano.

I started reading Let the Great World Spin as soon as I got home. I didn’t devour it the way I once read novels as compelling as this one. I don’t know whether to blame my changing reading habits on the internet or on old age, but I don’t seem to be able to read for hours at a time as I used to. There were even some days when I didn’t pick the book up, though I never went very long without thinking about it.

The book’s central image is the 1974 walk by funambulist Philippe Petit on a cable suspended between the top floors of the World Trade Center towers.  He used no harnesses, nets or safety gear of any sort. He and his support team went to great lengths to get themselves through the building’s security, rig the cable (an archer was involved) and remain in the building until the following dawn when Petit began walking. His walk was, by all accounts, flawless, elegant, breathtaking. It excited the imagination of thousands – perhaps millions – of New Yorkers who stopped, wherever they were, and watched a man walking in the air a quarter-mile above.

McCann begins the book with a three page prologue describing the walk and returns to it several times later, either directly or through the peripheral vision of the several characters who all witness it. McCann never names Petit,  a choice that reinforces the walker’s distance from the other characters whose lives we come to know intimately. Yet, McCann’s funambulist is intensely corporeal, never an abstraction, a symbol, or a literary device. Here’s how McCann gives us the beginning of the walk:

One foot on the wire – his better foot, the balancing foot. First he slid his toes, then his sole, then his heel. The cable nestled between his big and second toes for grip. His slippers were thin, the soles made of buffalo hide… He played out the aluminum pole along his hands. The coolness rolled across his palm. The pole was fifty-five pounds, half the weight of a woman. She moved on his skin like water…

His body loosened and took on the shape of the wind. The play of the shoulder could instruct the ankle. His throat could soothe his heel and moisten the ligaments at his ankle. A touch of the tongue against the teeth could relax the thigh. His elbow could brother his knee. If he tightened his neck he could feel it correcting in his hip. At his center he never moved. He thought of his stomach as a bowl of water. If he got it wrong, the bowl would right itself. 

He felt for the curve of the cable with the arch and then sole of his foot. A second step and a third. He went out beyond the first guy lines, all of him in synch.

petit 2Within seconds he was pureness moving, and he could do anything he liked. He was inside and outside his body at the same time, indulging in what it meant to belong to the air, no future, no past, and this gave him the offhand vaunt to his walk. He was carrying his life from one side to the other. On the lookout for the moment when he wasn’t even aware of his breath.

The core reason for it all was beauty. Walking was a divine delight. Everything was rewritten when he was up in the air. New things were possible with the human form. It went beyond equilibrium.

He felt for a moment uncreated. Another kind of awake.

All the characters are struggling to awaken or to resist awakening. We meet the first  two characters as young boys being raised by a single, devoted mother in Dublin: John Corrigan, called simply Corrigan or Corrie, already in a constant dialogue with God, and his brother, Ciaran, who tells their story.  Corrigan becomes a radical Catholic monk and ends up in the Bronx, ministering to a group of African-American prostitutes who are on “the stroll” beneath the Major Deegan Expressway, across from his housing project. Missing his brother, Ciaran follows him to New York where Corrigan has become a sort of patron saint to the hookers, giving them round the clock use of his apartment for showers and self-care.  Corrigan, in spite of his vows, has fallen in love with a Columbian woman with whom he works at a nursing home. Later, in a section written in her voice, we experience that all-encompassing love from within the relationship, revealing everything that Ciaran struggles to understand about his brother.

Throughout the book, the narrative is handed off from character to character as McCann’s layered edifice gains depth and power.  Corrigan and Jazzlyn, an eighteen year old hooker he watches over, will not live past the first section of the novel. Yet, like the twin towers themselves, the space they occupied continues to shadow the rest of the book.

The other characters, whether they understand it or not, are affected by them. But to simply enumerate these connections does McCann’s talent a disservice. The book is in no way schematic. The relationships between characters are unforced and asymmetrical; as messy as life.

“Then came the moment when I thought that I could go backwards in time to talk about the present: that’s when the tightrope walk came in. And the deeper I got into the novel the more I began to see that it was, hopefully, about an act of recovery. Because the book comes down to a very anonymous moment in the Bronx when two little kids are coming out of a very rough housing project, about to be taken away by the state, and they get rescued by an act of grace. That’s it, not much maybe, but everything to me. And there’s hardly a line in the novel about 9/11, but it’s everywhere if the reader wants it to be. I trust my readers. They will get from a book what they want. It can be read in many different ways. In this sense I hope it works on an open poetic level: make of this child what you will.”

– Colum McCann,
from an interview conducted by Bret Anthony Johnston.

It’s worth noting that three of the most important characters are black women. Two of them narrate their respective sections of the book.  First, there’s Tillie, , the daughter and mother of prostitutes, a heroin addict, and, thanks to an eccentric Middle-Eastern client in her early days as a high-priced uptown call girl,  a reader of Rumi. Her daughter is the eighteen year old Jazzlyn, already a mother herself. Tillie narrates a long chapter from jail on Riker’s Island after Jazzlyn and Corrigan’s death. I’ve not been able to shake a certain discomfort with this section of the book. Interestingly, I had no discomfort at all with the chapter voiced by Gloria, an educated black woman from Missouri who is a neighbor of Corrigan’s and plays an important role in the second half of the novel. I was able to accept Gloria as a unique human who happened to be African-American, who was shaped, as we all are, by her experiences, and yet, like all of us, could not be reduced to her socio-ethno-economic profile.  So my discomfort isn’t merely a response to a white author writing in the voice of a non-white character.  After a lot of reflection, I’ve come to see my discomfort with Tillie as a sign of McCann’s uncompromising integrity. To follow McCann into Tillie’s world of sexual slavery, addiction and violence should not be comfortable.  Tillie can’t forgive herself for not preventing her daughter from becoming exactly what she once was, a heroin addicted, teen-age mother who sells her body. Though McCann never lets us lose sight of Tillie’s boundless love for her daughter and granddaughters, her internalized self-hatred remains devastating. For it to be anything less, would be false and sentimental.

As uncompromisingly bleak as Tillie’s chapter is, the book as a whole is anything but depressing. It fully earns its vision of reconciliation and recovery. Perhaps stories of descent, purgation and redemption are part of McCann’s Catholic spiritual and literary DNA. Dante’s spirit hovers nearby. We recognize that most of the characters are terribly lost in a “selva oscura,” Dante’s “dark wood,” and we can’t help but think of angels when McCann tells us about the man walking in the air. But in McCann’s cosmology, guilt and punishment are not imposed by a judging God. They’re part of the human story. I don’t think one has to be a believer to see the world humans have made as a fallen world, whether one bases that sense on the hundred years’ war, the ubiquity of slavery through most of our history, the holocaust or 9/11.

McCann has Ciaran describe Corrigan’s “theology” on the twentieth page of the book:

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 that 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 against all the evidence.

Without minimizing the unbearable suffering we create for each other and for ourselves, McCann has the courage to celebrate the love we are equally capable of giving. Though it may, indeed, transcend our understanding, in this author’s uncommonly generous view, it’s as much a part of us as our breath.

Colum McCann

Colum McCann

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