Colum McCann: Let the Great World Spin

New York Times has started a new book club – the Big City Book Club. Ginia Bellafonte is in charge and every six weeks or so, she decides which book to read and then people can comment on her blog. All the books chosen will be about New York City in some way or other. The first book chosen was Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin and since I’ve been wanting to read this for a while, I jumped on the bandwagon and read it – and loved it. The next book club will be on October 18 – the book as the second read is Helen Schulman This Beautiful Life – another novel I’ve been looking forward to.

Colum McCann: Let the Great World Spin (Random House, 2009).

Sometimes something happen that brings a lot of people together. Things happen that we will always remember. We will ask each other where where you when … and we all know and remember. This book takes place in NYC and of course, if you talk about an event that has brought NYC together, you immediately think about 9-11. But this book is not about 9-11 – well, not explicitly at least. Even though it’s written after 2001 and even though it involves the Twin Towers, this is not about their destruction but rather a celebration of the towers. A reminder of that these towers stood and they inspired greatness.
The one event that connects a lot of these people one way or another is a guy walking on a tightrope between the towers. In 1974, Philippe Petit walked on a wire between the two still unfinished towers for 45 minutes. This event is the starting point for McCann’s novel.
“He had made himself into a statue, but a perfect New York one, a temporary one, up in the air, high above the city. A statue that had no regard for the past. He had gone to the World Trade Center and had strung his rope across the biggest towers in the world. The Twin Towers. Of all places. So brash. So glassy. So forward-looking.”
For me, this is a masterpiece. I so enjoyed reading this book. Each chapter focus on a new character and slowly, the characters connect with each other and with the tightrope walk in more and more ways. I was so intrigued by this idea of how people exist side by side in a city but is drawn into each other’s lives in so many different ways, sometimes connected by daily occurrences and at other times connected by something extraordinary. “One of those out-of-the-ordinary days that made sense of the slew of ordinary days. New York had a way of going that. 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.” (at 69 %).
This is a story of two Irish brothers, one of whom (Corrigan) is a kind of priest, who is helping out a group of hookers. Chief among the hookers are Tillie and her daughter Jazzlyn. It’s about Claire and Gloria and the rest of their group of mothers who meet to talk about the sons they lost in Vietnam. It’s about a artist couple, trying to recreate NYC in the 20s. It’s a group of hackers, it’s a graffiti fan. It’s a judge. After Corrigan and Jazzlyn is in an accident, the scope of the novel slowly unfolds and more and more people are involved and connected.
It’s hard to detail what it’s about since it’s about the lives of a lot of very different people but the beauty of it all is that these people are connected and connecting in many different ways as their lives unfold. It offers a glimpse of all the lives coming together and then separating again, because of one event. And the tightrope walker becomes a catalyst while at the same time being just one life among many. But still, this is not entirely true because not all stories are connected to other stories or even to the tightrope walker.
It’s about lives in a city. One summer in NYC in 1974 – and then with a epilogue in 2006 – people’s lives were touched by this one man’s feat.
I felt for a lot of these people, not the least for Claire who has lost a son in Vietnam. And I was constantly thrilled with the way it’s written. The author uses repetitions, not only in the stories where you see the same thing from different points of view but also to emphasize certain points. He also changes his writing style to accommodate some of the characters very different way of speaking and thinking – for instance Tillie.
But even though this is not a 9-11 novel per se, it still mentions 9-11 – and in a very beautiful way: “A man high in the air while a plane disappears, it seems, into the edge of the building. One small scrap of history meeting a larger one. As if the walking man were somehow anticipating what would come later. The intrusion of time and history. The collision point of stories. We wait for the explosion but it never occurs. The plane passes, the tightrope walker gets to the end of the wire. Things don’t fall apart.”.
This is exactly what this book is about – points, where stories collide. Points where lives collide. And it’s magical even though the stories are so real, so painful. Not many happy endings here. But the books ends on a happy note still and it left me feeling sorry that it was over but happy that I had read it.
This is a story of how one man’s obsession, one man’s feeling that when you put up two towers like these, he just had to put a line between them and walk it, one man’s dream can unite a city and like a stone thrown in water, create circles that grow and grow and touch more and more.

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