Friday, December 31, 2010

Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann

Let The Great World Spin
by Colum McCann

Though briefly distracted by an Atheist Christmas, I am so glad I spent the last week of 2010 immersed in Colum McCann’s Let The Great World Spin. Ever since the book popped up on one of Powell’s Daily Dose emails, late 2009, it sat on top of my ‘To Read’ list. Unfortunately, my ‘To Read’ list is often the ‘Books I Mean to Buy and I Swear I’ll Do It When I Have the Cash’ list as well. And the list continues to grow. Luckily, Random House was kind enough to send it to me a few months ago. Full Disclosure: This book reviewing gig can be pretty fantastic sometimes.

But back to my original point — This book is well worth the time, cover price, and its National Book Award. Circling around Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the World Trade Center towers, McCann weaves together the fragile connections between eleven New Yorkers. It is both a story of its time and a thoughtful 9/11 allegory in which grief, passion, and observance are at the root of every character.

The watchers below pulled in their breath all at once. The air felt suddenly shared. The man above was a word they seemed to know, though they had not heard it before.

Out he went.

Sticky and warm, all of New York feels real — the hookers’ swimsuits, the blisters inside too-big shoes, the crunch of metal, and the shouts within the boroughs. And though I don’t quite know how to summarize the connections between all eleven characters, each voice remains its own. Corrigan, the conflicted Catholic monk, sounds different from his brother Ciaran. Fernando the fourteen-year-old photographer, landscape artist Lara, mourning mother Claire, her downtown judge husband, mother and daughter prostitutes Tillie and Jazzlyn — how do I accurately provide a picture of their lives without revealing too much?

Freedom was a word everyone mentioned but none of us knew. There wasn’t much left for anyone to die for, except the right to remain peculiar.

McCann never identifies Philippe Petit by name, but he does take some fictional liberties in establishing his inner monologue. We see his thoughts before stepping out onto the wire, we see him feeling the air while training in Montana, and we know his peace when his feat has finished.

They were crowding him, shouting for his name, for his reasons, for his autograph. He stayed still, looking upward, wondering how the onlookers had seen it: what line of sky had been interrupted for them. A journalist in a flat white hat shouted, “Why?” But the word didn’t come into it for him. He didn’t like the idea of why. The towers were there. That was enough.

Though I spent just one afternoon in New York in 1994, I still feel the pang of possibility whenever I see photos of the towers. We stood on that roof, my family and I, and I took a photo of my parents with the Empire State building in the background. A helicopter flew below us, and the wind flexed the antenna atop the other tower. We stared out to the Statue of Liberty, to Ellis Island, and then we returned to the ground. One of my parents’ friends, from New Jersey, stood waiting for us. She wouldn’t go up, she said. Not after the bombings. Sometimes I wonder if there was anyone on the roof when the planes hit. It seems so small, to think about myself when there were so many thousands affected more directly, but absence affects us all differently. The towers are gone. My dad is gone. There is a hole in the ground and a hole in my life, and what is there to say? Every day, someone is mourning the event that left them utterly gobsmacked.

She takes another long haul, lets the smoke settle in her lungs — she has heard somewhere that cigarettes are good for grief. One long drag and you forget how to cry. The body too busy dealing with the poison. No wonder they gave them out free to the soldiers. Lucky Strikes.

I read a lot of great books this year, but only a few did I know I would love from the first page, more than one set in New York City. Maybe at times sulking naysayers like to disparage the “New York Novel,” claiming that it’s all been done before, but I don’t know how anyone could reasonably believe that. In the United States’ most populous city, how could you possibly think that every story has been told? When the world is filled with short story collections depicting the most microscopic of events in two-bar towns, how is the expanse of five boroughs and 8.4 million people “overrated?” How is it any less real?

If anything, Let The Great World Spin is an antidote to that kind of contrary thinking. Whether or not we know it consciously, we are all connected. We share the same air — spouses, subway riders, café frequenters, best friends, and drunks — and somewhere there is a common thread. For as big as the world is, sometimes it doesn’t take much bring us together.

Read this book.

And Happy New Year.

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