Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin (Random House, 2009) used Phillippe Petit’s tightrope walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center as the novel’s central metaphor, an image of glorious achievement twenty-five years earlier as a redemptive symbol for a contemporary tragedy. The tightrope itself is a metaphor for the novel’s structure. Many characters from forgotten corners of the city move on and off stage, as the narrative moves back and forth in time to collect their stories and weave them together until Petit is atop the tightrope.
The novel won the National Book Award that year, but before the win, reviews were mixed. The New York Times review by Jonathan Mahler called it “one of the most electric, profound novels I have read in years.” He goes on:
“The circle (of individual characters’ stories) continues to widen, six-degrees-of-separation-style, with the players growing ever more diverse…. “It had never occurred to me before,” one character says, “but everything in New York is built upon another thing, nothing is entirely by itself, each thing as strange as the last, and connected.
Like a great pitcher in his prime, McCann is constantly changing speeds, adopting different voices, tones and narrative styles as he shifts between story lines…It is a mark of the novel’s soaring and largely fulfilled ambition that McCann just keeps rolling out new people, deftly linking each to the next, as his story moves toward its surprising and deeply affecting conclusion.
In a loose sense, what connects everyone in this novel is the high-wire walker; the day of his stunt is a pivotal one in all of their lives. But they are bound more powerfully by something else: grief. “Let the Great World Spin” is an emotional tour de force. It is a heartbreaking book, but not a depressing one. Through their anguish, McCann’s characters manage to find comfort, even a kind of redemption.”
Mike Peed in the Washington Post saw it differently:
“McCann can craft penetrating phrases — a smoker resembles “his last cigarette, ashen and ready to fall” — but his theme is stale, and the exhaustive back stories he gives each character never pay off. McCann relies on streams of short sentences that can seem lazy and distracted. “Pureness moving” describes a break-dancer 140 pages before the exact phrase is used again to describe Petit. Perhaps the repetition is deliberate, but, either way, the line doesn’t land a punch. By book’s end, McCann is writing of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, the width of his canvas enhancing neither the plot nor our concern for it.”
I remember the jolting experience of reading the book: falling into long, twisting, beautiful sentences and pulled along by the short urgent ones; dipping in and out of so many lives and characters, joys and losses. It was a full, complete reading experience. McCann pulled off an ambitious goal that would trip most writers: repeatedly interrupting the narrative , and characters whose stories the reader just started to enter when the story shifted to someone else’s. In McCann’s hands, however, the stunning language and the pure white heat of the emotional through-line helped drive the narrative momentum. And by the novel’s end, an intoxicated appreciation of how all the story strands flew together.
Also worth mentioning is the difficulty of taking on such loaded material. It takes a writer of exquisite control to avoid being overwhelmed by subject matter like 9/11, a national tragedy that altered the course of world history and left a nation reeling in anger and grief. Lack of control often shows up in small, reactive character dwarfed by their context, who cannot react in emotionally recognizable ways to each other or the world around them, or in gratuitous descriptions of something the reader already knows and distracts from the story itself. And by taking on 9/11 in this more indirect way, opening up lives lived long before those events but that we cannot now think about except through the lens of that one event, McCann made its impact more deeply felt.
It seemed apt to think of the success of this novel having just finished McCann’s forthcoming Transatlantic (Random House hardcover, $27, June 4, 2013) which adopts a similar structure and writing style to tell the stories set in motion when two young World War I airmen trying to leave behind the memories of their recent horrors make the first transatlantic flight. I wondered if McCann could do it again or if it would seem too familiar, a ploy.
And that is a post for another day.