Let the Great World Spin

I have just finished reading Colum McCann’s masterpiece for a second time.

I enjoyed it the first time and was impressed by the writing, the structure, and the capture of an historical moment in the lives of a diverse cast of characters, but for some reason it didn’t have the same emotional impact as it did on the second reading. It’s like that with books: what you bring to them as a reader varies from time to time and combines with the books themselves to create the experience.

Let the Great World Spin is a book of linked stories set in the New York of 1974 against the backdrop of Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk between the towers of the World Trade Center. If you missed that walk, you are not alone — Nixon resigned the day after it, effectively taking over the news. And, after all, it was the seventies: you might have been travelling, or in an altered space. Or not born yet.

The book is layered, with the top layer being the simple delight of McCann’s writing. In a sentence, he captures recognizable moments in the lives of his characters — so real that you could be there. The intermingled sentences describing two different experiences at the moment of the pivotal traffic accident heighten the impact of the event. The stories are about the complex lives of an Irish monk who ministers to hookers, a judge’s wife who mourns the loss of her son in Vietnam, a privileged, artsy couple who emerge from a year of seclusion and sobering up in a log cabin to take up their party lives in Manhattan again, a teenager fascinated by tagging, that specialized branch of graffiti, a group of early computer geeks in California hacking into the phone lines to talk to strangers in New York. The stories intertwine and the main ones are revisited later in the book. The structure reminded me of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, and is a comparable work of art.

From the chapter on Petit’s preparations for his walk:

      He sometimes went into the local town, along the main street, to the bar where the ranchers gathered. Hard men, they looked at him as if he were small, ineffectual, effete. The truth was that he was stronger than any of them. Sometimes a ranch hand would challenge him to an arm wrestle or a fight but he had to keep his body in tune. A torn ligament would be disaster. A separated shoulder would set him back six months. He placated them, showed them card tricks, juggled coasters. On leaving the bar he slapped their backs, pickpocketed their keys, moved their pickup trucks half a block, left the keys in the ignitions, walked home in the starlight, laughing.

Tacked inside his cabin door was a sign: NOBODY FALLS HALFWAY.

McCann has done a remarkable job of capturing a city and its people at a moment in history. The echoes of Vietnam and the extent of the racism that is still so pervasive combine with timeless themes like the love of mothers for their children. Motherhood is seen from a variety of angles. Tillie loves her daughter but eventually sends her out on “the stroll” anyway. Chillingly, she helps her daughter shoot up. Lovingly, she takes the rap for her daughter’s thieving.

There is an obsessiveness about the lives of many of these characters. Corrigan gives his life over to supporting the hookers as best he can and lives in poverty and danger — as maybe a monk should. He reminds me a little of the doomed, self-sacrificing Sebastian of Brideshead Revisited. The tagging and computer hacking segments and the analytical computer work done by Joshua, Claire’s son — and most of all, of course, the six-year training schedule of Philippe Petit in preparation for his walk — reminded me how vocations and avocations can become life-long passions and often lead to a mania for the minutiae of the craft.

The intersections between the stories are believable — McCann keeps us balanced on that edge of believability until the very last segment of the book, which ties up loose ends a little too neatly. But maybe we can allow him that.

The graphic between books is a slanted cross that inevitably resonates with lots of ideas. It is what you might have seen from the ground watching Petit’s walk: the balancing pole crossing the tightrope. It may have been suggested by the photograph by Vic DeLuca, reproduced in the book. The photograph includes an airplane that appears to be headed straight for one of the towers — an eerie foreshadowing of an unthinkable day that came two and a half decades later.

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