Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann

This 2009 novel, winner of the National Book Award, was chosen by my book club for this month’s selection. The story follows a number of characters, each narrating his or her section of the book, all linked by the day that Philippe Petit (unnamed here) made his famous walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center. It was more than a walk; it was a dance, a gloriously daring and joyful performance, captured in the film Man on Wire which I highly recommend.

Although the book is truly a portrait of New York City, the first narrator is an Irishman, Ciaran, describing his childhood and his younger brother, Corrigan, whose idea of helping Dublin’s bums is to find common cause by getting plastered with them, an idea which seems likely to lead him either to the priesthood or the gutter. Eventually Ciaran follows his brother across the ocean to South Bronx where he finds Corrigan ministering to prostitutes. Other sections are narrated by a nurse, a photographer, a Park Avenue housewife, a single Black mother, a prostitute, a judge, among others. Most of their stories interconnect, some only glancingly, but all circle back to the day the man walked the wire.

Their stories are of grief and loss, inevitably, I suppose, since these are the dramatic moments of our lives, the moments when we feel most cut off from others. Yet, in this cross-section of the city at a particular moment of time, McCann gives us moments of redemption, though they are not easy, and of connection.

The reactions of my book club were mixed. Some people liked the book a lot, feeling that it represented the New York that they knew, saying that the book may be messy and uneven but you could say that about the city as well. Others found the book boring and the characters flat and their voices indistinguishable. My reaction was influenced by the medium: I listened to the audio book, in which each narrator was played by a different actor, all them excellent, bringing the characters to individual life. With their voices in my head, I cannot go back and look at the words on the page and judge whether they by themselves are sufficient.

Back in college, I took a course called Oral Interpretation taught by the inestimable Esther Smith, where we learned to go inside a piece of writing—play, poem, prose—and create and perform our own interpretation of it. We dissected nuances of body language and intonation. While I cannot say I ever excelled at the art of oral interpretation, the course did make me aware of what an actor brings to the performance—it is more than just a reading—of an audio book. I cannot tell how much of my reaction to each section is mediated by the actor’s performance.

Each of us in the book club liked some sections more than others, though not the same sections. For instance, one person liked best the part about the nascent friendship between the Park Avenue housewife and the single Black mother, which I thought too much of a stretch, while others didn’t believe the section that moved me most, the one in which a woman believes the distant figure on the wire was her son, who had been killed in Vietnam. The lawyer among us found the judge’s section true to life. And we all liked the very short section of the book narrated by the unnamed acrobat describing his training and the walk itself.

The book has been described as a 9-11 novel. Although, the story takes place in the 1970s and the future destruction of the World Trade Center is never mentioned, I too found it impossible to read this book without thinking about that horrific day. In 1974 when Petit made his famous walk, the towers had only recently been opened and were considered “the ugly stepchild of New York’s skyscrapers” as Jonathan Mahler put it in his New York Times review. With this book I felt that I held within my hands the birth and death of the towers as well as the lives of the characters and, indeed, those of my friends who died there that day. I began to understand the proposition that time is not linear after all, but folded in upon itself, our future encapsulated within our present.

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