Let the Great World Spin
by Colum McCann
The world spins and our lives go on. Each of these lives is made up of words and stories that intersect with each other. The stories overlap and connections are made and broken. This novel takes up these notions and, adding a focal point with the event and wonder at the achievement of a mysterious tightrope walker in August, 1974, tells the stories of some lives of people in New York City whose world like ours was spinning. “The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough.” (p 349)
I was impressed with this novel filled with calamities and disorder, people from judges to prostitutes, the high and the low -- McCann was not afraid to portray the underbelly of society, the immigrants (one would not expect less from such a well-traveled Irish writer), and the magic of the funambulist at the center of it all. The disorder begins even before the two Irish brothers whose story opens the novel when one of them is knocked down by an explosion. There will be more disorder before their story ends, but the spinning theme is also the glue that ties the stories and the characters' world together with a sort of structure. The stories include those told by the mother of Corrigan and his brother: "she would launch into a story of her own creation, fables that sent my brother and me to different places, and we would wake in the morning wondering if we had dreamed different parts of the same dream, or if we had duplicated each other, or if in some strange world our dreams had overlapped . . . We have all heard of these things before. The love letter arriving as the teacup falls. The guitar striking up as the last breath sounds out. I don't attribute it to God or to sentiment. Perhaps it's chance."(p 68)
Yes, chance plays a role in the novel. But the intersection of lives also evokes the era, one centered on that famous tightrope walk between the twin towers. This era, one that was lost in September of 2001, is merely adumbrated in this novel which seems to lose focus at times, and it is story, not plot, driven. I am reminded of Joseph O'Neill's Netherland which also tells a story of post-2001 New York City with similarly disparate characters, but a more focused plot. The overall effect of McCann's narrative is one that seems fitting to New York City (although there are many other stories of the city that are not included here) and the new milennium. Each reader will have to decide for himself what the stories mean.
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