Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

Colum McCann won the National Book Award for this book. The fact does not scream injustice. This is a very nice book. It is well-written; it has a serviceable central metaphor. I doubt more than a few have been offended by it. It is not controversial. It takes no real risks. This book does not feel like a walk on a tightrope, but seems firmly planted on safe narrative territory.

The collection of storylines is, as has been pointed out before, reminiscent of the technique used in the movies Crash, Babel, and Traffic. Each of the storylines is connected to Phillipe Petit’s tightrope walk between the towers in 1974 which is used as a metaphor throughout. In discussing the novel, McCann has stated “that the metaphor translates well into the real-life experiences of people everywhere, as he believes that all are in some sense walking their lives on a tightrope, with equally high stakes, only most people’s tight-ropes are not quite as sensational or dramatic, and are concealed to most, being only 1” off the ground.”

The stakes, though, are not the same for everyone. Some people really do play a game of higher stakes, others play it safe. Despite crafting the novel as a convergence on a single point, McCann takes no real risks here. He even gives prime real estate to a hooker with a caring heart, though she disclaims any such goodness:

Some of these assholes think you got a heart of gold. No one’s got a heart of gold. I don’t got no heart of gold, no way. Not even Corrie. Even Corrie went for that Spanish broad with the dumb little tattoo on her ankle.

She has a soft spot for her granddaughters, the priest, and the poetry of Rumi. She is extremely remorseful regarding her failures as a mother and tries to make up for those failings. Yes, it may be true that no one has a heart of gold, but Tillie is what people mean when they talk about the golden-hearted hooker. She means well. She makes bad choices, she has been a disaster as a parent, and she loves people. She is too damaged and flawed to make good choices, but she means to do right by those with whom she interacts. Perhaps to reassure the reader, she is more the victim than the perpetrator with respect to the central crime in her storyline. We see enough of her flaws not to groan, but neither is she a risky departure from the set type.

Throughout the novel, there is a failure to take risks with characters. The computer hacker is nerdy and awkward with women; the artist is a flaky narcissist; the judge is a supercilious striver; the grieving wealthy mother and the grieving working class mother fit their roles in familiar ways. In short, while the characters are not simply stereotypical caricatures, neither are they particularly original. Partly, this is a consequence, no doubt, of the fact that most people are not terribly original. Partly, it is a consequence of McCann keeping his tightrope close to the ground.

My own lack of enthusiasm for this otherwise fine novel may be due to having recently read: The Vagrants which questions on a much deeper level the issue of whether caring intentions, unbending principles, or pragmatism are ever properly labeled “good” or “evil” outside of context; Summertime which delves deeply into a single character through multiple perspectives with much more originality; and Pnin, the language of which outshines McCann’s very fine but not breathtaking prose. In each of these works, the authors mixed in the unexpected and took risks, quite successfully in at least two of the three. McCann’s revelations slide into place smoothly but not surprisingly.

For instance, inspired by a photo of the daredevil, McCann writes:

A man high in the air while a plane disappears, it seems, into the edge of the building. One small scrap of history meeting a larger one. As if the walking man were somehow anticipating what would come later. The intrusion of time and history. The collision point of stories. We wait for the explosion but it never occurs. The plane passes, the tightrope walker gets to the end of the wire. Things don’t fall apart.

There are nice touches here such as the multiple layers to the sentence starting “One small scrap…” Even so, there is no jolt, no epiphany. Mostly, this book is an elegant statement of things we already know and, mostly, know we know.

The tricks McCann pulls on his low slung tightrope are skillful and entertaining. Kimbofo at Reading Matters and Kevin of KFC fame both pull representative quotes that demonstrate some of the beauty of McCann’s language. In all, this is a good book. It is nice. It is enjoyable. It is not a book for the ages. Kevin accurately summarized the feeling of having read it when he described it as “2009’s version of Netherland”.

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7 Responses to Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

  1. Correct me if I am wrong, Kerry, but I sense an ambivalence here similar to my own about this book. Parts of it were very good but a lot of it was not very good at all — overall it was a good to very good, but not great, read. The tightrope imagery works (which is a bit of a surprise) but much of the world underneath it does not. I thought the “upper class” bits worked better than the oppressed classes, but that might just be my background and interests.

    I’m surprised it has attracted the prize attention it has — definitely a worthwhile read, but I certainly have other American favorites from 2009.

    Also in my grouping of “New York” books (novels that explore the City), it started out with high hopes and ended up well down the list.

  2. Kerry says:

    Kevin,

    You are absolutely right. It was “good to very good”, but still just did not work for me on some level. I also agree that the “upper class” bits were a bit better, but sometimes even those rang a little false or contrived. I actually enjoyed the Phillipe Petit parts as much as anything, which makes me think maybe I should have read one of the source books for this novel rather than this novel (except, of course, this novel is in the TOB).

    I agree about other favorites from 2009. I liked your comparison with Brooklyn which, in my mind, was a better (albeit not American) book. I am currently reading another “New York” novel, Chronic City. I’ll let you know how that compares from my perspective.

    I did think the Tillie Henderson parts were some of the weakest in the book. I felt for her, but so much of it did not seem to work.

    Thank you very much for the comment.

  3. kimbofo says:

    Thanks for linking to my review.

    I think your review is excellent… and I know exactly what you mean when you say it is “good to very good” but that it did not quite work for you on some level. I found that I admired the breadth and scope of the novel but emotionally it left me cold.

    I heard McCann speak at the Cheltenham Literary Festival last year (he was on the same bill as Toibin), and even he seemed a bit funny about the book. He said he “accidentally” killed off the main character and then couldn’t do anything to bring him back. I thought that was a surprising admission to make. Whether the book would have been better with the character still intact, I do not know, but I did feel the story was too disjointed and needed something more than Petit’s highwire act to bring it all together.

  4. Kerry says:

    Kimbofo,

    Thank you, very much. It is very odd to “accidentally” kill off your own main character. I respect more Nabokov’s view that characters are “galley slaves”, they do exactly what he told them to do.

    I do think McCann’s original vision of having two towers (Petit and Corrigan) would have provided more balance to the book and, perhaps, would have worked better. I don’t know, but I agree with your assessment of it as slightly “disjointed”.

  5. Biblibio says:

    I have to say, it’s somewhat reassuring to find others out there who feel the same as I did about “Let the Great World Spin”. I thought it was a boring win for the National Book Award, like the judges picked the book “most likely” to win as opposed to the best one (not that I can compare too well…). Your “good to very good” comment is spot on, as is the note that this is not exactly a book for the ages. I’ve had trouble putting my feelings to words regarding the book – your review excellently describes them.

  6. Kerry says:

    Thank you, Biblibio. And I agree that I have been pleased to find others who are ambivalent about the work. I do not think this is one of the greats.

    Thanks for the comment!

  7. […] HW: “It is nice. It is enjoyable. It is not a book for the ages.” […]

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