Saturday, October 02, 2010

Walking across the sky: Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin

[Did a version of this for The Hindu Literary Review]

A great novelist can bring such depth, insight and detail to fictional lives and imagined events that they come to represent profound truths about the world – but at the same time, real-life events can be so implausible, even ludicrous, that you’d smirk if you encountered them in a novel. I’ve rarely been so conscious of this paradoxical relationship between fiction and fact as I was while reading Colum McCann’s superb Let the Great World Spin.

Here are some of the things that happen in this multi-layered work, set in New York in 1974. A high-society woman grieves for her young son, killed in Vietnam, and seeks solace in the company of other women who have suffered similar losses. An Irish priest risks his life and sanity to work amidst the downtrodden. A Bronx prostitute is tormented by guilt about not having been able to give her daughter a better life. A freak car accident abruptly cuts short two lives and brings two other people together. And a man strings a tightrope between the uppermost reaches of the newly constructed Twin Towers and proceeds to walk and run across it, more than 1,300 feet above the ground. If you had to pick just one of these plots as being invented, which would it be?

But as it happens, only the last – and most improbable – of these stories is, literally, “true”. One morning in August 1974 the Frenchman Philippe Petit sneaked into the World Trade Centre and performed the extraordinary feat that would later be hailed as “the artistic crime of the century”, while a city watched him, open-mouthed. (His motivation? More or less the same as Mallory’s for wanting to climb Everest. The towers were there, seemingly just as permanent and immovable as the great mountain.)

McCann uses this real-life incident, with its dizzying associations for anyone who tries to imagine it, as the backdrop for a story about people who are metaphorically spinning towards each other. Petit isn’t the focus of Let the Great World Spin – in fact, the book never even names him – but in McCann’s hands, the crazy man skipping across the sky becomes an expression of the possibilities as well as the fragility of life.

The multiple narratives here are about people whose actions will, in various ways, intersect: Corrigan the monk and his brother Ciaran; an artist named Lara and her husband Blaine, self-consciously leading a lifestyle themed around the 1920s; Claire the socialite and Gloria the working-class black woman, who develop an unlikely friendship; Claire’s husband Solomon, the judge who presides over the tightrope-walker’s trial; and Tillie, a 38-year-old grandmother who walked the streets to keep her daughter Jazzlyn off them. A couple of smaller, more tangential plots – one involving young telephone hackers, another about an enterprising photographer – weave through the larger ones and all these stories are engrossing in themselves, but their real worth lies in how they come together.

Much like Petit shifting his weight from one foot to the other, McCann moves between the first person and the third person, sometimes giving us the same event as seen through different eyes – a good way of showing how individual choices, made under the shadow of various pressures and biases, can alter other people's life trajectories. His use of language is so precise and interrelated that one phrase often echoes and recalls another. For example, the word “spin” is used in different contexts, in key passages: a van spins from one side of the road to the other during a deadly accident; trying to keep her dead son alive, Claire “spun off into her own little world of wires and computers and electric gadgets”. The simple sentence “Out he went”, as Petit begins his walk in the book’s prologue, finds its complement in the equally sparse “In they come”, later in the book, just as a group of women, wandering into a cosy Upper East Side apartment from the balcony, are about to begin talking about the “man in the air”.

Though the Twin Towers are merely the background, this book derives some of its power from the reader’s knowledge of what will eventually happen to these giant structures. In the prologue, during an intense description of the first groups of people on the ground who notice the walker about to begin his feat, there is this: Many of the watchers realized with a shiver that no matter what they said, they really wanted to witness a great fall, see someone arc downward all that distance, to disappear from the sight line, flail, smash to the ground, and give the Wednesday an electricity, a meaning, that all they needed to become a family was one millisecond of slippage..." The resonance with 9/11, with the morbid voyeurism associated with that event, is difficult to miss, as is the sense that strangers who happen to witness something momentous together can find a deep connection, if only briefly.

The real achievement of Let the Great World Spin is that it allows the bird's eye view and the ground-level perspective to exist side by side, and play off each other. On one hand there's a vibrant city seen from 110 stories up, looking impersonal and distant from that height. (The superb cover design shown above suggests the metropolis as a mechanical giant, arms raised and spread out, looking up at the little man on the rope.) But at the same time we are down below, breathing in the hopes, fears and disappointments of the people who make up that city, sharing in their crippling tragedies as well as their spots of redemption.

P.S. Some information here about Man on Wire, the 2008 documentary about Petit's walk. And his own book, titled To Reach the Clouds


  1. Just nitpicking... The comment about Mt. Everest's existence and that itself as the reason enough to climb it, was made by George Mallory, not Sir Hillary.

  2. Thanks, Avik. Though I imagine Hillary's reason would have been something very similar!

  3. Note to earlier (deleted) Anonymous commenter and anyone else who might want to comment on the template: do it on the right post. Also, try to make your comments a little more elaborate and constructive than "Dude, this sucks".

  4. Someone should compile a list of books that, while not being specifically about 9/11, include it in the narrative as something that disrupts the lives of characters or as an impending event that the reader is aware of, but the characters are not. I remember thinking this when I finished Paul Auster's The Brooklyn Follies; the last line goes something like
    'It was the morning of September 11, 2001'.

  5. Shrabonti: The Brooklyn Follies doesn't end with such a dramatic sentence - just a brief epilogue set on the day of the attacks - but I get your point. There are all sorts of 9/11 books now.

  6. Yeah, sorry, was wildly paraphrasing.

  7. Jai, did you see Man on Wire? I can't praise that movie enough. Petit himself comes across as such an interesting person- part showman, part conman, part self absorbed idiot. There is probably a book to be written about just him and his motivations. Thanks for the wonderful review. Will order this book soon!