‘Let The Great World Spin’ by Colum McCann

LetTheGreat

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 349 pages; 2009.

Anyone who has seen the Oscar-winning documentary Man on a Wire or read Philippe Petit’s To Reach The Clouds will know of Petit’s daring high-wire act between between the Twin Towers in New York City on August 7, 1974. It was an act that stunned the world but has taken on extra significance now that the Twin Towers are no longer standing.

Adding to the mythology of Petit’s incredibly daring stunt (he walked the wire for 45 minutes, making eight crossings between the towers, and was arrested shortly after) is Colum McCann‘s equally ambitious novel. I say ambitious because it’s fairly staggering in its scope, telling as it does the individual stories of a diverse group of characters living in New York, using Petit’s walk as a kind of bridging link between them all. Does he pull it off? In my opinion, not quite.

Long-time readers of this blog will know I have a penchant for Irish writers and stories set in New York, so I rather suspected that Let The Great World Spin would be right up my street, seeing as it ticked both boxes. But there was something about this book that didn’t gel with me and I’ve spent the best part of a week trying to figure it out.

I think the problem is not so much the scope and the huge canvas that McCann uses, nor the diversity of his characters — an Irish monk, a prostitute and an Upper Eastside housewife among them, all expertly drawn — but that the book reads very much like a collection of short stories strung together (pun not intended) by Petit’s high-wire act. Some of these stories interconnect, others, such as the very brief chapter about Fernando, a 13-year-old subway graffiti artist, do not. And, as ever with books of this type, there is a danger that the reader will like some characters better than others, so that certain chapters become more exciting, or more dull, than others, leading to an inconsistent read.

But I don’t want to sound too harsh, because there’s no doubt that McCann knows how to write beautifully, painting pictures in just a handful of words, as this example shows:

I watched a long pink boa scarf get caught up in the wheels of a patrol car. It wrapped the wheelbase as if in affection, and bits of tufted pink spun in the air.

Similarly, his ability to get into the skin of so many different characters — a rich house wife who’s grieving over her son killed in Vietnam, a Jewish judge called to deal with Petit’s legal case, a black hooker fighting to see her two grandchildren, a reformed drug user guilty of a hit-and-run fatality — without chiming a wrong note is impressive. And his “bridging” segments about Petit are also a delight to read, particularly the section describing the high-wire itself:

The shouting, the sirens, the dull sounds of the city. He let them become a white hum. He went for his last silence and he found it just stood there, in the precise middle of the wire, one hundred feet from each tower, eyes closed, body still, wire gone. He took the air of the city into his lungs.

Interestingly, when I saw McCann at the Cheltenham Literature Festival last week, he confessed that he wanted the book to contain two very strong fictional characters, mirroring the Twin Towers, but that he accidentally killed one off before he really got started — and he just couldn’t bring him back. Whoops, I hope that wasn’t a plot spoiler.

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11 thoughts on “‘Let The Great World Spin’ by Colum McCann

  1. Like you, I have a penchant for both Irish writers and stories set in New York. Like you, that made me look forward to this novel. Like you, I found it failed to reach its potential — for all the reasons that this review articulates. Very good review.

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  2. I’m glad I’m not alone in my reservations about this book. I read Dancer, which is about Rudolf Nureyev’s defection from the USSR, and thought it rather good but I sent this one back to the library unread. It’s not that it’s a poor novel, (I wouldn’t know after only 70 odd pages), but by then I’d read enough of that New York tough gritty realism stuff full of hookers and users and pimps and grubby tenements, to know I just didn’t want to read any more of it. Just not my thing. Not.

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  3. I got offered a review copy of this and I didn’t take it up because though the cover was wonderful something just didnt quite float my literary boat. It sounds like its good but nothing to rush out for.

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  4. It was difficult for me to write this, because I sooooo wanted to love this book. I somehow think it might have been stronger if he just stuck to, say, three characters, and intertwined their lives, rather than creating separate chapters for a whole host of different characters. But then what do I know? It’s a finalist in the 2009 National Book Award and has received many a glowing review.

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  5. I’m intrigued by Dancer — he spoke a little about it at the Festival.
    I didn’t mind the gritty realist stuff, and very much enjoyed the Upper Eastside rich housewife bit, I just think it made for a fairly inconsistent read.

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  6. I wish Bloomsbury would offer me stuff like this… hahaha. I had to fork out £12 for this little baby. Mind you, it’s not that little: it’s quite a hefty tome and not ideal for carrying about with you during your commute.

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  7. And now it has won the National Book Award. I’d say that is more an indication that NBA juries tend to look for books that would be otherwise overlooked, although Amazon has certainly been hyping it in the U.S. Both your and my reviews reached similar conclusions — the novel has got marginally better with memory (some of the very good scenes keep coming back), but I am somewhat surprised that it won.

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  8. I saw that story on The Guardian today. Personally, I just don’t get it… Perhaps these critics are giving him kudos for the ambitious nature of the book rather than any pretense at it being a fabulously rewarding and enjoyable read?

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