Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Let the Great World Spin

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

Here's what it's about: In the dawning light of a late-summer morning, the people of lower Manhattan stand hushed, staring up in disbelief at the Twin Towers. It is August 1974, and a mysterious tightrope walker is running, dancing, leaping between the towers, suspended a quarter mile above the ground. In the streets below, a slew of ordinary lives become extraordinary in bestselling novelist Colum McCann’s stunningly intricate portrait of a city and its people.

Let the Great World Spin won the the 2009 National Book Award for fiction and has been praised by just about everybody. And I'm not going to be any different. I will preface that if you're looking for a book that shoots out of the gates at 100 mph, this is that not novel. It is, however, one of the best written novels I've ever picked up. It makes the rest of us feel a little like hacks. In fact, I could have told you this just a few pages in because McCann's words are nothing short of poetic and when strung together it's sheer genius, it's beautiful.

The novel begins with the real-life feat of Philippe Petit's tight-rope walk in 1974 across the Twin Towers. This was also the the central theme to the Academy Award-winning documentary Man on Wire.

While Petit's act begins the novel and grounds the work around a focal point to return to, the real storyline is about the everyday people of New York City and how they're moving around one another, sometimes they're lives never quite intersecting until one event brings them together. This is not only true for the people standing in awe of the tight-rope and trying to make sense of what they see but of the mothers who come together in the book to mourn their sons sent away and never returned from Vietnam. It's the story of the prostitutes befriending a priest. Of the Guatemalan nurse, the judge, and an artist.

In the New York Times book review they compare the book's organization to the movie Crash. How our life's events domino down, how none of us are entirely alone and untouchable. As the adage goes, "No man is an island."

What I loved about this book were the alternating perspectives, the rich description, and McCann's fascination with everyday people. My background in writing is in non-fiction and what I love about that genre is the idea of finding the extraordinary in everyday life. While this is still a piece of fiction, these people and their hardships are so real there are moments you believe they are too.

I couldn't help but compare McCann to Corrigan, an Irish Catholic priest who moves from Ireland to the Bronx and befriends all those in New York's underbelly: the prostitutes, the drunks, the drug addicts, the homeless, and even enduring beatings from the local pimps. The comparison isn't because I know much of McCann except that he's Irish but rather because, like Corrigan, he's trying to see the beauty beneath the soot. He's searching for meaning where others would never think to look. McCann seems to believe we're part of something bigger just as Corrigan does. In fact, even when Corrigan becomes angry with "his God" he never quite loses faith. The theme of faith is interwoven in this novel but it's more than that. It's a kind of endurance. An active faith. People in search of connection and believing, even when life seems to suggest otherwise, that they'll find it. Somehow.

This is a book to fall in love with. The characters are mesmerizing and there's something--some thread--that makes it feel current day rather than 1974. Perhaps it's the nostalgia for the Twin Towers or because we know those ghettos in NYC or any city USA still exist; they may have been pushed out or redistricted but they're there, in the shadows. And the war may have changed from Vietnam to any of the three we're involved in now, but war is war. As the grieving mothers say in the book, "There's one truth to war: Don't go." And when you read this you want to weep for them and for all the people you know who are overseas now. You want to call out, "Don't go." You want to save the people in your own community. You want to try to see things from a different perspective. And you want to feel connected with the world around you even if it's in ways you don't even comprehend.

That's what this novel does to you.

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