Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin

Let the Great World SpinLet the Great World Spin was thrown out as a suggestion for October/November book club and I thought, why not give it a shot. I’d heard of it in a mostly positive light at least and certainly never read anything in a similar vein.

In August 1974, residents of Manhattan gaze astounded with bated breath at the sky. A unknown man, a tighrope walker, marked small against the vastness, leaps and dances across a tautly drawn line between the Twin Towers. No one knows who he is or why he is doing it, and reactions wildly differ as the other protagonists all either witness or hear about this incident.

Tormented Irish priest Corrigan ministers to anyone who needs it, including the revolving door of prostitutes using his flat’s bathroom, such as Tillie, a thirty-eight year old grandmother, and her daughter Jazzlyn, who turn tricks side-by-side on the streetl. A group of grieving Vietnam vet’s mothers gather in the Upper East Side while Claire, the Park Ave hostess, hopes that the clash of cultures won’t scare away these women who she desperately needs to keep alive the memory of her son. A young, drug-abusing artist struggles to make sense of her life again after she partakes in a devastating hit-and-run that claims two lives.

All these stories eventually intertwine, but the getting there was disjointed. McCann abruptly changes between narrators and, for the first half of the novel, it was impossible to tell how it would come together. With patience, you can reach the end and receive the payoff of a strong conclusion that fully represents what he wants to achieve by demonstrating the interconnections of human life. But for me, it was a struggle getting that far.

Because there were diverse narrators (and I appreciated that the cast reflected the true melting pot of New York City), certain segments were stronger than others. My favorite part centered on the tightrope walker, whose act ostensibly bound the narrative together. He was based on a real person and real event – French acrobat Phillipe Petit who performed the same unbelievable feat to an awestruck audience. Unfortunately, he was infrequently used and it was a stretch to relate him to the other plots. If this had been a short story focused tautly on his artistry, it would have been preferable in my book.

Comparatively, the other characters felt like stereotypes. The only other one I sympathized with was Claire, who seemingly had everything but felt empty inside because of the loss of her only child. I thought that Corrigan was a hypocrite and an exaggeration of a spiritual figure, picking an choosing aspects of his religion that he wanted to follow. The prostitution angle felt forced, a way to shove in our faces that street-walkers are human too and that Corrigan is a better man than the reader because of his care of them. The artist and Corrigan’s brother were both so mousy and lame that I’ve forgotten their names just a week later.  The best supporting character was really the city itself. Reading about the Twin Towers in retrospect of 9/11 is jarring, but made me reflect on all that has been endured over the last forty years and the transient, fleeting moments of life.

I feel terrible that I always hate these worldly, interwoven tales but at their basic level, books should be entertainment and I’m frequently bored out of my mind with this type because the plot is so choppy. However, I admit it does take a master to make the end come together and I did enjoy his writing style, which was overloaded with metaphors and similes.

2.5 Stars

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