Let the Great World Spin

artistic-book-coverLet the Great World Spin
Colum McCann
© 2009
349 pages (hardcover)

On August 7, 1974, pedestrians on the streets of New York City stopped and stared, mouths agape, at the sky. Way up in the air (110 stories or 1350 feet, to be exact), they could barely make out the form of a man dressed all in black, carrying a balancing bar. That man was funambulist Phillip Petit, and he was walking a wire that he and his pals had illegally strung between the two towers of the World Trade Center:

Petit was on the wire for a total of forty-five minutes that morning. During that time, he made eight passes on the wire, lay down completely, saluted his onlookers, and even did a little dance. And, as soon as his performance was complete, he was arrested.

Let the Great World Spin is set on that day in New York City. The book incorporates Petit’s real-life tightrope walk into its otherwise fictional events. Each chapter follows a different, unique character on that day, including:

  • Fernando Yunqué Marcano, a fourteen-year-old “imagist,” whose favorite hobby is to capture photographs of underground street art while riding the subway;
  • Lara and Blaine, married hipster artists who dress and act like they’re in the 1920s;
  • The Kid, a young computer hacker in California; and
  • Mother and daughter hookers, Jazzlyn and Tillie.

Although each character’s story is told separately, their lives intersect and overlap in unexpected ways throughout the book. A woman has a support group meeting for mothers who lost sons in the Vietnam War. Later that day, her husband (a judge) presides over Jazzlyn’s and Tillie’s arraignments. Later still, another member of the support group, who lives in the projects with Jazzlyn and Tillie, takes in Jazzlyn’s kids, who have nowhere else to go.

Rating: 3/5

The book is separated into four parts.  Unfortunately, the first part (Book One) is both the longest and the most tedious. It starts so slowly that I strongly considered throwing in the towel. For illustration, here is a passage from page 140:

I walked toward the projects.  A surge of dread.  Hard to calm the heart when it leaps so high.  As a child I saw horses trying to step into rivers to cool themselves off.  You watch them move from the stand of buckeye trees, down the slope, through the mud, swishing off flies, getting deeper and deeper until they either swim for a moment, or turn back.  I recognized it as a pattern of fear, that there was something shameful in it—these high-rises were not a country that existed in my youth or art, or anywhere else.  I had been a sheltered girl.  Even when drug-addled I would never have gone into a place like this.  I tried to persuade myself onward.  I counted the cracks in the pavement.  Cigarette butts.  Unopened letters with footprints on them.  Shards of broken glass.  Someone whistled but I didn’t look his way.  Some pot fumes drifted from an open window.  For a moment, it wasn’t like I was entering water at all: it was more like I was ferrying buckets of blood away from my own body, and I could feel them slap and spill as I moved.

Now, to be clear, I am not suggesting this is poorly written. In fact, I think, overall, the book is very well written (and I’m not the only one—it won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2009 and was hugely, ridiculously hyped that year). But this is only one paragraph of the FOUR PAGES describing a woman’s walk from her car to an apartment. Yawn.

Luckily, starting with the second part (at page 167), the pace picks up dramatically. Not only is there more action and more dialogue, but the characters introduced are more varied and interesting, and their voices are more distinct and unique.

It is also at this point that the characters’ interconnections start to materialize. McCann weaves a multi-dimensional web among seemingly random and unconnected characters, and this is the book’s biggest strength. It allows us to see characters through different lenses. We meet them (they often tell their own stories in first person), learn why they are special and interesting, discover their pasts, empathize with them, and learn to like them. Then, later, we see how they are perceived (and, often, misjudged or misunderstood) by others. This technique helps establish the depth and complexity of many of the characters. But there are some characters (like the aforementioned Fernando and The Kid) whose roles in this web are peripheral and, by comparison, seem extraneous. The book would have benefited if McCann had chosen not to incorporate so many characters.

Who should read it: Linda and Tina (i.e., people who are looking for well-written book-club books with discussion-worthy characters, who may remember Phillip Petit’s daring tightrope walk back in August of 1974).

Want to read along with me?  Reviews of these books are coming soon:

  • The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin (a #1 Indie Next Pick for April 2014 and #1 LibraryReads Selection for April 2014)
  •  The Last Days of California by Mary Miller (from the New York Times review: “’The Last Days of California’ joins a number of other recent novels written from the perspective of children or teenagers — Karen Thompson Walker’s ‘The Age of Miracles,’ Lauren Groff’s ‘Arcadia.’ It’s hard to figure out why some are published as ‘young adult’ while others aren’t, but why worry about labeling a book this good? Just read it.”) 
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