Let the Great World Spin


I was intrigued by the premise of Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin as soon as I heard about it—there is so much appeal, to me, in the idea of a series of strangers in New York whose lives all intertwine with the daring performance of Philippe Petit, who strung a high wire between the under-construction World Trade Center towers and walked, hopped, and danced across it one morning in 1974. The notion that an act of "art for art's sake" could affect so many disparate people, their stories spreading out in different directions from the moment, is so compelling, reminiscent of the effortless-feeling connection among a diverse group of Londoners in the aeroplane scene of Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. I also liked the idea of exploring how the World Trade Center towers, which were built as utilitarian places of business and later came to be associated with a horrifying terrorist attack, could also be a site of creativity and élan, a Situationalist act of joy that jolted people out of their everyday concerns, even if just for a moment.

Unfortunately, as enthusiastic as I was about the concept of Let the Great World Spin, the execution left me underwhelmed. McCann's prose, though easy to read, strikes me as thin and heavyhanded, with little nuance left to the reader's intelligence (a lot of telling, not enough showing). Its sections shift among various first- and third-person points of view, but while the speakers showed a few surface differences from one another (the narrator of the first section, a fan of Allen Ginsberg, busts out phrases like "their mad, impossible angel" and "the nightlands of America," while the black prostitute Tillie says "shoulda," "musta" and "prop'rties"), McCann never fully commits to crafting an individual voice for each narrator, let alone one that transcends commonplaces about their national, ethnic, and class backgrounds. At the same time, his own authorial voice, often choppy and expositionally awkward, didn't strike me as distinctive enough to make the book stand out, or convince me of the reality of the people depicted. To wit (a passage selected almost at random):

He has his back to me. My heart shudders every time he sits near the portrait of my dead husband. He has never asked me to move the photo. He never will. He knows the reason it is there. No matter that my husband was a brute who died in the war in the mountains near Quezaltenango—it makes no difference—all children need a father. Besides, it is just a photo. It takes no precedence. It does not threaten Corrigan. He knows my story.

It would have taken some convincing in any case, because the novel's large cast of characters seldom move beyond the stereotypical. The Irish Catholic "holy fool" character is wracked by religious guilt; the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold lets her daughter shoot up in her arms, then feels guilty; the bohemian artists get addicted to cocaine, lose touch with their art, then hit rock bottom; the wealthy white Park Avenue housewife is neurotic and self-conscious. One gets the feeling one has met all these people before, and not in a "resonant archetypes" way. McCann structures his book cleverly, with overlapping narratives which gradually reveal themselves to be interconnected, but his characterization suffers from this technique, since he doesn't spend enough time with any one character to move beyond the standard tropes. In his defense, I often felt he was moving in the right direction by the time a section ended, but he never quite had the time to arrive at his destination. One of my favorite parts, for example, is narrated by an overweight, middle-class black woman whom we have seen, earlier in the book, uttering phrases like "Mercy!" and "Say gospel" in normal conversation (and, as if Gloria as bosomy gospel matron was not coming off clearly enough, McCann takes this opportunity to tell us that her voice sounded "as if she's at a church service." GOTCHA. My head, it has been pummeled with this description). In her own chapter, to McCann's credit, Gloria adds quite a bit of complexity to this churchy perception: she turns out to be college-educated; a religious agnostic who hides behind the expected Southern exclamations as a self-defense technique:

Years ago, when I was at university in Syracuse, I developed a manner of saying things that made people happy, kept them talking so I didn't have to say much myself, I guess now I'd say that I was building a wall to keep myself safe. In the rooms of wealthy folk, I had perfected my hard southern habit of Mercy and Lord and Landsakes. They were the words I fell back on for another form of silence, the words I've always fallen back on, my reliables, they've been my last resort for I don't know how long.

Gloria, however, is one of the only characters whose glaring stereotypical-ness I felt was problematized by the end of the novel. Tillie the prostitute is particularly galling in this respect, as are Lara and Blaine, the bohemian modern art clichés. Tellingly, I thought McCann's most successful chapters were the ones that did little or nothing to advance his central plot: the hacker section features some natural-seeming humor and characterization, and the short chapter about a young boy documenting graffiti on the New York subway system suggested a story I'd be interested to read in expanded form (what WAS the role of this chapter in the larger narrative, though? Was he supposed to be a young Charlie Ahearn or something? Are we just supposed to stop and realize that some people in 1974 were starting to appreciate the artistic merits of tagging?) The chapters devoted to the high-wire artist were also enjoyable, and much more crisp and detailed than most of the action, making me wish the author had written a straight novel on Petit, rather than sidelining the performance artist's story. Whenever he returned to the main action, however, cliché was quick to follow. I was reminded of Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter, which I started enjoying only when Kristin herself would disappear from the scene.

And Let the Great World Spin shares another downfall with the works of Undset, namely the compulsion to include EVERY SINGLE noteworthy place or event possible, in a grand orgy of name-dropping. The coked-up bohemians stay at the Chelsea Hotel and hang out at Max's Kansas City, while faux-churchy Gloria tells us she took place in the freedom rides during the Civil Rights struggle. Multiple characters have lost sons in Vietnam (although I felt this was better integrated into the plot than many other topical references). McCann makes sure to have a few characters comment on Nixon's resignation two days after the high-wire stunt, and sets an enjoyable yet pointless chapter in Palo Alto, where early computer hackers reference internet-precursor ARPANET. It's characteristic of the book that the final chapter, which jumps forward in time to 2006, finds a way to incorporate not only the September 11 attacks and the subsequent US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but also Hurricanes Rita and Katrina. The narrator of the first section, Ciaran Corrigan, leaves Ireland for New York when he is injured in an IRA attack. The disillusioned judge was friends with Wallace Stevens and owns a painting by Miró. And so on. I'm the first to appreciate a well-evoked time and place, but in my opinion this kind of thing comes off as a lazy shorthand that stops short of communicating much tangible reality to the reader.

To tell the truth, although I don't normally shy away from expressing negativity, I feel awkward about publishing this post because of ALL the glowing reviews I've read of this book. For some people it is apparently life-changing, and I hesitate to warn anyone else off a book that might be such a special read. I must say, though, that for me it was a distinctly mediocre experience. Thanks, nonetheless, to TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy; check out the rest of these fine blogs for other perspectives (most of them vastly different from mine):


  • Although I've heard about this book, perhaps understandably, it hasn't made the impact in the UK that it has in America. I do sympathise, however, with the unease of having to go against the general run of opinion about a work of art in whatever sphere it may appear. A couple of weeks ago I was at the RSC's current production of 'King Lear', which has had fairly universal bad reviews, not only from the official critics, but also from well-informed friends, to whose opinions I actually give greater weight.
    Maybe it was because I was expecting something truly awful and therefore anything was likely to be better, but I came away pleasantly surprised and feeling that I had a very thought provoking experience. At least in this instance my expectations were exceeded. You have clearly not been so lucky.

  • I haven't had any particular desire to read this, despite the glowing reviews. It's one of those books that I'd have no objection to reading, but I haven't cared enough to seek it out or even put in on my list of "someday" books. For some reason, the National Book Award winners rarely end up being favorites of mine.

    And, for what it's worth, I appreciate a negative review that goes against the grain. When I read nothing but raves about a book, my expectations get raised to the point where I'll almost certainly be disappointed or I get utterly cynical, assuming that the book is written as a crowd-pleaser and without much to grapple with. My favorite books give readers something to grapple with, and therefore rarely get great reviews across the board.

  • This was a book I got from the library, started to read, couldn't get into it, and returned it. But when it came out in paperback, for some reason I picked up a copy, and ended up loving it. To each his own, yes?

  • I've been wondering about this book. I know it has been very well received but I've been reluctant about it. Sorry it didn't turn out so well for you, but you have saved me now from giving it a go.

  • I almost bought this book at the college bookstore when we went for my brother's graduation a couple weeks ago. Guess that would've been a waste of money.

    But Frances and Wendy liked it? Now I'm confused because I trust their opinions too. But those passages you included really didn't sound like something I'd enjoy reading over the course of a whole novel.

  • SW: I've had that experience, too! I think my partner and I are the only adults who liked Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette film, possibly because of just the kind of low expectations you describe going in. Good to remember that surprises happen in both directions, I suppose. :-)

    Teresa: Thanks, I'm glad you point out the value in a review that swims against the stream. I agree; actually, I've read quite a few negative reviews that have convinced me to read the book in question. I got a bit of the crowd-pleaser vibe from this one, but if it was written with that intention it's obviously doing its job!

  • Amy: Absolutely, to each their own. Lots of people think my favorite book is overwritten mumbo-jumbo. :-)

    Stefanie: I feel pretty confident that this would not be your new favorite novel. Better stick with bed-bound Russian aesthetes!

    EL Fay: No, I think Frances & Wendy have yet to review it (they're scheduled for the 27th & 28th), but I'll be super-curious about both of their opinions. Plainly plenty of people disagree with me, however. :-)

  • What's your favorite book, Emily? Now I'm curious.

    I recently wrote a negative review of a novel that had some of the characteristics you dislike here (stereotyped characters, shallow plot, predictable historicizing) and had a couple of passionate commenters wonder how I could say such a thing.

  • Negative reviews are a good thing. Always highly suspicious of a blog that posts nice upon nice upon nice. But I think that you already know that I love this book. An exorcism of grief in a variety of forms. Not so much cliche as iconic for me. A great New York novel that captures the sheer oddness of variety in the city yet grounds it in a pivotal moment. When all look up. So much of New York is a cliche if you think about it. This just exalts that in a way.

    The one point with which I agree with you is the depiction of the hookers. Eeek. Painful. Love how his voice and tempo changed throughout but he completely missed it on this point. Nice review, friend. Despite that Kristin low blow. Really? :) This was bound to happen one day. We can't like all the same books.

  • Jenny: I'm still waiting with trepidation for those passionate commenters to show up here. :-/ And my favorite novel: Mrs. Dalloway, which coincidentally I mention earlier in this post.

    Frances: The line between archetype & stereotype, or icon vs. cliché, is such a tricky one, all right. I think part of the issue here is that New York is very enamored of itself, and this book is very enamored of New York, but I am not enamored of New York, nor of its icons/clichés. Not that I'll write off a book just because it's a New York novel, but it's got to have more going for it than just the same old New York stories I've heard so often before (it is, of course, a point of debate whether this novel offers more or not). Ah well. A bit of diverse opinion is what makes things interesting, right? (And the Kristin reference: it may seem like hitting below the belt, but I swear it was an honest comparison! The writing style & melodrama of this novel remind me viscerally of Undset...unfortunately.)

  • Actually quite a helpful review, Emily. I did want to read it badly after Frances first talked about it. Still want to. And will. It would be interesting to see the Kristin L comparison! Lol.

    P.S. I really liked Marie Antoinette, too.

  • Haven't seen you go off on a book in a while, Emily, so it was funny to see you work in a K Lav reference for punctuation! Agree with Frances that negative reviews are a good thing. P.S. I'm unduly suspicious of new releases offered for book tours, so it's curious to see a big award winner receiving this treatment rather than the out and out lemming bait that's usually offered.

  • Claire: Oh good, glad it was useful to you & didn't dissuade you from reading the book. I hope you have better luck with it than I did! :-)

    Richard: Yeah, it's been a whole, what? month since I went off on Thoreau; I was due for another little fit of the sullens. :-) I am normally loathe to join book tours as well, but this one seemed like a sure thing. Ah well, lesson learned.

  • Emily, I understand the not-liking-the-popular-book thing since I am often in the majority. Thanks for your honest thoughts.

  • This makes me feel better about not finishing this book. The story sounded really intriguing to me, but when I started it I instantly disliked it and could tell that wasn't going to change. I only read about 30 pages before calling it quits. I felt a little crazy since I'd read so many overwhelmingly positive reviews, so I appreciate your review!

  • Rebecca: Thanks for the support! :-) I suppose the world would be a fairly dull place if we all liked the same books.

    Lindsey: I'm glad I'm not totally alone in my dislike for this novel! And glad that my review made you feel the same. :-)

  • Ah well you can fall back on the recent documentary about the Phillippe Petit and this particular act instead, as that was probably better entertainment than any fiction about the event could be.

  • I came across your page after doing a google search for negative reviews of the book... I don't like the book, and was actually beginning to resent McCann and his fawning literary critics for wasting my time with this drawn-out collection of underdeveloped, banal narratives. Thank you for your review.

  • Like Mia above, I came across your review via the same grumpy process!

    It's a horrendously lonely feeling to appreciate an author's unmistakable eloquence and ambitious reach - but to feel, in the main, one is wading through a narrative of excruciating codswallop.

    The documentary "Man on Wire" almost accidentally does a vastly better job of making the viewer see what NY saw - and shared - that extraordinary day - by investigating the story of the tightrope walker...

    Thanks for your perceptive (and even-handed) review!

  • Yes, it's important to show and not tell; however, I thought that the book was a good read. Pretty surprised that so many people disliked it.

  • The book bored me to hell. It was a nice try, but it didn't work for me. Better luck next time, I guess; did the author write anything else?


    Reading this book -- and coming to the conclusion that it fails on so many levels -- I was reminded of how a novel whose stories revolve around a single incident CAN be successful.

    Of course, I'm thinking of "The Hours" by Michael Cunningham, so I was tickled that you mentioned "Mrs. Dalloway."

    I agree with your review on so many points:

    Yes, there's nothing worse than when an author applies a sledgehammer to make a point. Ouch!

    Yes, it's all TELL and no SHOW. *sigh*

    Yes, I felt crushed under all the name- and event-dropping, a mighty weight that seemed to fall out of nowhere. Maybe that was his point? How ironic.

    Anyway, for me, the positive reviews for McCollum's "World" are simply baffling.

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography