McCann, Colum Entries

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):

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography