Let the Great World Spin

let the great world spinIn 1974, the aerialist Philippe Petit walked a tightrope — a cable, really — strung between the two towers of the World Trade Center. Briefly, his walk brought New York to a standstill: look at that! It’s a bird! No, it’s a man! Is he going to jump? What is he doing? Will he fall? Can he make it? Look, he’s actually lying down on the wire! Oh please… Among all the other chaos of that year — Vietnam, Watergate, feminism, race relations — one man held the city’s attention for a few moments with an utterly improbable feat of derring-do.

Colum McCann’s marvelous, boisterous 2009 novel Let the Great World Spin takes that walk and makes it the point of connection between several very different people who happened to see Petit that morning. Petit’s act is mirrored by Corrigan, an Irish émigré to the Bronx who looks for his equilibrium in the most dangerous places he can find it. Corrigan is a gentle saver of souls, who finds his home among the prostitutes and junkies of a grim housing project. He does what he can — keeps his bathroom open for the girls, keeps his kettle on, allows himself to be beaten by the pimps — but the prospects aren’t good. His story is told by his brother, Ciaran, who followed him to New York from Dublin and loves him but can’t quite fathom him; Corrigan is not quite of this world.

Corrigan is somehow undone by seeing Petit that day: by the courage or the contrast or something we never quite understand. The next day, he seems to brake the wrong way on the freeway, the car behind him clips him, and he and his passenger — a young prostitute named Jazzlyn in a Day-Glo swimsuit — fly through the windshield, exemplifying Petit’s motto that NO ONE FALLS HALFWAY.

After this, we get to see the lives touching these two shift, swirl, settle, and change through grief and recovery: Corrigan’s lover, Jazzlyn’s mother, Ciaran and the woman he meets at the funeral, one person touching another who touches a third. The novel is electric with possibility and life. It is profound with the idea that we are all alone, yet never alone. And above it all hovers Petit on his wire: a metaphor for writing, connecting us all with his thin thread of creativity and work.

Throughout the novel, we hear more stories, intimately or tangentially connected, and McCann adopts different narrative styles and voices as he tells them. There is Claire, whose son Joshua died in Vietnam, and who is now part of a grieving mothers’ group; Gloria, who is part of that same mothers’ group and who is caring for Jazzlyn’s two daughters, abandoned after her death; Solomon, Claire’s husband and the judge who passed down Petit’s sentence after his monumental prank on the city of New York. Some of these portraits work better than others — there’s a first-person portrait of a prostitute that was a pretty good chunk of cliché — but McCann keeps rolling them out, barely pausing to draw breath, everyone connected, everyone together, all the lights all over the city.

This book completely surprised me. It is a heartbreaking book, but never depressing. It gives a portrait of New York in its dirtiest days, and it takes everything from prisons to penthouses, prostitutes to angels, and shows us the tightrope connecting them all. Shows us that we never fall halfway. If you haven’t read it, if you thought the hype was suspect, quit waiting.

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13 Responses to Let the Great World Spin

  1. I like your very neat connection between Corrigan and Petit. In fact the whole review is beautifully written. I read and enjoyed this a few months back and have Transatlantic sitting on my TBR shelf. (My effort – http://theknockingshop.blogspot.ie/2013/06/let-great-world-spin.html)

    • Jenny says:

      Yours is a wonderful review. I especially like your connection with the pairs of people — husband and wife, mother and daughter, mother and son, lovers — that mirror the Towers. It made me think, too, of how much wire there is in the novel, connecting people — telephone calls and even proto-computers.

  2. jenclair says:

    Your review is a timely intersection to a the trailer I recently viewed of Man on Wire about Petit’s remarkable feat. I love things that tie together and the tightrope that Corrigan walks works so well with Petit’s dangerous journey across the wire between the two towers.

  3. jenclair says:

    Oh, I thought I was posting the link!

  4. litlove says:

    I have been sitting on the fence about this book for ages now. I simply can’t quite decide if i want to read it or not – but I loved your review and feel encouraged to give it a try.

    • Jenny says:

      It was recommended to me (read: handed to me) by a friend, and I felt quite skeptical about it, probably for many of the same reasons you do. But it completely surprised me. I really thought it was marvelous if you like books about people, which I do.

  5. Alex says:

    I’ve read reviews of McCann’s work repeatedly and every time a new book of his comes out I think this time….. I even went as far as getting ‘Transatlantic’ out of the library when it was long-listed for the Booker this year but hadn’t got round to it by the time it failed to make the short-list and so let it go back. I hope you’ve given me the push I need to finally pick up at least one of his novels.

    • Jenny says:

      Having read this novel, I think it was weirdly overlooked for the Booker (though I have quite a low opinion of the Booker, to be honest.) I’ll be reading more of his work.

  6. My work book club read this as our inaugural book club book, and I did not love it. I have come to accept that I’m not an intertwined-vignettes kind of girl, and I found the first-person prostitute section maddening enough to make it hard for me to enjoy the rest of the book. Book club made me appreciate the book more — at least, admire it more.

    • Jenny says:

      I love intertwined vignettes, especially when they’re as skilfully done as these — glancing off each other and showing the essential interconnectedness of the people both deeply and superficially. I agree about the prostitute section, and I had some problems with an apparent assumption that happiness is connected with prosperity, but nonetheless I just thought the craft of the book was amazing. So well written, almost all of it — so people-y.

  7. cbjames says:

    Wonderful review. I loved this one so much it made my yearly list of top ten favorites. Do watch the documentary. It’s fascinating. And if you’re looking for non-fiction about New York during this same time period, more or less, I highly recommend Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning. It’s about baseball, politics and the Summer of Sam. While not a real life fan of those things, the book was fascinating. Kind of a non-fiction intertwining of vignettes.

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