‘Every now and then the city shook its soul out’: Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin [review]

by Kill Your Darlings , July 14, 20102 Comments

Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (Allen and Unwin)

ISBN: 978-1-4088-0118-5

RRP: $32.99

It is August 1974, and at the bottom of the World Trade Centre, birds are being scooped into zip lock bags, so ‘dazzled by the building’s lights, they crashed into the glass’. It has just been constructed; the glossy, 110-story Twin Towers sit half empty, uneasily puncturing the New York skyline. In lower Manhattan, people emerge from the subway and begin to gather on the street corners. There’s a figure on the edge of one of the towers and watchers crane their necks and lean from apartment and office windows to see what will happen. The black, poised figure above them is Philippe Petit, who stepped from the tower’s edge and walked, high up in the air, from one tower to the other. The sprawl of characters in Colum McCann’s novel, Let the Great World Spin, spill out from this absorbing opening, each of them shadowed by Petit’s ‘act of beauty’, their lives shifted as he steps from the lip of the tower onto a trembling braided cable.

Each section is told by a different narrator. We start with the directionless Ciaran, who arrives in New York from Ireland to visit his brother, Corrigan, a radical Irish priest. Corrigan lives and works in the Bronx, clambering to find an accord between his faith and his love for the Guatemalan nurse, Adelita. In a grey block of flats in the projects, he leaves the door unlocked to his apartment so the prostitutes strolling the street under the Major Deegan Expressway, like Tillie in her day-glo swimsuit, can use the bathroom and the kettle. Across the Hudson, tucked into her Park Avenue apartment is Claire, heartbroken at the death of her son in Vietnam. She’s married to Solomon Soderberg, a judge at the Manhattan Criminal Court, a place where all the muck and grit of the city seems to have been swept into the lobby. There are many more, but the trouble with such a liberal line-up of different narratives is that a few of them feel superfluous, holding too little weight in such an otherwise deft collection of characters.

At times the prose is lyrically smooth, but McCann favours short sentences. For the most part they show the fractured thinking of his characters – for example, the neurosis of Claire. They lend to his work a style that is immediate and electric. Where they are less effective is in the prose that belongs to Tillie. Her narration, which comes in short fragments, feels overtly stylised and a little predictable. Although the brash dialogue suits her character, it lacks the nuance that allows McCann’s other characters to feel so elegantly composed and pitch-perfect. Perhaps it falls short because she is such a glinting, and more credible, character when we first meet her in the section narrated by Ciaran.

The figure of Petit quivers on the conscious of each character. The two sections that see Petit take the narration have some of the best passages of the book, including  McCann’s elegant descriptions of his numerous walks, and are carefully placed anchors for the other sections that sit either side. For Petit’s Twin Towers walk, some will him success and others want him to fall, and these differences are finely balanced. That the same narrative frame is repeated through almost every section could become tiresome for some readers. There is no climactic plot; rather, it is a slow and tentative build towards a neat, but elegiac conclusion.

Let the Great World Spin delivers a clamouring New York City: there’s the casualties of Vietnam, the imminent resignation of Nixon, the city is near bankrupt, graffiti is thick in the subway, and ‘no one in the world would go into Central Park’. Ultimately, it is an unfailingly generous story that pulses with an energy and grace that remains with you for weeks. It’s this line from Solomon that testifies to the kind of New York that McCann has given the reader: ‘every now and then the city shook its soul out.’

Belle Place is an editorial assistant at Affirm Press and writes for various monthly digital publications from Melbourne and Sydney.

  • Mel

    My book club read this a while back, and one thing we commented on was the terrible cover design. Compare it to the beautiful American edition.

    • Estelle

      Agree: the UK (Australian) cover made me think the book was about a French comedian. Totally inexplicable, I know. The US cover is beautiful, and connects a viewer with the book immediately.

      Anyone interested in more fun cover comparisons should read this article at The Millions:


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