Let the Great World Spin

On an August morning in 1974, if the New Yorkers rushing past the Twin Towers on their usual morning commute paused to look up, they would have seen a tightrope walker on a line suspended between the towers. This moment of guerrilla performance art is what ties together Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, which otherwise explores four separate stories, all of which eventually touch upon each other in strange ways. A group of mothers who lost sons in Vietnam. An Irish brother (and his own actual brother) who is kind to a group of prostitutes in the Bronx. One of those prostitutes, a grandmother and not yet forty, tries to make her life and the lives of her family better. Young artists find themselves fleeing the scene of a car accident and yet they cannot shake the horror of what they have done. This moment in time, suspended, becomes the focus of a novel that offers a fascinating view of a New York that existed not all that long ago, but has been irrevocably lost to us.

It's not that it took me a very long time to get through this novel, it's just that when I set a book aside for a time (for any number of reasons), it's very hard for me to return to it. And it might not have any bearing on the novel itself. For Let the Great World Spin, I just couldn't handle how terribly sad and depressed I felt about halfway through and I needed a bit of distance, but I picked it up again several months later when my book club selected it and I am very pleased that they did. Even in 1974, the Twin Towers were emblems of New York, symbolizing its progress and promise; to view them within the novel is to experience the heavy heart of hindsight.

This is not an easy read, nor should it be. Even if you simply focus on the characters themselves, their lives are full of the heartbreak that is inevitably a part of living. Once setting down the book, however, it is impossible to keep your thoughts from drifting to Ground Zero (particularly if you live in New York, as I do). McCann's characters are vividly real. Even though the actual tight-rope walker plays a small role in the novel, his artistic expression illuminates the tight-rope acts that everyone in this novel is doing -- balancing themselves between conflicting ideas, emotions, or actions. It's a testament to 9/11 that it is so deeply rooted in our national consciousness that McCann evoked every tragic image and moment without any specific allusion to them, until the end when he spoke of his father-in-law's dust-covered shoes. The entire book is haunted by future events, which only makes each new, unrelated pain all the sharper.

My NYC-based book club read this and we had similar reactions, with the general opinion being quite positive of McCann's writing and the book as a whole. Obviously, we shared our "where I was when I heard about the planes" stories. There was the unanimous stereotypical observation that an Irish author can write despair, tragedy, and hardship like no other kind of author in the world. In addition, we collectively appreciated that, despite all the quiet suffering, there was also the undercurrent of resilience, which seems odd for a book not specifically dealing with a tragic event, and yet by reaching in to the past, there was some element that shone through. It's not a British "keep calm and carry on" kind of attitude, but there is the knowledge that whether the tragedy be small and personal or unimaginably large as 9/11, there is the innate human need to continue on and reclaim one's life from the constant thrall of a specific and devastating catastrophe. The motivations for this might vary, but there it is, just the same.

While I wouldn't necessarily recommend that you pick up this title when you're feeling blue, save it until a sunnier day. And any New Yorker should definitely read this for a different perspective on the World Trade Center and its place in our city's history and consciousness.

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