by COLUM McCANN
Like frayed threads of rope
I find out about books in a lot of ways; I pull books off the shelf that I discovered through reviews in the New York Times (occasionally), through a friend (a lot), from a distant memory of senior year English class (more often than I would have guessed). But this is the first time I’ve picked a book recommended to me by an actual book seller … and liked it!
Here’s how it went down: As some of you know, I recently went to New York for a week (more on that later). In the week or so leading up to the trip, I decided it would be interesting to read a book set in New York.
I didn’t want a detailed history or a biography of Rudolph Giuliani. Instead, I thought it would be more fun to pick a novel set in New York where the author knows enough about the city to let it play a part in the novel — à la Paul Auster’s Brooklyn Follies. That was excellent, if I do say so myself.
I weighed a few different options, most notably Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (a book that is still on my to-read list). I had actually decided on Smith’s book until, on a whim, I asked a sales clerk at the Barnes & Noble information desk if she knew of a good New York book. She led me both to A Tree and to Let the Great World Spin.
Although I know I will one day read A Tree, I’m glad I decided on McCann. His novel centers around the day when Philippe Petit walked a line between the Two Towers. (If you want to know more about this, I would recommend the documentary film Man on Wire, but that’s another review.)
McCann unites the stories of about a dozen people in the city and the extraordinary (or not) events that happen to each of them. The grand thing about McCann’s writing is that it presents life in the city honestly and yet gut-wrenchingly. Because there are so many interesting players that figure in, it would take far too much time to explain all of them here (and besides, McCann can do it so much better).
Among my favorites:
Ciaran Corrigan, whose name alone is reason to like at the very least. Ciaran’s life for much of the book is defined by that of his brother, a man who lives tenaciously and devoutly, though he seems as trapped by these traits as he is special. Ciaran seems entranced by his brother’s magical persona, though he describes himself as merely ordinary.
Lara Liveman, a soft-willed girl from the Midwest with modest artistic talent and enough appreciation of good art to recognize a fake when she sees one. She does so in her own husband, whose artwork seems aimed to get him into the best clubs than to produce something beautiful.
Finally, there is the fragile, wistful, perhaps too-rich-for-her-own-good Claire Soderberg. Broken by the early death of her son in Vietnam, Claire desperately wants to talk about her son and so to begin healing, but her own social awkwardness and embarrassment stands in her way.
This book reads almost as a collection of interwoven short stories — so much so that it would be difficult to outline a single plot (though the stories are unified by Petit’s walk). However, it is worth noting that McCann takes the time to develop each character fully and richly — and more importantly, believably. The book is ultimately about the striking tragedies and the more subtle, yet no less life-altering beauties of the world. A worthwhile book for anyone with a shred of human sentiment, and if you’re feeling devoid of emotion, it’s a good way to rediscover it. As frayed as life, yet tightly woven as Philippe Petit’s wire, Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin is substantial and beautifully fashioned.