four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
42-Sept-Oct-2009
By: 
Colum McCann
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A-Let the Great World SpinColum McCann has always kept one eye on history in his novels and short fiction-including Zoli ( 3.5 of 5 Stars Mar/Apr 2007) and This Side of Brightness (1998). Let the Great World Spin details a memorable day in the history of New York City and its parallel to a much larger event more than a quarter century later.

The Story: On August 7, 1974, French high-wire artist Phillippe Petit strung a wire between the newly built World Trade Center towers-a quarter mile above the street-and in eight crossings spanning forty-five minutes, walked his way into legend. That event is the focus of Let the Great World Spin, though the author uses multiple stories to explore the significance of Petit's gesture and its parallel to 9/11. "One small scrap of history meeting a larger one," McCann writes of the connection. "As if the man were somehow anticipating what would come later." Ten different narrators relate their intersecting tales about that day, including Corrigan, an Irish monk; an aging prostitute; a mother grieving the loss of her son in Vietnam; a modern-day computer hacker; and, of course, Petit himself (though never named)-all inextricably bound by time and circumstance.
Random House. 349 pages. $25. ISBN: 9781400063734

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 4.5 of 5 Stars
"McCann has written more than a supremely woven tapestry of imagined lives; through their struggles, he clears a path for healing and redemption from the cataclysm of a later time." Adam Dunn

Seattle Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Colum McCann's marvelously rich novel Let the Great World Spin puts us on the sidewalks and in that city, watching that dot in the sky 'like a pencil mark, most of which had been erased.' Through a Joycean tangle of voices-including that of a fictionalized Petit-he weaves a portrait of a city and a moment, dizzyingly satisfying to read and difficult to put down." Moira Macdonald

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"[McCann's] description of the walk itself would do a ballet critic proud. And if some of his other attempts to elevate work into myth are strained, he succeeds with his image of a flight that lifts the heaviness of a whole city." Richard Eder

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"[A] generous, moving novel capable of disturbing your respiration-like the gasping, hooting New Yorkers who watched Phillippe Petit in August 1974 set his death-defying signature in the Manhattan sky. ... [The good parts] make for that reading experience that we all seek-to leave our own coordinates for a while and plunge into the wilderness of an exceptional book." Karen R. Long

Kansas City Star 4 of 5 Stars
"If major writers like Don DeLillo and Jay McInerney failed to capture the diversity of voices affected by tragedy in their early attempts at Sept. 11 novels, McCann succeeds in delivering these characters allegorically. McCann's 1974 New York is a city in ruins, a modern-day Sodom, his characters bereft of hope after an inexplicable war." Zac Gall

Oregonian 3.5 of 5 Stars
"McCann's style is lyrical and sharp, as he expertly weaves together the lives of a handful of seemingly disparate characters. ... The result is a song of urban experience, though some notes ring sweeter than others (there is an unfortunate chapter featuring a libidinous computer hacker)." Erika Recordon

Washington Post 2 of 5 Stars
"McCann can craft penetrating phrases-a smoker resembles 'his last cigarette, ashen and ready to fall'-but his theme is stale, and the exhaustive back stories he gives each character never pay off. ... By book's end, McCann is writing of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, the width of his canvas enhancing neither the plot nor our concern for it." Mike Peed

Critical Summary

McCann's reputation is that of a writer's writer, as in Dancer, his risky fictionalized biography of ballet legend Rudolf Nureyev. In much the same way that Jay McInerney and Don DeLillo have become standard bearers for social commentary in American fiction, McCann writes about particular times and places-"the collision point of stories"-with a sharp eye and a genuine empathy that allows his fiction to resound with the power of memoir. In Let the Great World Spin, the lives of his characters mirror Petit's courageous, outrageous walk-paths set, outcomes less certain. Although widely praised, a few critics commented that the stories-within-this-story were uneven-not to mention mostly depressing. But in the end, most reviewers opined that the novel's day-in-the-life frame calls to mind James Joyce's Ulysses; the words and the ideas, though, are all McCann's.

Reading Guide

POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!

The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.

1. Let the Great World Spin brings us into the lives of a dozen different fictional characters from many walks of life, from Park Avenue mothers to street-walking prostitutes to computer hackers to radical monks. Why does Colum McCann embrace such a diverse tapestry of characters? Is it reflective of the all-encompassing nature of the city?

2) The novel tales place almost exclusively in New York, but could it have taken place in any other city in the world? Is there an “everyman” quality to the characters? Or does the novel need New York to make it “spin”?

3) The “walker” is suggested by Philippe Petit, who actually walked a tightrope across the World Trade Center towers in August 1974. However, McCann never uses his name, except in the acknowledgments, and the tightrope walker in the novel remains largely anonymous. The drama of the walk gets superseded by the drama of the ordinary lives. Is McCann suggesting that the ordinary gesture is as important as what was once called “the artistic crime of the twentieth century”? Is the ordinary life (Corrigan’s, Lara’s, etc.) as important as the grand public life?

4) The characters are woven together, but they do not realize how close they are to one another. What is the web that holds them together? Is this a genuine reflection of life? Are any of the characters not tied together? What, in your opinion, happens to the phone phreakers?

5) In the chapter titled “This Is the House That Horse Built,” we get an intimate glimpse of the life of a New York prostitute in the 1970s. Do you think Tillie achieves grace despite the circumstances of her life?

6) If you were to have one character tell this story, who would you choose? What does that choice reflect in us, the readers? Would the novel still be able to achieve a kaleidoscopic viewpoint?

7) Most of the novel takes place when the World Trade Center was being completed in 1974, when liberation theology was forging an identity (Corrigan), when artists were pushing frontiers (Lara), when the Internet was being born (the phone phreakers), when the country was learning to deal with the wounds of Vietnam (Claire/ Joshua). Is the novel more about creation than destruction?

8) The book is structured in four parts, the first three held together by the tightrope. In your opinion, are all of the characters walking a tightrope? Is the “art” of their lives as precise as the “art” of the tightrope walker?

9) McCann uses a real photograph of a plane going across the sky while the tightrope walker is still in midair. He attributes the byline to a fictional character, Fernando Yunqué Marcano who was introduced in the chapter “Tag.” What effect does this have on the reader? What does McCann want to achieve by interweaving fact and fiction?

10) Both Corrigan and Jazzlyn—two of the main towers of the novel—die in the first chapter. Why are these particular characters chosen for the fall? Much of the rest of the book is spent building their lives up, getting to know them through other people. They are referenced and described, yet we never hear about them in the first person (except in reported speech). Their minds and voices are a curious presence and simultaneous absence. Why does McCann depict these characters in the third person?

11) Adelita says: “The thing about love is that we come alive in bodies not our own” (page 275). What does she mean by this? 12) What does Jaslyn discover at the end of the novel, when she goes to visit the aging Claire?

13) McCann tells us in the Author’s Note that the title is inspired by a nineteenth-century English poem that in turn was inspired by sixth-century Arabic poetry. Now he uses it for a twenty-firstcentury American novel. What connections is the author making?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Random House. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.