‘Let the Great World Spin’ by Colum McCann (2009) – 349 pages
Of all the novels published during the past few years, ‘Let the Great World Spin’ by Colum McCann has probably gone on to achieve the highest standing among book people. Although ignored by the Booker Prize, it later went on to win the National Book Award in the United States in 2009 and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2011.
After I was bowled over by McCann’s latest book of stories ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking’, I decided that it was way past time that I read ‘Let the Great World Spin’.
Most of the novel takes place on the days surrounding August 7, 1974 which is the day Frenchman Philippe Petit did his surreptitious but widely viewed tight rope walk between the two World Trade Center towers in New York City. Although Petit was arrested, the judge in the case dropped all charges, and in exchange Petit was required to give a free aerial show for children in Central Park which he was happy to do. Both Petit and the judge in this case are characters in ‘Let the Great World Spin’.
But most of the story takes place on the ground. In McCann’s words, these are”the ordinary people on the street, the ones who walked a tightrope just one inch off the ground.”
The theme of the novel is that all of us disparate humans down here on Earth are in this life together, and we all better do our best to help each other along. If we do help each other, wonderful things might happen. We have a selfless monk from Ireland, a black mother and daughter who work as prostitutes, and a group of upper-class mothers grieving over their sons or daughters lost in Vietnam, as well as the tightrope walker and the judge.
At first I thought these characters were somewhat shameless stereotypes. We could just as well have had a selfless black nun and two Irish male prostitutes. However by the end of the novel I came to understand why McCann wrote the novel as he did.
“The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough. “
Sometimes ‘Let the Great World Spin’ has been referred to as a 9/11 novel, perhaps because the tightrope walker is walking between the two WTC buildings. However there are no direct 9/11 scenes, and I don’t believe 9/11 is ever mentioned.
Although most of the novel takes place back in 1974, the last part occurs in 2006. This final section moved me to the point that I had tears in my eyes. To me, that is the sign that I’m reading an exceptionally fine novel.