Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Book Review: Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

from here
When I was younger (which may only mean last January when I started this project to read 52 books in 2012) I divided books into those I love, those I like, those I'm indifferent to, and those I actively dislike.

As this project goes on, I find myself liking fewer books, but also disliking fewer books as well. Instead, I begin to see flaws. The best books I've read this year (Asterios Polyp, Cutting for Stone, Death in the AfternoonThe Imperfectionists) have the fewest flaws, which is not to say they are flawless. But their strengths outweigh their weaknesses by a considerable margin.

Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin started off with several points in the bank: it's set in a city I love (New York City), in a time period I find fascinating (the 1970s, amid the tide of urban blight ready to swallow New York), and in a format I adore (a series of interconnected, only marginally sequential short stories).

McCann builds from there: his stories revolve around Philippe Petit's August 7, 1974, tightrope walk between the Twin Towers. Petit is a reoccurring character, taking a couple chapters for himself, and in some way touching the lives of every other character in the novel.

McCann makes the novel revolve around the wirewalker (who goes unnamed in the novel), but the wirewalker is hardly a central character. Instead, he is the symbolic apotheosis of a city and a nation's re-awakening hope. When the city's grit threatens to swallow its inhabitants, they cling to each other, and to the higher ideals they inspire in each other.

The drifting Irishman Ciaran has his brother Corrigan, the priest in love with a Guatemalan nurse; the prostitutes Tillie and Jazzlyn, mother and daughter both trapped by drugs and the penal system; the mothers of slain Vietnam veterans who meet to share grief, one of whose husband is the judge set to arraign both Tillie and the wirewalker.

I can't really do justice to the emotion McCann inspires: a re-emergence from darkness, the possibility of hope, a chance. But he makes the spinning sing; as the stories mount we feel the precipitousness of the adventure, how one slip spells disaster but the elation that comes with success. We have a chance to walk among the clouds, if we dare.

This was book 34 of my 52 book challenge.

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