"In the dawning light of the late summer morning, the people of lower Manhattan stand hushed, staring up in disbelief at the Twin Towers. . . . It is August, 1974, and a tightrope walker is running, dancing, leaping between the towers, suspended a quarter-mile in the sky. In the streets below, ordinary lives become extraordinary. Corrigan, a radical young Irish monk, struggles with his own demons as he lives among prostitutes in the Bronx. A group of mothers, gathered in a Park Avenue apartment to mourn the sons who died in Vietnam, discovers how much divides them even in their grief. Further uptown, Tillie, a thirty-eight-year-old grandmother, turns tricks alongside her teenaged daughter, determined not only to take care of her 'babies' but to prove her own worth."
At first sight, Colum McCann's latest offering, entitled Let The Great World Spin, has a very different and arguably less appealing face than the only other novel of his that I have read, Dancer (2003). Six years after Dancer's publication, would Let The Great World Spin prove equally enjoyable? Initially it would appear not, with the first parts of the book consisting of little more than a catalogue of substance abuse that were of little or no interest, similarly to Jon McGregor's Even The Dogs (a book which I have tried and failed to finish of late). Also like Even The Dogs, it is fabulous in its level of detail, and the fact of it being so graphic means that it is certainly not for the weak. But while Even The Dogs is a depressing and miserable collision almost of Eastenders and Skins on the page, Let The Great World Spin is more intriguing, changing scene totally from chaos to calmness and taking us from blood and screams to camomile and lace, making readers question just how all of this will fit together.
The novel's rhythmic qualities mean that although it is long we seem almost automatically carried along by the strength of the thing. The skill with which its characters are drawn is such that it would transfer successfully, in my mind, to the silver screen, and its potent mix of tragedy and gallows humour adds extra poignancy to the spliced moments that make up individual lives. Its illfatedness is almost Gatsbyish and makes it part of a great literary tradition, with its car crash being reminiscent of several famous others. We ultimately want to know what will happen to these poor souls; we know it will end badly and yet keep reading anyway.
Let The Great World Spin also very closely replicates the work of Don DeLillo and Marcel Proust in so uncannily mirroring how we think and how things prey on our minds. Although I have read Don DeLillo's Falling Man recently, and so be making links that are not really there, it seems too to be a portrait of a post-9/11 world, by showing how we are affected by such significant events, whether or not we realise it. The long chapters and stream-of-consciousness style are also features that are reminiscent of Proust, perhaps further cementing my earlier assertion that McCann is truly part of a long and successful literary heritage. He encourages us to see ourselves in art and art in ourselves, which has an inspiring effect in spite of the novel being so deeply suffused with tragedy. This is further compounded by the fact that the small children at the end of the novel are the only ones who have the chance to escape their doomed background, environment and parentage. We are given hope by them, but equally made to feel sorry for those in the story who were deprived of the same chance.
In spite of the non-chronological order of events, which does not always make the storyline easy to follow, Let The Great World Spin is nonetheless relevant and full of impact. It is not only about where we choose to direct meaning, but how and why, and this lends it an absurdist slant: we fill in our lives with meaning in the only ways that we know how, and this does not always involve colouring inside the lines. Although the novel can be disorienting due to the number of characters that it concerns, this is one reason why it merits multiple reads, and it is arguably a grand achievement that in spite of this sense of disorientation, the whole thing pulls together wonderfully, reflecting the world in which we live through a never clear-cut prism of broken dreams.
Other works by Colum McCann
Fishing the Sloe-Black River (1994)
This Side of Brightness (1998)
Everything in this Country Must (2000)