Let the Great World Spin..and spin…and spin

5th April 2011

I have been reading this book for weeks. Weeks! I don’t take weeks to read a book. In my defense, the first two-thirds of this book were extremely slow. This afternoon, though, I sat down and swept through the last part and actually sat in the early-evening light, enjoying McCann’s writing and then in the dark, contemplating it. Upon finishing, I partially understood the reason it was named the National Book Award winner. However…

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann is not a plot-driven novel. At all. McCann has essentially written a series of stories revolving around a 1974 incident in New York City, when Philippe Petit orchestrated a walk on a tightrope between the towers of the World Trade Center. In exploring the lives of those below, McCann exemplifies that even in a place like New York, lives are interconnected. Don’t expect much about the funambulist, though. There is a chapter devoted to the walker, but I found it overwrought and exhausting to read. In fact, I’d argue that the novel actually revolves around another man entirely – Corrigan, an Irishman torn between love of God and love of a good woman. So why the pretense of the tightrope walker? I’m still not sure.

McCann has an absolutely beautiful writing style, but I had to sit back and ask why several chapters weren’t cut as they seemed superfluous. I think McCann was attempting to connect each story, but it felt forced, and it made me wonder why writers often don’t acknowledge the anonymity of life – that sometimes there are no neat endings.

The most successful voices (to me) didn’t come until the end of the book. There’s Tillie, a hooker whose own daughter hooks and uses drugs. Tillie wonders how and why she could have let this life happen to her and her daughter In a prison cell, she thinks about her daughter:

I gave Jazzlyn a bath once. She was just a few weeks old. Skin shining. I looked at her and thought she gave birth to the word beautiful.

Then there’s Judge Solomon Soderburg, a man who has lost his son in Vietnam and whose wife is barely holding it together in their Park Avenue apartment. Being a judge may get him a seat in a good restaurant, but he misses his son and has no real outlet for his pain, but, as he says,

You mourn your dead son and you wake up in the middle of the night with your wife weeping beside you and you go to the kitchen, where you make yourself a cheese sandwich and you think, Well, at least it’s a cheese sandwich on Park Avenue, it could be worse, you could have ended up far worse: your reward, a sigh of relief.

The judge’s chapter was, by and far, the most beautifully-written chapter, and I include some gems below:

On the city:

Every now and then [New York City] … assailed you with an image, or a day, or a crime, or a terror, or a beauty so difficult to wrap your mind around that you had to shake your head in disbelief.

He had a theory about it. It happened, and re-happened, because it was a city uninterested in history. Strange things occurred precisely because there was no necessary regard for the past.

On the tightrope walker:

[The walker] was making a statement with his body, and if he fell, well, he fell — but if he survived he would become a monument, not carved in stone or encased in brass, but one of those New York monuments that made you say: Can you believe it? With an expletive.

Then there were moments in the book that plain irritated me. I read the following passage (which actually goes on much longer) and thought to myself, huh, that sounds familiar:

Plastic bags caught on the gusts of the summer wind. Old domino players sat in the courtyard, playing underneath the flying litter. The sound of the plastic bags was like rifle fire. If you watched the rubbish for a while you could tell the exact shape of the wind.

It took me about 3 seconds to remember one of my favorite scenes from the 1999 film American Beauty, where a young filmmaker films a plastic bag dancing on the wind. This immediately annoyed me, and then the further I read, the more annoyed I became. Dawn at Too Fond of Books and Beth Fish Reads both point out that the prevalence of the plastic bag occurred much later than the 70s. So first, a rip-off and then an inaccuracy. Along with the overuse of similes and the seemingly-pointless chapters, I was extremely disappointed in the whole effect of the book. Many readers have divulged they simply didn’t finish the book, which is, of course, the risk when the first half drags so much. It’s a shame because there are moments that are magnificent. Let the Great World Spin has the pretense of a novel, so I pushed on to find out what the heck happens. Well, nothing happens in the novel, but everything happens in the short vignettes. I just wish that perhaps McCann would have called this what it is – a short story collection – and let me get on with my day.

What do you think? Have you ever read a novel that is not what you expected (and not in a good way)? Have you ever been this torn about a book?

Read this one: immediately / asap / when you get a chance / if you’re bored

jenn aka the picky girl

Other opinions:

The Literate Housewife

S. Krishna’s Books

Man of La Book

Nonsuch Book

  • Wonderful review. I didn’t particulary care for this book (my thoughts are here: http://manoflabook.com/wp/?p=71).

    I thought it took a very long time to say nothing.

    • pickygirl

      Yes – I linked to your review and was surprised to see a couple others who agreed with me (I sometimes feel like the lone dissenter). That last sentence would be an excellent review if there weren’t a few stories that I thought were really great.

  • Oops… particulary = particularly

  • Very interesting review- (hadn’t considered the bag at all!) and agree with many of your points. I read this and really loved it, but almost entirely for the gorgeous writing, far less for the plot. Remember thinking the opening chapter (s?) was the star of the show. Though I liked the view of the city in the 1970’s and thought it was poignant.

    • pickygirl

      NYC in the 70s – yeah, I thought it was a pretty great depiction of it, and you’re right the writing was often really beautiful. Thanks for stopping by!

  • I’m now more curious about this book, mainly since you mention that this is not a plot driven story. Also, I kind of enjoy books that have a bunch of disconnected stories brought together into one novel. Sad that it is slow, that does annoy me sometimes.

    • pickygirl

      I can enjoy that sort of book. I just felt that some stories didn’t connect at all and were left hanging. Why put them in if the others DO connect? It’s confusing to me, and there were a couple chapters that I was just totally lost. But again, so much good here. I’d probably hand it to someone and say: Book of short stories. Read it just like that.