Let the Great World Spin: A Novel
I’m a sucker for Rashomon-style novels that tell the same tale from multiple viewpoints. Colum McCann does it particularly well in Let the Great World Spin. In this case, the viewpoints are those of a collection of New Yorkers of all ages and ethnic backgrounds, from the projects to Park Avenue, whose lives briefly carom off each other, mainly because of a fatal car crash one August day in 1974. That also happens to be the day a French gymnast named Philippe Petit walked across a tightrope strung between the towers of the World Trade Center in Manhattan.Almost every chapter hurtles right into its own story without any obtrusive explanations, flashbacks, or even, in some cases, names for the narrators. The clues are delicate. Yet there are enough that the reader can easily figure out who the narrator is and how the chapter ties in with the novel’s total picture.Moreover, the range of narrators is amazing, most of them fleshed-out enough to carry a complete novel themselves with only the words on their backs: a guilt-ridden heiress-artist-drug addict; a snappy street walker who is also a grandmother and the mother of a streetwalker; a wealthy, world-weary judge; his frail wife trying to keep going after their son was killed in Vietnam; a single mother from Guatemala in love with a young Irish priest. No wonder the book won the National Book Award for fiction last year.And yet . . .Too many of the narrators sound alike. Admittedly, it’s hard to come up with ten distinct voices; still, if McCann can create such disparate and complex personalities, can’t he give their voices a little more originality? Why does the Irish priest’s brother sound like the druggie-artist and also like the Guatemalan mom?Even worse are the chapters that aren’t narrated by those ten fictitious New Yorkers. Intermittently, the book throws in chapters about the preparations and thought processes of someone who is obviously Petit yet who is, coyly, never named. Although the meticulous planning for the tightrope walk is interesting at first, these sidepieces finally become boring and repetitive. How many times can a person read about stretching a practice cable in a meadow . . . then in the snow . . . then in the wind . . . ? And for that matter, what’s the big deal about Petit? Why is he worth so much ink, other than as a convenient episode around which to build the more interesting tales? McCann has explained that he chose Petit’s walk as an oblique way to write about the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, which in turn was a kind of tribute to his father-in-law, who survived the attacks while on the 59th floor of the second tower. (McCann still has the dusty shoes his father-in-law wore walking down 59 flights of stairs and several miles up Manhattan.) I can appreciate the motivation and the desire for subtlety. The problem is, the Petit portions aren’t subtle; they’re heavy-handed.So the best way to read this novel is to skip the Petit chapters and focus on the amazing ensemble of characters who—though imaginary—are far more real than the actual Philippe Petit.