Hello there! I’m posting my very first book review here on my Girl with Thoughts, Beware blog! As always, you can friend me on Goodreads and read more of my reviews on the that site too.
A word about my reviews:
My reviews are intended for those specifically who have read the novel and are looking for a place to read another’s take on the book and to also share their own thoughts. I don’t particularly like to read a recap of the story’s premise and who is who, etc, in reviews so you won’t find anything like that here. Unless I must explain a bit of premise detail in my review to give context to a thought or idea, I keep recaps to a bare minimum, if at all.
My thoughts on the books I read are by no means meant to be objective. I try to give an accurate portrait of what I experienced from reading this novel, what themes came to surface, in addition to what I liked and disliked about the book.
If you are curious about the book without having read it and would like to read my review- by all means! But please be forewarned that my reviews may contain spoilers.
“Let the Great World Spin”, Colum McCann
This is a novel that is quite hard to define in adjectives. In fact, I find it a hard book to define, period. On one hand there is so much happening between the characters, seemingly unconnected, and yet in many sections of the book nothing actually does happen. It’s dizzying, disorienting, and a little chaotic. And it is because of this constant tilt from motion to stillness that the novel manages to capture the dance of the very person who inspired the story: tightrope artist Philippe Petit who, in August of 1974, completed more than a dozen turns in less than an hour on a wire stretched between the not-yet-finished World Trade Center Towers in New York City.
Two passages- one from the novel itself and another from a reviewer of the novel on the back cover- capture the true essence of the book for me:
“Sometimes you’ve got to go up to a very high floor to see what the past has done to the present” (Let the Great World Spin, Gloria).
“A masterly chorus of voices…With Phillippe Petit’s breathless 1974 tightrope walk between the uncompleted World Trade Center towers at its axis, Colum McCann offers us a lyrical cycloramic high-low portrait of New York City in its days of burning” Richard Price.
Indeed, the author’s construction and use of the High/Low concept is really what makes the novel move amidst a spectacular event that caused most of the city to stand still. Of course you have Petit, who is the highest of all the characters, sitting on his wire while the rest of the city stumbles on below, but the idea extends to all of the characters. Corrigan, an earthy priest of some religious order and originally from Ireland, is committed to serving the lowest dregs of society- in this case, prostitutes and the handicapped elderly whose family has abandoned them- in the tenement slums of the Bronx. Corrigan and his God signify the “high” working in the “lowest” part of the city. You’ve also got the tenement high rises working opposite the streets, where the prostitutes- Tilly and daughter Jazzlyn- work the stroll. Corrigan meets Analita, a beautiful Columbian nurse who helps out at the elderly home, and is conflicted over his attraction to her. They share a brief tryst in her ground floor apartment, while Corrigan assumes his God is judging him from above.
In the other end of the city, on the Upper (get it?) West Side, we have Claire, high above the masses (or so she is perceived) in her penthouse suite, still mourning the death of her son who was killed in Vietnam two years prior. Her husband, a judge, sits high on his chair in the courtroom and rules in the cases of Tilly, considered by him as a “lowly” prostitute, and eventually Petit after his arrest, who manages to dazzle the taciturn judge with his star power. Claire is joined by African-American Gloria along with a group of women who have also lost sons that meet once a month in each other’s apartments to collectively grieve and share stories. Gloria, from the lower end of the Bronx, provides the bridge between the high/low for Claire, and ultimately for almost all of the characters stories, and at the end of the novel there is finally a balance, an equilibrium of sorts, symbolized by a reunion between Claire and Tilly’s granddaughter Jaslyn.
There are several more examples of this concept, and though I may have simplified the idea in my review, it is by no means as obvious as you read the novel. McCann did a remarkable job of presenting these characters from all different walks of life and creating a believable link between each one. As I moved along from story to story, the common thread of course being the wire walk that has gripped the city, I was entranced by McCann’s vision of NYC during the 70s. It’s a dirty, polluted, sweaty- not to mention corrupt- place. With the Vietnam War still a burning ember and not quite pushed to the back of everyone’s mind, the city mirrored the events of the day. The author casually offers his opinion in barely a whisper: has anything really changed? There is a steady thrum, a buzz that quietly hums in the background. I can really feel the language of these characters, their lives spiraling and spinning along what should be a normal day in the city. And the pulse of the not-quite-forgotten war keeps a steady beat. Both Claire and another woman from the group reference their lost boys in the scope of the tightrope walker. Only Claire is more direct: how dare this man challenge and play with death so willingly when her son is no longer alive?
In some instances, however, the concept of tilting back and forth between New York City denizens as they are influenced and affected by Petit’s walk is not as strong. While most of the characters in each chapter get their own separate backstory from the narrative and resurface in different points of the novel, two chapters in particular feature characters that are introduced briefly and then never reoccur. This works in the case of the computer hackers living on the west coast, who randomly call a pay phone outside of the twin towers to find out any information about Petit and what is going on. It is a brilliant reminder of the times and the fact that a 24 hour news cycle was non-existent in 1974: you literally had to catch the news at 6pm and 10pm the same day or wait for the story to appear in the next day’s newspapers. Less effective, though, is the chapter featuring a young photographer who, on the day of Petit’s walk, is busy chronicling taggers and their spray paint art beneath the NYC subway system (another high/low moment). The fictional character is credited as taking the pivotal and most famous photo of Petit mid-walk across the wire, though in truth, the credit actually belongs to real-life photographer. This manipulation seems contrived, as the character’s backstory was obviously added to give depth to the overall theme of the novel, but it didn’t happen to fit with the true photographers own story. I didn’t particularly NEED this story in the book; it neither enhanced nor enriched the subtext from an already rich and complex story.
The big white “elephant”(s) in the story, if you will, are the actual World Trade Center Towers themselves. I’ve read in other reviews that “Let the Great World Spin” was written as the author’s tribute to 9/11. I must point out that not once does the author make mention of this fact in his novel, despite the fact that the latter half of the story takes place in 2006, only 5 years removed from the catastrophic event, and it is curious that Jaslyn, the character featured in the last part of the book, does not remark on the Towers disappearance from the city, even though she does reference a picture of Petit’s walk across the Towers. At first I was bothered by it, the absence of the two gigantic buildings that served as catalyst for the overriding story line, but the more I came to terms with the idea, the more it made sense from the author’s point of view. As we live in a post-9/11 world, we are both affected AND removed from the event itself. It has become part of our landscape in many ways. And if McCann saw NYC of the seventies and beyond as dirty and corrupt, then the city after 2001 can be viewed as a level playing ground- literally and figuratively. We can no longer think in terms of High/Low as members of society. As Gloria says, “you have to get to a high floor to see what the past has done to the present”.
A fellow book clubber mentioned during our discussion of this novel an interview she read with McCann, who noted that this book was not only a tribute to the WTC, but also a cathartic answer to a nagging question. How do we come together as people during and after an extraordinary event? Like Petit’s walk, which enthralled (and in some cases, angered) a city and later the nation, so is the case of the actual day of the WTC Towers collapse: you knew exactly where you were, what you were doing, and most importantly, whether you were on the west coast or abroad, you were six degrees separated from someone else who was an eye-witness to the event. We are not all separate beings, existing on an individual plane- our actions and experiences, unbeknownst to us, are all indirectly and in many cases, directly, connected. The end of the novel highlights this idea. Claire is directly connected to an otherwise implausible connection: she is the godmother to Jazzlyn’s- one of Corrigan’s prostitutes from the Bronx- daughter Jaslyn. They meet for one last time as Claire lays dying, except this time there is no distinction, no boundary between the two, no high/low.
It is a subtle and yet profound novel, and not one to be taken lightly. The characters never leave you, and it is hard to leave them at the end of each chapter. You almost need to take a break before proceeding to the next one. If the book had been written as a more thinly veiled version of a “9/11” tribute novel, I don’t think it would have succeeded. 9/11 is a wound that will only slowly heal over time and must be approached with care. “Let the Great World Spin” is a creative and colorful use of narrative to pay tribute to these buildings (considered hideous monstrosities in the early 70s, by the way) by in fact paying tribute to a simple tightrope artist who saw a kind of beauty in the Towers in their infancy before anyone else could. The world will continue to spin, despite whatever horrors we inflict on each other, but the Towers will forever be etched in our minds as a testament to one of humans greatest achievements, which in turn inspired the greatest achievement of one man in particular, who dared the impossible.
(PS, as a side note, if you have never seen the “Man on Wire” documentary about Philippe Petit’s walk, I highly recommend it if you intend to read this book. The film makes a wonderful companion to the novel).