Colum McCann

By connecting the tops of the World Trade Center towers with a tightrope in 1974, Philippe Petit created a space that wasn’t there. By populating that space with a human being, he invented a space where nobody else would ever venture. He made it real.

Of course, he made my knees turn to jelly, but he made it real and he messed with our heads in a way that connected art and athleticism and imagination. (If you haven’t seen “Man On Wire,” do so.)

By writing a book that features Petit and the World Trade Center as a motif, a background element, Colum McCann has created a novel about The World Trade Center and our reaction to the events by 9-11 by pretty much avoiding the whole topic.

McCann calls “Let The Great World Spin” an “anti-narrative of the 9-11 experience.”

It is just that.  It’s also touching and powerful.

“The novel doesn’t want to cling to all the grief, all the sadness,” said McCann in the interview posted at . “I am interested in grace and recovery, and making sense of the small lives at the bottom.”

Grace and recovery. Who doesn’t need a bit of those two necessities as 2009 draws to a close. Can we all just get a bit of grace and recovery around here?

“Let The Great World Spin” has “trite potential” written all over it. The theme—and I’m giving nothing away here—is that nothing is entirely by itself.

The observation, that “nothing is entirely by itself,” comes from Gloria as she’s leaving a gathering of women who have lost sons in Vietnam. “Each thing as strange as the last, and connected,” she concludes.

The inter-connectedness of the stories in McCann’s novel isn’t apparent at first. But then you begin to see how the stories touch each other and interact and you watch in awe as McCann pulls the cinch tighter and then yanks hard at the end as the last story-arrow is shot up from 1974 and it lands decades later after the War in Iraq. Too neatly? This is probably a matter of how sweet you like your endings. I vote yes. It feels entirely real and it leaves you with a ray of hope that human connections do make a difference.

McCann enters the worlds of each of his main characters with ease. We are inside Petit’s head (though Petit is unnamed) and we are inside the head of a Jesuit priest, a prostitute, a judge, an artist, and a Park Avenue woman of means.  Mother-and-daughter prostitutes Tillie and Jazzlyn are pieces of work, terrific creations.

I enjoyed all the writing and the shift in voice and tone from character to character, but Claire Soderberg is particularly well drawn. Her grief is palpable. She’s one of several mothers who have bonded over the loss of their sons in Vietnam and, when we meet her for the first time, is about to host the group at her relatively fancy apartment for the first time.

“How to greet? Handshake? Air kiss? Smile? The first time around they had hugged good-bye, all of them, in Staten Island, at the doorstep, with the taxi beeping, her eyes streaked with tears, arms around one another, all of us happy, at Marcia’s house, when Janet pointed to a yellow balloon caught in the treetops: Oh, let’s meet again soon! And Gloria had squeezed her arm. They had touched cheeks.”

MCann’s characters pinball off each other and we begin to see how their lives overlap too, how the small decisions in one setting lead to the consequences in the next.  I found McCann’s descriptions detailed, rich and inviting. The dialogue was just as sharp.

“Let The Great World Spin” is a symphony. It engages a wide range of players and they rely on each other to produce one big sound, though we readers are the only ones who get to see the whole picture.

McCann has also said “every novel is a failure,” that the execution never matches the original vision as it developed in the author’s head.


Hard to see the “failure” here—“Let The Great World Spin” created a space I didn’t know existed.  The book gives you a chance to “look at the crap and the grime and the torments in the world around us,” as McCann says, “and still find something beautiful in the end.”


4 responses to “Colum McCann

  1. “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” Samuel Beckett was right and I think McCann’s right too. Are novelists every truly satisfied with the result, the whole thing? Unlike a poem, a novel is big with the machinery of words that combine in unexpected ways. But that is what makes art possible. Nice piece, Mark.

  2. I think the ‘failure’ becomes part of the beauty of writing- that reaching for something just out of reach

  3. Pingback: Colum McCann – “Transatlantic” | Don't Need A Diagram

  4. Pingback: Colum McCann – “Thirteen Ways of Looking” | Don't Need A Diagram

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