Some things are so self-consciously beautiful that they are deeply unattractive. On the other hand, some things wear their beauty so unconsciously, so easily, that they are compelling. Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann fits into the latter category. Quite simply beautiful. I would pick it up to read and find an hour has disappeared without being noticed. The pages slip past as each wonderfully crafted sentence flows over you.
Sometimes you’ve got to go up to a very high floor to see what the past has done to the present.
The whole story is suspended from the tightrope cable of Philippe Petit, slung between the Twin Towers in 1974. In the city below collisions and connections happen which shape the lives of each character – a aesthetic Irish monk and his aimless brother, mother and daughter prostitutes, a Guatemalen nurse, a husband and wife grieving the loss of their son in the Vietnam war, a woman from the wrong side of the town grieving her similar loss, and a young artist whose marriage is about to reach a crisis because of a tragedy that would connect all parties. Grief leaves its mark, but those who feel it’s cold hand need not be beyond redemption.
Each chapter tells the story of a different character, some in the first person, some narrated. And each one a complete work of art on its own.
A man high in the air while a plane disappears, it seems, into the edge of the building. One small scrap of history meeting a larger one. As if the walking man were somehow anticipating what would come later. The intrusion of time and history. The collision point of stories. We wait for the explosion but it never occurs. The plane passes, the tightrope walker gets to the other side of the wire. Things don’t fall apart.
And the great world spins. Sometimes, seemingly, out of control, heading towards disaster with no hope of rescue, the walker must fall and be dashed at the bottom, doing untold damage on the way. And sometimes not. The capacity of human beings to rescue one another is remarkable. The skill exercised in staying aloft is incredible.
Nobody falls halfway, says a sign inside the door of Petit’s cabin while he is training for the walk – the exact centre of the novel. He falls once, necessary he thinks to ensure it could never happen again. And it doesn’t. Petit doesn’t put a foot wrong. Not once, suspended above the void between the towers. Not a single misstep.
Like this book.