Let the Great World Spin

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By all means, judge a book by its cover.

All I knew about Colum (That spelling feels wrong, doesn’t it?) McCann’s Let the Great World Spin when I picked it up in 2011 was that you cannot go wrong with a title like that. I judge books by their titles; I judge them by their covers too, and this one was promising on both counts.

My first try came last year–I was 75 pages deep before I decided I couldn’t go any further. The writing wasn’t bad; the problem was that it hurt. It hurt like no other book I had read in a long time, perhaps like no other book I had read until then.

It opens in 1974, with the story of Corrigan, an Irish priest, technically. He is going about the Lord’s work in the Bronx in a rather peculiar fashion–here he does it by letting prostitutes use his toilet, free of charge. This first part, entitled “All Respects to Heaven, I Like It Here,” is narrated by Corrie’s brother Ciaran. Like the rest of the book, it is alive with detail: you can feel the dirt and grime of New York’s underbelly crawling under your skin, the discarded gum, condoms and syringes tossed casually about the street, the stench of it, the half-darkness that hovers over this world even in the daytime. By page 72 there have been two grotesque deaths, a car crash, all spectacular and senseless. I went a few pages further but kept having nightmares about it. So I closed the book and reshelved it in favor of something more cheerful, though I don’t now remember what.

Seven days ago, I felt compelled to try again. It is the eighth novel I read this year.

This time it was easy. When I had taken at least a week to get through those first 75 pages, I now read over a hundred in one sitting. I didn’t realize the first time how fluid McCann’s language was. It is actually smooth reading, despite its heavy opening. Let the Great World Spin is a novel that begins with pure anguish, the kind of book you need to be prepared to read, akin to JM Coetzee’s Disgrace. It feels like you need to take deep breaths, ready a glass of water on your desk, set your mind to the task and tell yourself that it will be a little harder than usual–like beginning work on a term paper for a class you don’t like, or seeing a particularly cynical friend who has a way of making flowers wilt along her path.

Not to say that the book is all dreary, because it is not. It starts out in the dark, in the valley in the shadow of death, and points to its readers the pinpricks of light that stubbornly survive in these places. In fact, I think it’s one of the few books that end on a note of genuine hope: just because the world is sick doesn’t mean it can’t go on living; just because we’ve seen or done the worst doesn’t mean we’re disqualified from redemption.

It tells eleven different stories: our protagonist Corrigan, two prostitutes he is helping out, a New York City judge, the self-proclaimed Scott and Zelda of the 1974 art scene, a Park Avenue housewife who lost her only son in the Vietnam war, a group of hackers in the pre-internet age, and so on. Their stories intersect, overlap and wind around each other. The common thread that runs through them is a true story: of a walker crossing the North and South Towers of the newly-constructed World Trade Center on tightrope, one busy city morning in 1974.

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“‘Why, why,’ and that was very–again, in my way of seeing America–a very American, finger-snapping question. It’s something magnificent and mysterious, and I got a practical ‘Why?'” – Philippe Petit on crossing the Twin Towers, August 1974

The novel is a panoramic view of New York City, zooming in on the heartbreaks and secret joys of individual lives lived on such tightropes–of keeping up appearances, a career, balancing sanity with survival, or realism with the last shred of religious faith.

He walks over in front of the television set with the spoon still hanging off the end of his nose. It falls and he catches it and then he breathes on it once more, does his trick. The children explode in laughter. “Let me, let me, let me.”

Theres are the little things I am learning. He is ridiculous enough to hang spoons off the end of his nose. This, and he likes to blow his café cool, three short blows, one long blow. This, and he has no taste for cereal. This, and that he’s good at fixing toasters.

McCann’s novel is an exercise in empathy, in what Jesus Christ called compassion. One story is told from jail; another from the penthouse suite of an exclusive residential high-rise. Niether of them is better or worse than the other. It carries the surprise that comes with meeting new people and seeing them as that: as people, with stories to tell, instead of merely as supporting characters in our self-centered human drama. Perhaps the Filipino word is best: kapwa. A human fraternity, that makes them just as important as us, that blurs the line between them and us, so there is only humanity, and all the losses we sustain, and the burden of grief and loneliness and stubborn joy that we bear daily.

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