Tuesday, January 05, 2010

What We Are Reading: Let the Great World Spin

Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann

A few months ago Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin won the National Book Award for fiction. It is an unusual choice, not a book written in the linear and plot driven mode we associate with most versions of the popular modern novel. Some reviewers have called it the biography of a city, a portrait of New York in the early 1970s told through the stories of a number of characters. None of those characters are what we think of as protagonists of a novel, and yet all of their stories seem, in retrospect, essential to the book’s themes and the affect the novel has upon us.
The frequent remark in reviews that New York itself is the “main character” of the book is informed in no small measure I suppose by the carefully etched portrait of the city’s urban landscape, but it derives, perhaps in greater measure, from the novel’s time-frame. McCann writes of the lives of people living there during a very specific slice of time. I did not live in New York at the time, and perhaps this book is particularly resonant for New Yorkers, but for those of us that remember the times, this book is indeed an extraordinary and sombre resurrection of what was not only particular to New York, but a national feeling. The early 1970s were a time of disillusionment for many. The decade began with the killings at Kent State, the “silent majority” had reasserted its dominance and made clear to those who participated in the progressive movements of the late 1960s just how small a group they were in the national culture. The deaths in Vietnam continued as the war was slowly wound down to a conclusion that represented defeat for both opponents and supporters. In 1973 the Vice-President of the United States was forced to resign amidst scandal, and the major events of the novel take place only a few days before the resignation of Richard Nixon in August of 1974. That the novel can so faithfully evoke the spirit of the times perhaps proves once again what can be extraordinary about fiction, how it can do what nothing else can do in preserving a memory of not just social and historical events, of the culture at large or the objects of material culture, but actually the way that it felt to live at a moment in time. Film footage and images fall short. It seems that only music has a comparable power to evoke the feeling of an era, but its resonance seems always more allusive than the kind of recreation that is achieved here.

A quote from the Bosnian/American writer Aleksandar Hemon appears on a page before the novel begins: “All the lives we could live, all the people we will never know, never will be, they are everywhere. That is what the world is.” It describes not only McCann’s essential theme, but it also illuminates the method he has used to resurrect a world. While the feel of this novel reminds me most of McCann’s first book, his wonderful collection of short stories, Fishing the Sloe-Black River, it is not a collection of short stories. Nor is it the kind of crafted collection of vignettes told from different points of view that are meant by accumulation to unfold the true picture of some shared event. And we are all familiar with writing that shows us differing perspectives on the same events or experiences and is intended to give us some insight about the varying character of those who witness it. But in this novel, the sense of a fabric whole and complete is achieved, paradoxically, by the moments in which lives, and the stories of different lives, briefly intersect and then move on. That dynamic is what creates the sense of what life is for us and whatever feelings about it we share.

The feeling here is one of a certain sadness. We meet people from all walks of life: the prostitutes, the drug dealers, the old and abandoned, the sainted idealists that try to save them all, the bereaved parents of lost sons and daughters. They all seem to have some abiding source of sorrow, wounds that are so hard to heal.

As a leitmotif, above all of these lives, threads the figure of Philippe Petit as he walks the tightrope in his famous walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in August of 1974, envisioned here by McCann not as a daring stunt but as an act of art and beauty that defies the desperation of the times, that speaks of the ability of art to give us moments that, as all eyes look up, transcend what seems the ineluctable sorrow of what happens below, moments that keep us hanging on as the great world spins.

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