THE TAPESTRY of Colum McCann’s novel Let The Great World Spin is so rich and deep, so varied and rewarding, that the book needs to be read several times before it can be fully appreciated.
The first reading is merely an introduction to an intricate cast of characters who are touched in one way or the other by one of those unusual events that can only happen in New York city. The second reading allows the reader to fully appreciate McCann’s mastery not only as a storyteller, but also as a word craftsman and novelist.
The third reading is an exploration of the human experience in all its aspirations and failures. At all times, the reader is conscious of the deep compassion with which the book is written.
On August 7 1974, Frenchman Philippe Pettit walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers in New York city. For McCann, this stunt becomes the axle around which the lives of eight disparate imaginary people revolve, spinning around one another while the world seems to be walking down an increasingly darkened cul-de-sac.
The great cultural revolution of the sixties has petered out. The Vietnam War is drawing towards its inconclusive and humiliating end. The American presidency is proving to be less than the role model it should be and the spectre of Orwell’s 1984 seems to be more fact than fiction.
McCann the artist takes this seemingly arid landscape and begins to build a canvas full of life with all its pain and hope. First we meet Corrie, the self styled missionary who is seeking his spiritual salvation by administering to a small group of prostitutes in the Bronx, his brother Ciaran who flees Dublin looking for refuge, the prostitutes themselves, mainly Tilly and her daughter Jazzlyn, and the nurse Adelita whose violent husband has been killed in the civil war in Guatemala.
Then we are introduced to the somewhat precious well-to-do housewife Claire who is mourning her son killed in a senseless grenade attack in Vietnam, and her Jewish husband Solomon, the judge whose aspiration to change the world is somewhat challenged by the sordidness of his courtroom.
Added to this pot-pourri is Lara the failed artist in a doomed marriage, desperately trying to escape a drug habit that is spiralling out of control.
Having created the canvas, McCann now begins to work his magic as a novelist thus enthralling the reader as these characters’ lives intermingle and the full panorama of human love, loss, belonging and striving unfolds in unexpected and intriguing ways.
The novel has many magnificent and moving moments but McCann is not without a wonderful sense of humour that expresses itself in ways that often smack of genius, such as the wonderful conversation between computer hackers in Palo Alto, California, which includes the memorable lines:
“Try the ARPANET, man.
-Get a pay phone!
-I can’t believe it’s busy.
-Well, unbusy it.
-I’m not God.
-Then find someone who is, man”
In his author’s note placed at the end of the book, McCann concludes: “Literature can remind us that not all life is already written down: there are still so many stories to be told”.
In this book he certainly proves his point and we are all the richer for it. The reader is certainly left with the overall impression that no matter how dark or deep the tunnel there is always a light at the end of it. That light is the essence of our humanity and we should be deeply thankful that novelists such as Colum McCann in books like Let The Great World Spin keep that light alive.