Drop everything and read Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann now. See other entries in this series here.
I can’t even tell you if it’s anything like McCann’s other books. I’ve tried to read one, but always I close it after a few sentences, because its prose—adept enough, beautiful enough, intriguing enough—is breaking my heart. Just because it isn’t Let the Great World Spin.
I know people who’ve gone to see “Avatar” two, three, four times, because they can’t handle the shock of being thrust back into the real world. I get that impulse. But—screw the too-pretty, vapid, light-wreathed world o’ the giant Smurfs. Let the Great World Spin in the world I want to stay in, because it’s messy and human and hard and true.
Did that sound like a cliché? My apologies, but I am not alone. You need only glance at the reviews for this book to realize that attempting to describe it reduces people to vague, grasping hyperbole and lots of uses of the word “human.” Even basic description seems to elude reviewers. It’s a New York novel! That opens in Ireland. It’s about Philippe Petit’s famous tightrope walk across between the Twin Towers! Not “about,” not really. It’s written in the voices of several unconnected characters! Define “unconnected.” It’s a 9/11 novel! That takes place decades before the towers fell. (And yet it is, sort of: Before those planes flew into the towers, no one imagined they really could. And before a man strung a wire between the two towers and walked across, well, no one dared imagine that, either.)
A friend who had not seen the documentary movie “Man on Wire” told me she thought the tightrope walker a metaphor for God, the way beauty and wonder (and terror, anything that grand in its ambition) exist all around us, utterly unconcerned with us. Our lives are steeped in them, but we rarely notice.
True, but it’s McCann who’s the god here, his orchestration that adept. The characters in Let the Great World Spin are rarely physically alone. They share rooms and scenes despite different genders, different ethnicities, different ages, and McCann slides into each of their voices as though to say see, we really are all just human. But the effect never lets you forget that each is—that we all are—alone, suspended in our individual consciousnesses and mortal.
It’s not a perfect book. As other reviewers have pointed out, some of the voices—particularly the prostitutes’—are a little forced, some of the coincidences a little too coincidental. Perhaps I should make this urgent a case only for a perfect book. But what is perfection? How human would that be? At the book’s heart is the messy complexity of life. At its heart is that full impulse, that full drive.
Read it, it will make you happy to be alive.
And then it will end, and you will be ruined for awhile.
I truly am sorry about that.
(Somewhat) Similar reads: Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine; Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathon Safren Foer; Things I Like About America: Personal Narratives by Poe Ballantine; the short story “Future Emergencies” by Nicole Krauss. And, of course, a documentary: “Man on Wire.”