Irish-American author Colum McCann is the author of two story collections and four other novels, but it was Let the Great World Spin that won the National Book Award and became a bestseller on four continents. The ensemble story circles around Philippe Petit's tightrope walk between the Twin Towers on August 7, 1974. At least eleven characters are oriented around this day, as Petit's out-of-the-ordinary act sends palpitations through their lives.
The novel's trouble is that nothing beats the opening section, which begins in Dublin and finishes in New York City. This is the section about Corrigan, a young radical Irish monk who tries to live out liberation theology in the Bronx, and it is narrated by his ambivalent brother, Ciaran. Corrigan lives in a near-empty apartment in the projects, where he keeps the door unlocked for sex workers to use the bathroom. When Ciaran comes to stay on the couch after being a near-victim of a bombing in Ireland, he tries to fathom this brother of his. Corrigan, meanwhile, finds himself trying to be fathomed while at the same time wrestling with the greatest love and loss of his life.
The interlocking and (mostly) first-person narratives that follow are fun to move through and bring cohesion to the novel, but there is sadness for the reader when she leaves behind one person's mind and has to acquaint herself with another. Moreover, the ensuing characters -- grieving mothers on Park Avenue, an artist on the brink of upheaval, young men creating what will become the internet -- are often interesting and lovely, but their narratives pale in comparison to the brilliance of the opening one. Because I was in love with the story of Corrigan and Ciaran, and underwhelmed by the others, disappointment chased me through the rest of the book.
Another significant frustration: most narrative sections depend upon our current lead character explaining themselves to us. Exposition dominates as characters are tasked by the author to give their side of the story. This is the reason the opening section stands out: the narrator, Ciaran, is talking more about Corrigan than he is talking about himself. That distance is the secret to the section's beauty. Elsewhere, characters step on and off stage to monologue, caught in the narrow vision of themselves and leaving little room for a story to get momentum.
I was most peeved by how this played out in the section narrated by Tillie, a 38-year-old prostitute who speaks to us shortly after being sent to prison. She's an intriguing, humorous, and affecting character, but the exposition in her section illuminates how the novel's narrative self-consciousness strikes an off-chord. Tillie explains to us how and why she became a sex worker. She speaks about syringes and pimps. She says things like: "Sometimes I want to stab my heart with a stiletto."
Or at least the text says she says this. I don't believe it.
The narration's hyper-awareness contradicts what should be normal and unremarkable to Tillie. It forces her to explain herself to readers who are -- presumably -- unacquainted with her lifestyle, and are -- presumably -- interested in the more salacious parts of it. There we have it: a recipe for cliche. Tillie is not a thin character, though; McCann does a good job in crafting a feel for her full being. But I feel like he sets her up to do something that is not natural to her character. He makes her annotate parts of her life that should be brewed into her dynamic background, not at the forefront of her self-consciousness. Setting Tillie up in this way undercuts the more vivid character development McCann has done, and posits her as a novelty.
While I felt the lack especially in Tillie's section, this same expository plague threads through the other characters' narratives in varying degrees. For example, Gloria, a Missouri-born woman who lost three sons in Vietnam, spends time talking about her overweight body in way that doesn't ring true to an internal monologue; rather, it seems aimed to suit reader curiosity about a fat black woman living in the Bronx. Meanwhile, the proliferation of sentence fragments in all the characters' voices made the sameness in their narratives humorously more apparent.
I grouch about these things -- and I mean them -- but I want to be clear that the overarching feeling of Let the Great World Spin is tenderness. Mortality weighs so heavily on these pages, and McCann approaches it with a clarity and compassion that is inspiring. The novel's unspooling pace contrasts with the typical cause-and-effect chronology of most novels, and I loved it for that. Most of all, Let the Great World Spin brings poetic drama to lives lived both on the earth and -- via Petit's wire-dancing and Corrigan's religion -- in the elsewhere. It leaves with a better feeling for the "measured grace" that is in between. We "bring a little noise into the silence, find in others the ongoing of ourselves. ... The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough. "