I know it won the National Book Award, and I know I didn’t, but I just couldn’t stand this book. It led me inexorably away from the mainstream title because you know, I do feel bad disliking writers actively. But then I had to speak my preference. Where else would we be if we all liked the same thing? (Review First Published in the New Zealand Listener August 22, 2009)
If Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin were a movie, it would be Forrest Gump.
Colum McCann admits his background is not exactly scintillating material for a novelist. He was, he has said, “a middle-class, white, suburban, well-treated Dublin kid who didn’t have any traumatic upbringing”. It was a good childhood, but it left him with “f—- all to write about”. So he told himself to “get out and do something”.
McCann’s first adventure was to fly to the United States to ride a bicycle across the country. Out of this came his first novel, Songdogs. From there, McCann began to tell other people’s stories. Dancer is a fictionalised life of Rudolph Nureyev. Zoli is based on the Polish poet Papusza. This Side of Brightness is about homeless people living in subway tunnels.
McCann’s new novel, Let the Great World Spin, is an all-American pastiche of characters on one day in 1974 New York. That day is the day Philippe Petit walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers.
There is a certain unworldly, country boy feel to this writing. McCann is starry-eyed about the big city and quick to seek out the delicious “decadence” suburban life fails to offer. His main character is an author who follows his brother – an Irish monk drawn to work with heart-of-gold prostitutes in the Bronx. The author writes in the voice of the monk and the prostitute, the judge and the criminal, the white and the black. Claire is the judge’s wife and a member of a support group for women who have lost sons in Vietnam; Lara is a jaded artist trying for a better life after the drug-addled 60s.
While few of the characters are fully developed, together they make for a neat selection and a careful presentation of a time in American history. An oddity in McCann’s writing – particularly in this novel – is that he seems to be writing more of a filmic work than a literary one. Most of Let the Great World Spin is made up of fragments, clauses and parts of speech. This may work in some situations: “My brother was wheeled into the triage room. Shouts and whispers. An oxygen mask over his face. Chest ripped open. A collapsed lung.” But at other times it feels almost lazy, sloppy, draft-like: “At the hospital, her children sat in the waiting room. Drawing with crayons. On newspaper.”
If Let the Great World Spin were a movie, it would be Forrest Gump: you never know what chocolate you’re going to get, but you certainly know you will have tasted it before.
Perhaps that is why Oprah Winfrey chose the novel for her book club. There is something so comfortable and popular in McCann’s stereotypes. Characters are star-struck not only by Philippe Petit, but by their very lives. “How much courage it takes to live an ordinary life,” writes McCann. And, somewhat confusedly: “Family is like water – it has a memory of what it once filled, always trying to get back to the original stream.”
Family, life, God, New York and, of course, America – there is plenty of
waffling about it all. “It was America,
after all. The sort of place where you should be allowed to walk as high as
“Eyes moisten,” McCann likes to write. We may not all be crying for the same reasons.
At the same time, a reader might have seen that the pre-press on Let the Great World Spin has been huge. The acclaim on the cover includes Frank McCourt calling the book “a blockbuster, groundbreaking, heartbreaking, symphony of a novel” and Peter Carey describing McCann as “fearless, huge-hearted, a poet with every living breath”.
It is perhaps worth noting that Carey works with McCann at Hunter College in New York City. And that back in 2003 McCann cast his long-term friend McCourt in a starring role in his movie Beautiful Kid.