Archive for November, 2014

LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN by COLUM McCANN

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Apparently it’s true – one morning in the early 70s a guy walked, skipped, jumped, ran and lay, on a rope – between the two world trade centre towers. You can YouTube it so it must be true. However, New York is big city,  so lots of other things were happening in the city on that day – tragic, happy, powerful, lonely and beautiful things. This book imagines in great detail, a collection of characters that act out some of those other things. Things that would have happened that day, just like that happen on every other day when there is no man on wire 100 stories up.

Each chapter is written in the voice of, or at least from the perspective of, one of these characters. Because of this, one book grouper described it as like a writing exercise. Maybe the writer, an Irish born American was testing himself – can I, as a writer, put myself into the mind of a grieving judges wife her only child dead in Vietnam, a black hooker and grandmother, her daughter and granddaughter, an Irish monk, or his brother, a pair of wealthy wastrel wannabe avant gardists – and make the reader believe?

For me, and for all the bookgroupers, McCann succeeds wonderfully. He varies his style a little between chapters to suit each character. He uses the first person for some, not others. Some characters are describing the events and their thoughts as they happen, others are reflecting back and describing what happened to them on that day, or at least how it affected them, from far in the future. In all cases you can physically picture them, and you feel you can guess what they will do next, because you feel you know them so well.

Surprisingly, none of them are saying much about the man on the wire. There is one chapter written in the voice of that man, but it is mostly set in the weeks and months prior to the big day, and also long after reflecting back. Interestingly we don’t get the man himself at the time. Nevertheless, this chapter this chapter made him sound so intriguing I really wanted more, but the book does not go there.

Instead what you get is a slow realisation that there are connections between the other characters, but not through him or his walk. They are connected through the emotion his walk induces – fragility. He could fall at any moment, and that’s what has happened to them all. They have fallen, sometimes quickly and surprisingly, in other cases slowly, but inevitably. They all discover, and remind us, that we are vulnerable – like the  tightrope walker.

One or two chapters do use a style very close to that Joyce-Proust type of ungrammatical stream of consciousness approach –  which in my view can be very annoying, but he usually doesn’t stay in that mode long enough to make you put the book down. Most of the chapters are not written in that style but in the opposite. The hemingwayesque style favoured by modern American literary types.

In this book the style works very well. It rarely feels formulaic. It particularly works when the character herself takes on the style and makes it her own. The chapter in the voice of Tillie the black hooker and grandmother is just delightful from this perspective. The similes and metaphors she uses are so novel they are shocking. The overall effect of the chapter is vibrant and funny, even though the thoughts and events she describes are despair inducing.

Initially it seems the book has no plot. It’s just series of unrelated characters talking about their lives on, or around the day of the walk. But as the chapters flow by, it becomes clear there are some connections. As each chapter passes you get very interested in what these connections will be. Thankfully the last few chapters do more or less tie all the loose ends together, and give you something resembling a happy ending. This might annoy some people but I was very grateful for it.

Bookgroupers who have been to New York also said it was very evocative of the downtown area. It was apparently very easy to imagine all the places the characters inhabited.

So for a great escape to the New York of the 70s, in the body of a range of characters spanning black hookers, expert tightrope walkers and Jewish judges I would strongly recommend it.

Let the Great World Spin by Callum McCann – Both Wikipedia and Good-reads also have a lot of info on it.

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November 12, 2014 at 7:02 am Leave a comment


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