Sunday, August 16, 2009

"Let the Great World Spin" by Colum McCann

Summary: A series of stories narrated by a diverse group of people are loosely connected together by a man's choice to tightrope across the World Trade Center buildings one early morning in New York City in 1974. The stories cover the Corrigan brothers, transplants from Ireland; the mother-daughter prostitutes Tillie and Jazzlyn; and the rich Claire and her judge husband Solomon (among others).

Musings: This book has all the makings of a popular and well-received novel. The characters are fully drawn out and have depth of emotion. The book finds meaning in small events and uses daily moments to delve into the essence of each person's beliefs. For all those reasons Let the Great World Spin is an excellent novel, but for those same reasons it's also one that I occasionally grew tired of.

I have a dismissive attitude toward anyone who thinks too much (perhaps because I spend my days avoiding it and trying to convince my husband to stay away from it). Not that I don't value thinking, but musing too much only ever leads me to feeling down. The same is true of many characters in the novel, who find themselves tortured by the mundane.

It was the constant outpouring of emotion that I found difficult to take in, but I'm sure other people find that moving. Probably the same people who also were taken away by the "beauty" of the plastic bag blowing in American Beauty - really? Take this line, from one of the chapters on Claire, the wealthy woman who is insecure among others and still heavy with grief over the loss of her son in the war: "She cleans out the comb and dumps the strands in the foot-flip garbage can. They say the hair of the dead still grows. Takes on a life of its own. Down there with all the other detritus, tissues, tubes of lipstick, toothpaste tops, allergy pills, eyeliner, heart medicine, youth, nail clippings, dental floss, aspirin, grief" (McCann 74). I'll even ignore the fact that cleaning used hair from a comb merits such weighty language (see feelings on American Beauty, above). Nonetheless the "subtle" inclusion of "youth" and "grief" in the list of trash just irritated me. It was almost as if McCann felt the need to show how talented a writer he was by integrating the prosaic and the profound.

Despite my issues with some of the writing, I truly did enjoy the story. Because we see multiple viewpoints of each character (all the primary characters narrate at least one section and are also mentioned by other characters in different sections), a fuller picture of each person is formed. McCann weaves together the different lives in a way that feels real, not forced, and I felt myself smiling whenever a new connection between the characters arose.

Each chapter was written in a way that clearly portrayed the character's way of thinking and approaching the world. I felt equally for the nervous Park Avenue Claire as I did for the prostitute Tillie.

Fortunately, McCann did not feel the need to end a book filled with so much grief with further sadness. Although no real solace is found in the year the book takes place, the last chapter, occurring in 2006, does show redemption and advancement for those who survived.

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