Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Let The Great World Spin: Elegant, Profound, Beautiful

Better described as a literary work of art than a novel, Let The Great World Spin, is brilliant and profound — and well-deserving of its 2009 National Book Award. As life is episodic, so are the interconnected stories of a diverse cast of characters that populate this novel. An Irish Catholic monk. An African-American hooker, and her heroin-addicted daughter. A wealthy socialite named Claire grieving the loss of her son in Vietnam. A Jewish judge. Computer geeks. A guy who photographs graffiti. The novel revolves around the connections — often in unexpected ways — of these characters with the common thread of Philippe Petit's daring tightrope walk between the Twin Towers in August, 1974.

Part of the wonder of the novel is the verisimilitude with which McCann renders these characters. Endowed by their creator with beautiful, elegant, but clearly delineated voices, these New Yorkers practically spring off the page. They are so real, themselves so human. And through them, McCann offers a simple road map for being human: Connect. Love. Hope.

But the novel isn't just about the interconnectedness of people; it's about connecting with a moment, a memory, an image. As the broke-down hooker Tillie wastes away in jail, she remembers a week spent at an expensive hotel with a trick who only wanted to talk with her, respected her, practically loved her. She relies on that memory to help her navigate the vicious downward spiral of her life. Gloria, a poor black woman, who befriends the grieving mother Claire based on their shared experience of losing children to the Vietnam War, explains this idea as clearly as the English language could render it: "I guess you live inside a moment for years, move with it and feel it grow, and it sends out roots until it touches everything in sight."

This novel is also a portrait of New York City. Spanning races and classes, it's a tribute to the city's diversity, richness and history. As McCann tells us through one of his characters, "The city lived in a sort of everyday present....New York kept going forward precisely because it didn't give a good goddamn about what it had left behind."  And then later, "(The tightrope walker) had made himself a statue, but a perfect New York one, a temporary one, up in the air, high above the city. A statue that had no regard for the past." For that reason, Petit's walk was a "stroke of genius."

And though 9/11 is never mentioned explicitly, it's clearly the undercurrent for and possibly the impetus of this novel. As people connected based on the novelty and shared experience of Petit's walk, so also did they connect on the shared and horrific experience of the terrorist attacks on the most horrific day in American history. McCann, seemingly randomly at the time, includes a photo of "a man high in the air while a plane disappears, it seems, into the edge of the building." The photo's weird trick of perspective didn't mean anything particularly interesting until 27 years after it was taken. Now, looking at it, and contemplating its prescience, you can't help but shudder.

This is a novel that I cannot leave; it really affected me. As I've written this, I've gone back and reread several of McCann's elegant passages. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but for McCann, it only takes 95 or so. He conveys images, emotions, memories in words and phrases that are just so precise. For example: "She had the bluest eyes, they looked like small drops of September sky."  How many times have you read novelists who totally flub an eye-description analogy? Not McCann — it's perfect, and that's just one of hundreds of examples throughout the novel. I can't recommend it more highly. Please read it. Please. 

Thanks again to TLC Book Tours, who sponsored this giveaway and hosted this blog tour. Again, please click here to see the other stops on the tour and read the other reviews from the other fantastic bloggers.

I'm happy to announce that, rather poetically, random.org decided to select a New Yorker as the winner of my giveaway. Congratulations to Colleen who runs the blog Books in the City.  Thanks to everyone who entered.


  1. What an engaging review! I'm adding this book to my shopping list. Congratulations to Colleen and now I'm off to read her blog! xo

  2. Your review makes me want to read this right now! I'm definitely going to be adding this to my list.

  3. A well written review and just the type of book I like. I'll have to add it to my TBR list.

  4. This is great. what a wonderful review, yuo have captured the content of the book so well. I love the idea of a book being about someones connectedness to a particular moment.

  5. This is a lovely review, I will go and get this book. Congrats to the winner.

  6. Thanks for your kind words, everyone. When the source material is as good as Let The Great World Spin is, the review practically writes itself!

  7. I need to add this to my list - I keep reading great reviews.

  8. This is a wonderful review, the book sounds extremely intriguing. I'm just visiting from the hop :)

  9. Hi there,

    I have recently finished Let The Great World Spin, and I can't agree more: it is an outstanding book. I too keep opening the book to random places to re-read McCann's wonderfully controlled prose.

    And I can't stop thinking about the structure, and how the book revolves around pairs of people (Twin Towers, so to speak), and the connections (in some cases, near miraculous, akin to Petit's walk) they manage to make with each other. For me,that's what the book was about: the risks, and beauty, involved in human connection.

    Great review.

  10. Hi Greg, please forgive my long delay in getting over here. I'm reading the book now for my July book club meeting so I skimmed your review a bit, but I just wanted to say (belatedly) thank you so much for participating in the tour. We really appreciate it.

  11. Wow, you 'got' the book more than I did. I'll confess that I was distracted by the mention of plastic grocery bags floating around the Bronx in 1973 (they weren't in general use), which kept nagging at me.

    McCann has crafted an outstanding and emotional story, though, one which brought me to tears several times. Like you, I had a hard time 'letting go' of LtGWS after I turned the last page. That haunting presence probably says more about my reaction to the book than my review ever could.

  12. Hey Greg,

    to answer your question from: http://manoflabook.blogspot.com/2010/09/book-review-let-great-world-spin-by.html

    What frustrated me about this book is that the characters whine and are either ashamed or hate their lives - all the time. Also, the narrative was kind of distracting since the author never removed himself from it. It's like someone was reading the book behind my back, but was always a couple of pages ahead and whispering in my ear.

    I'm glad you liked this book and I thank you very much for the intelligent and civil discussion.