Monday, January 04, 2010

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

Let the Great World Spin
Colum McCann
Random House 2009

I've just finished this book, my first read of 2010. It's a fine book, although I'm not sure it's a great one. What it has to say about connectedness and faith, about accidents and forgiveness, I think is important. And it works those themes beautifully into an intricate story that covers 22 years--more, even, if you count the childhood of John Andrew and Ciaran in Dublin. But from this distance--just a few minutes after turning the final page--I'm dissatisfied with the book's structure. I felt until the very end that that the several different narratives were too disparate, and the linkages among them too coincidental. The result was that I never knew whose story I was reading. With a novelist of McCann's skill, this is clearly intentional. It isn't the story of any one of the characters we meet in the book--if anything, it's the story of New York, and possibly it's the story of the world.

The book begins with a glimpse of the tightrope walker in 1974 as he's walking between the two towers of the World Trade Center, and interspersed with the other sections we see more of him, even as the characters in those sections catch glimpses of him on the wire. Then we're introduced to Corrigan (John Andrew Corrigan) and his older brother Ciaran, Irish kids who follow very different paths to New York City. Their lives become enmeshed with those of Tillie Henderson and her daughter Jazzlyn, two hookers. Separately, we meet Claire, whose son has been killed in Vietnam, and her husband, Solomon Soderberg, as well as Gloria, who has lost three sons in Vietnam. The connection between these two separate stories reveals itself eventually, but it isn't clear immediately.

Despite my vague unease with the structure, I'm thoroughly impressed with the way McCann has captured such a diverse range of characters and settings, not to mention speech and behavior. The black hookers might be a little over the top but . . . then again maybe not. The Corrigan brothers are charming. John Andrew's love, whom we don't get to see for very long, is from another world herself, as is just about everyone we meet. And the metaphor of the tightrope is wonderful in the way it does double duty--we all walk a thin line, but, on the other hand, there's a line connecting one tower to the next. (In this brief review, I know I'm not doing the book justice in terms of its themes, or the wonderful characters McCann has created. Among other things, any reading of the book has to take into account that the World Trade Center towers no longer exist, and that the terrorist attack of 9/11 was part of what prompted the novel.)

This novel won the National Book Award for Fiction for 2009. It's not hard to understand why.


Sarah said...

I think you captured the book very well, Cliff. The novel weaves all those threads together so beautifully, and yet in the end it lacked that emotional heft (or some such thing) because those strands were so disparate and there were so many characters.

Re over-the-top characters, I actually thought Ciaran (sp?) was a little over the top: too suffering, too self-sacrificing, too overly good/bad.

Clifford Garstang said...

Yes, Ciaran struck me as hollow. We see his worried shell, but nothing else. He could have been a much stronger character, I think.