Niall MacMonagle, review of Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann, in The Irish Times (29 Aug. 2009)

Source: The Irish Times (29 Aug. 1009) - Weekend - available online; accessed 21.11.2009. Sub-heading: Ironic, earthy, black humour is central to Colum McCann’s powerful take on loss and redemption, set in New York

Very few, very simple words - ‘the first plane’, ‘the second plane’, ‘the twin towers’ - bring us back to how the world changed on the morning of September 11th, 2001. The co-ordinated attacks left America the Beautiful scared and scarred. No need for YouTube. Memory replays the horror.

And, regardless of subject matter or setting, every novel written since September 2001 is a ‘9/11 novel’. It has to be because the mind that writes it knows. Jay McInerney, Don DeLillo, Claire Messud, John Updike, Jonathan Safran Foer, Mohsin Hamid, Joseph O’Neill tackled it directly. Colum McCann (like O’Neill, an Irish-born New Yorker), in his fifth novel, takes an oblique route but it is extraordinarily powerful nonetheless.

Let the Great World Spin brings us back to August 7th, 1974 and to what has been called the art crime of the century when Philippe Petit walked the walk of walks, 110 floors up, 1,360 feet high, on a tightrope wire between the recently completed World Trade Centre Towers. McCann’s opening five pages - ‘Those who saw him hushed’ - serves as a prelude. This magnificent set piece gathers together a riveted, ‘jazzed’, ‘pumped’ group: ‘Lawyers. Elevator operators. Doctors. Cleaners. Prep chefs. Diamond merchants. Fish sellers. Sad-jeaned whores’.

This Man on Wire, this Angel in Air is an otherworldly, thrilling, exciting, inspiring presence. US soldiers were returning from Vietnam, Nixon resigned on August 9th and McCann’s memorable phrase ‘Another day another dolor’ rewrites the American dream. Petit’s astonishing achievement becomes a release and a contrast for characters with broken, troubled lives.

The novel begins in 1950s Sandymount, where Ciaran and John Corrigan spend their childhood, but swiftly moves to the South Bronx in the 1970s where the younger, now a monk and known by his surname, lives in a housing project among hookers and drives ‘a van for old folk in the local nursing home’. Tillie and Jazzlyn, mother and daughter, ply their trade and Corrigan’s apartment is open house: ‘the girls’ use his bathroom - ‘it’s not much. Just a little gesture’. So far, so saintly. But in a world of fur-coated, neon swim-suited, high-heeled whores, Corrigan, a doer of good deeds, struggles with ‘the mess of myself’. Cut to the Upper East Side where affluent Claire Soderberg - this chapter is called ‘Miró, Miró on the Wall’ - is one of a grieving group of mothers whose sons died in Vietnam. Cut to artists Blaine and Lara, Upstate cabin-dwellers who, having lived a hedonistic, arty life in New York, quit drugs and embraced rural simplicity.

It’s an ambitious and carefully mapped work. A fatal car crash allows for a gradual interweaving of lives in a neatly jigsawed plot. Claire’s husband, Judge Solomon Soderberg, pronounces judgement on Tillie Henderson, whore, and Philippe Petit, funambulist - it’s all in the same day’s work. Lara’s moral unease, following the road accident, results in her meeting Ciaran. Jazzlyn’s orphaned children are brought up by university-educated, opera-loving Gloria, whose grandmother was a slave and who lives in Jazzlyn’s building. Gloria loses two marriages, three boys to Vietnam and visits Claire in her Park Avenue penthouse as one of the grieving mothers group. Then there are the ingenious, young computer buffs and hackers through whom McCann cleverly creates a live commentary on Petit’s performance.

The narrative voice shifts between first and third but McCann always sounds an involving and intimate tone. The reader is told several back stories but how characters think and feel is always more important than physical description. Monologues, for example, are heartfelt and humorous and McCann’s fluent gift for music and poetry, for striking imagery - a hovering helicopter in Vietnam or, between the towers; a coyote ‘stepping through the snow’, a coyote ‘trotting through the traffic’ - means that more is more.

There are brilliant, beautiful passages, for example McCann’s description of Petit’s six-year-long preparations: ‘Once, during a thunderstorm, he rode the wire as if it were a surfboard. He loosened the guy cables so the wire was more reckless than ever. The waves the sway created were three feet high, brutal, erratic, side-to-side, up and down. Wind and rain all around him. The balancing pole touched against the tip of the grass, but never the ground. He laughed into the teeth of the wind’.

Ironic, earthy, black humour is another strength. Claire’s son went to Vietnam not to fight but to write a computer programme that would ‘collate the dead’ and he dies in a grenaded pub. Marcia’s son was delivering cigars to an officer when his helicopter’s steering column went and he ‘smashed his head awkwardly, broke his neck, no flames, even, just a freak fall, the helicopter still intact’. Tillie spends a week at the Sherry-Netherlands, naked, with a client, reading him poems by Rumi.

Petit’s fine. Computer hackers flirt with a woman on the phone. A man is taken aside by airport security for declaring he was carrying eight pints of liquids, his own blood.

And against this the tenderest of moments - Claire remembers her son: ‘My big tall boy, shaving. Long ago, long ago. The simple things come back to us. They rest for a moment by our ribcages then suddenly reach in and twist our hearts a notch backward.’ Or the gentle closing sequence where prose becomes poetry.

In the final section the story jumps forward 30 years to October 2006 and there’s that satisfying pleasure of knowing how characters’ lives panned out. Jaslyn (Jazzlyn’s daughter) and Claire have kept in touch, Ciaran is back in Dublin, US soldiers are now in Iraq but survivor Jaslyn’s social conscience, echoing Corrigan’s, believes ‘Things don’t fall apart’.

This is a very readable, enjoyable novel for many reasons: the death-defying Monsieur Petit high in the sky, the colourful descriptions, but especially for McCann’s ambitious, stylish, empathetic orchestration of differences and the novel’s resilient, redemptive spirit. It’s a novel about chance and choice, religion, art, politics, about death - ‘the greatest democracy of them all’, but McCann, like all artists, is on the side of life.

The ‘Let’ and the ‘Great’ in that Tennysonian title are positive, affirming and freeing. These qualities quietly pervade a work that celebrates ‘the ongoing of ourselves’ and that’s what makes Let The Great World Spin such a remarkable achievement.

Niall MacMonagle teaches English at Wesley College, Dublin. His book Text: A Transition Year English Reader, which he edited, was published last May by the Celtic Press.

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