The method of Colum McCann’s exciting, maddening new novel Let the Great World Spin is cinematic, like a great deal of modern fiction. The setting is New York, circa 1974, right in the midst of its slide into near-complete dysfunction. The language has a sharp-focus clarity and tendency toward the edit-montage, blocking scenes and downloading them into neatly snapped-off bits.
Here is the book’s first of several narrators, Dublin-born Ciaran, laying out the landscape as he’s being driven through the South Bronx by his younger brother Corrigan, who’s come to the city on the latest stage of his saint-like progression toward self-abnegation and sacrifice:
Gangs of kids hung out on the street corners. Traffic lights were stuck on permanent red. At fire hydrants there were huge puddles of stagnant water. A building on Willis had half collapsed into the street. A couple of wild dogs picked their way through the ruin. A burned neon sign stood upright. Fire trucks went by, and a couple of cop cars trailed each other for comfort. Every now and then a figure emerged from the shadows, homeless men pushing shopping trolleys piled high with copper wire. They looked like men a westward-ho, shoving their wagons across the nightlands of America.
McCann’s language has a screenplay-ready verve to it, though still sliding in the type of novelistic inflection that would be lost on a multiplex screen (“a couple of cop cars trailed each other for comfort”). This is the end days, the nightmare vision of fetid American chaos as perceived by an Irishman who had come across the pond only after being near-killed in an IRA bombing, a differently-rendered version of the same post-hippie and pre-millennial anarchy scratching at the fabric of New York.
Ciaran drops uncomfortably into his brother’s life, baffled by Corrigan’s atavistic determination to live as a monk-like figure of refuge and comfort amid a gaggle of Bronx prostitutes (he has a loose affiliation with a monastic order, but seems clearly intent on a more personal, and darker journey). Ciaran doesn’t know much about what he himself wants to do, except that he doesn’t want to follow his countrymen’s well-trod pathways: “There were ads in the circulars for bartenders and waiters, but I didn’t want to go that way, all flat hats and micks in shirtsleeves.” He ends up tending bar in Queens, “one of the shamrock bars I hated”, his resorting to cliché highlighted all the more by the stranger route that Corrigan follows.
In the brash and shouting working girls who come and go from Corrigan’s unlocked apartment (he insists to Ciaran that they simply need a place of refuge, no matter how much their pimps abuse him for interfering), McCann finds his gallery of characters that will link readers to the rest of the novel to follow. But while these women (particularly a wounded mother-daughter team) provide much of the dramatic muscle for the tragedy and happenstance that is to come (a traffic death, court proceedings, orphans, and loss), McCann isn’t able to find as strong a voice for them. At least a partial reason for that seems to be that McCann simply couldn’t locate as gut-level a connection with them as he did with his Irish characters, or Claire Soderberg, the wealthy judge’s wife who dominates the book’s later chapters. But the reason could also be that they simply got lost amidst the book’s continual shifting of perspective and setting.
In contrast to McCann’s bright and occasionally showoffy language (“It was the type of hospital that looked like it needed a hospital”) the story is a vaguer and more amorphous thing, brought together really only by its characters’ need to connect to something, anything, in this big dirty angry gorgeous city. That, and the novel’s central linking device, that of Philippe Petit famously walking his playfully suicidal tightrope between the World Trade Center towers. Everybody either sees Petit walking, or hears about it, or is connected to somebody who hears about it—at a couple points we even hear from Petit himself. As devices go, it’s not the strongest, but that matters less and less by the time one is done with it.
Just like those films of happenstance and six-degrees linkages which have periodically been the rage, Let the Great World Spin is really a grouping of individually powerful stories looking for any excuse to fit themselves together. Unlike those films, however, McCann doesn’t force together the joints and linkages of his interlinked pieces with undue force, letting them knock into each other with a less-visible guiding hand.
That said, the first transition is a jarring one, taking us from the first 70-odd pages of Corrigan and Ciaran’s fraternal and spiritual battling (by far the best rendered segment of the novel) to Claire’s Park Avenue apartment, where she anxiously awaits the arrival of the rest of her support group for mothers who lost sons in Vietnam. The downshift into Claire’s cloistered and reticent manner is a tonally brutal one, and one that the novel never quite recovers from, regardless of all the melodrama that is to follow.
For all McCann’s novel’s hard talk and traveling in the deepest, grungiest circles of falling-down modern American urbanity, a vividly pulsating streak of sentimentality runs all the way through the novel, ultimately keeping it from true greatness. The representations of his women tend particularly toward cliché, being mostly wounded sufferers, good girls and whores alike.
There is heart to spare in this finely written book, and energy to burn, even though by the end McCann’s construction seems as delicately balanced as Petit himself, hanging in a stiff wind 110 stories up, knowing it all looks quite impressive from the ground but maybe not entirely sure how it’s going to pan out.