Books

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

This maddening new novel is cinematic, set in New York City in the midst of its slide into near-complete dysfunction.


Let the Great World Spin

Publisher: Random House
Length: 368 pages
Author: Colum McCann
Price: $25.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2009-06
Amazon

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.

7

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image