Let the Great World Spin

Colum McCann
Random House, 2009

“I gave them all the truth and none of the honesty,” the character, Gloria says. McCann has an undisputed knack for delivering single lines that could be pasted to the refrigerator and pondered while washing dishes. He tosses them out like a heavy tree bearing the season’s fruit that is so abundant there is no time to appreciate the fragile, sensuous beauty of a single apple, cherry, or peach if we are to harvest what is before us. When the reader isn’t collecting ideas to ponder, McCann throws out a poetic vision that deepens the character by six degrees. The aging prostitute, Tillie, speaks to customers and police in the expected street talk, but her Scheherazade ability and Rumi reading habit turn the mean streets into a place where there are human beings, not caricatures. As a story anchor McCann uses a real event in New York City in August of 1974 when an aerial artist walked from one building to another about twenty stories up. Using that morning, he intersects a dozen lives in their traumas, griefs, and hardships from Brooklyn to Park Avenue. The style, topics and human misunderstandings reminded me of Raymond Carver who wrote similarly about society’s marginal edges and the secret sufferings and pleasures of the average. The reader sees into the lives, and usually the hearts, of all the characters while they bumble about on the page in sad desperation. The book begins in Dublin, Ireland where older brother, Ciaran, describes his and his brother’s childhoods. It follows them to New York as young men struggling to figure out their lives, where it takes off in association through neighborhood, work, tragedy, and grief. The beautifully crafted literary novel shows a sad, sometimes sordid view, with touches of beauty. Guessing what McCann’s leading purpose was for the novel, I would say it had to do with discovering beauty in bleakness counterpointing human fear of love. The first quarter of the book has traditional punctuation with quote marks around words being spoken, but then it turns to a style that begins each spoken line with a long dash and no quote marks. I didn’t understand the timing of the transition (or error), but what it did to my reading style was turn it from a clearer hearing of the conversations as though I were in the room, to a suddenly poetic dream-like overhearing from above. Inside, on the the dust jacket, it read, “…awakens in us…..what the novel can achieve, confront, and even heal.” Let the Great World Spin did achieve, did confront, but no, I didn’t feel healing; not in the characters anyway. Instead, there was larger realization of the world’s complexities, respect for an excellent writer, and mingled sadness and appreciation for the world’s beauty that slips by unnoticed under the thoughtless or cruel acts that obscure it.

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