A grand opus, a (predominantly) 1974 New York-set novel as Frenchman Philippe Petit undertakes his tightrope walk between the Twin Towers. As the city holds its collective breath (or at least those who witnessed it), so McCann spins several fictional tales taking place at ground level along with Petit’s preparations for his illegal act.
Non-linear, Let the Great World Spin is narrated by several characters, each with their own story to tell. As the novel unfolds, so connections are revealed, some obvious, some less expected. Their lives may be woven together or determined by the actions of others, but in many instances they never know or even meet each other.
First up is the arrival of Ciaran from Dublin, arriving to see his younger brother, Corrigan, a devout Jesuit monk who has moved to the projects of the Bronx. Surrounded by poverty, prostitution and addiction, Corrigan has overcome deep suspicion and, whilst living in virtual destitution within his apartment, has befriended the prostitutes working the streets in the immediate vicinity. Recounting their childhood in Dublin (the only significant time the novel leaves New York), Ciaran is disturbed but not surprised by the conditions his brother has chosen to live.
Claire is a wealthy Park Avenue resident grieving the loss of her son in Vietnam. With husband, Solomon, as a judge tied up with work, Claire is lonely and dealing with grief in her own way. Atypically, she has responded to a newspaper advert for mothers who have lost sons in Vietnam. A small group, they meet for coffee and doughnuts or bagels at each other’s homes. Having met previously at Gloria’s high-rise in the Bronx, it’s Claire’s first time to host.
Ciaran’s and Claire’s tales provide the context to the majority of those told by the other characters. Tillie and her daughter Jazzlyn are both prostitutes who work the Bronx and have befriended Corrigan. The Jesuit himself, having met Guatamalan refugee Adelita and her two children, is undergoing a crisis of faith. Solomon is the judge who presides over the arraignment of Petit and negotiates the deal that has such an unforeseen impact on the lives of all the Bronx residents featured in Let the Great World Spin (no spoilers). Gloria and Claire become great friends and it is this friendship that provides the finale two decades later.
McCann weaves these stories together as time and the separate narratives unfold over a period of several days. It’s a slow build. In creating layers from which to grow, Let the Great World Spin occasionally loses focus with the Corrigan tale arguably too long, a little indulgent. But, whilst using Petit’s dangerous and potentially lethal act as the framework, McCann is also looking to highlight the tensions of the everyday
…an invisible tight-rope wire that we all walk, with equally high stakes, only it is hidden to most, and only 1 inch off the ground.
It’s all a balancing act. Petit’s mantra by which he lived, NOBODY FALLS HALFWAY, is apt and appropriate for McCann’s big and ambitious novel. Characters come, characters go, the symbolism of the solidity of the two towers (and the irony of knowing their terrible future fate) with the insignificance of one man precariously balanced between them perfectly rendered. That slow start builds beautifully to its redemptive conclusion.