In a published conversation with the writer Nathan Englander, Colum McCann, the author of Let the Great World Spin, quotes Mandelstam: But we must love this poor earth, for we have not seen another. And the love of this earth and its people, mostly poor and some rich, some daring and willing to seize life by the throat, others who crawl in the shadows and yet are suddenly touched by the light that comes in through the door, these are the things that this book speaks about. A marvellous chronicle of hope and sadness, of dark and the light in the streets of cities, and particularly in the lives of New Yorkers, who on a summer's morning find themselves spellbound by the feat of a tightrope walker running and dancing a quarter of a mile above ground between the Twin Towers.
The astonishing real-life feat of Philippe Petit in 1974 is the backdrop of this novel. It is also, according to Colum McCann, “an act of creation that seemed to stand in direct defiance to the act of destruction twenty seven years later,” on 9/11. The lives of ordinary people on the ground then and now are counterpoised against this vision. Then the soldiers were just returning from Vietnam, some broken and others in body bags. Artists were finding new paradigms of creativity, computer technology was racing ahead, liberation theologians were reinterpreting religion, and the city itself was crumbling. It seemed to portend the now, a New York that rose from the debris of September 11th, but the reader is left to decide that because, as we know, the purpose and privilege of great art is that individuals can sift its meaning and distil the essence of life from it. And this brilliant narrative with its moving and finely realised characters does precisely that.
The novel's marvellous opening, with its rich description of Petit's tightrope crossing, sets the tone of the book. The words evoke images of all the lives we will never know amid “the silence that heard itself, awful and beautiful”... then it flashes back to Ireland where two brothers, Ciaran and Corrigan (his first name is actually John Andrew), grow up with their mother who dies of cancer when the boys are in their late teen years. It describes how Corrigan starts having bouts of drunkenness early, but is also filled with a great instinct to save souls, by a strong sense of asceticism and an extreme altruism that frequently makes him oblivious to his own safety. He “sparked people alive...his theme was happiness — what it is and what it might not have been, where he might find it and where it might have disappeared.”
As the story moves forward, we meet Tillie and Jazzlyn, the mother and daughter duo, who work the streets and who are tenderly cared for and staunchly defended by Corrigan. Corrigan also works as a driver for an old people's home in the neighbourhood where he finds himself drawn to Adelita the beautiful nurse, who shakes him from his avowed life of chastity. Ciaran, adrift himself, watches his brother's grappling with life and faith. “The comfort he got from the hard cold truth — the filth, the war, the poverty — was that life could be capable of small beauties.” And this is what the reader sees; lives that are seemingly blighted like Tillie's and yet, there is an authenticity and beauty that comes from her innate honesty and her love for her daughter and granddaughters. One of the most memorable characters in the book, Tillie's courage, humour, her determination to prove her own worth and her strangely philosophical outlook, (she took to Rumi after a client made her read the poet's work), takes the reader's breath away.
There are other interconnected stories with characters that are linked to each other, delicately, threaded by the sky walker's near invisible wire. Claire is the Upper East Side heiress mourning the death of her son with a group of other mothers who have also lost their children in the war. Claire's grief defines her life. “She noticed the way the back of his uniform creased and un-creased in perfect symmetry, and she knew, she just knew, the moment she saw him go, that she was seeing him go forever.” Then there is Gloria, whose connection to Claire becomes special as the novel unfolds. Claire's husband Solomon is a judge in whose courtroom Petit appears. Just before that, Tillie and her spirited daughter Jazzlyn are sentenced for petty offences, after which the story moves swiftly to its fateful climax when the lives of strangers, two drug-filled artists on a freeway above the city, intersect in a horrific moment with that of Corrigan and Jazzlyn.
The novel's power comes from the fact that despite the tragic rupture of lives in unexpected ways, it shows that a kind of balance can be regained; a kind of peace can be made with what is left over. We learn too that sometimes in the ‘collision point of stories', as we wait for it, expecting the worst, the explosion never occurs. “The plane passes, the tightrope walker gets to the end of the wire. Things don't fall apart.” And even as we look into the darkness, like Corrigan, we may find the “presence of a light, damaged and bruised, but a little light all the same.” This is a book that will stay with you for a long time, for its achingly beautiful evocation of life with all its flaws and failures. But it is also redemptive in the end. “The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough”.
Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann, Random House, New York, 2009.