Book Review: Let The Great World Spin

Let The Great World Spin
Colum McCann
Random House, 2009
368pp

Except for a brief time in Dublin, McCann’s setting for this novel is in New York City during the Vietnam/Nixon-resignation years. And what a city it is: artists, clergy, prostitutes, judges, black/white/latino/Irish, computer geeks and hackers, street magicians—a veritable urban dream world.

McCann uses the famous event of the French tightroper walker and brilliantly fictionalizes it back into existence. It is the event that often grounds the novel (I would have to say that that event loses its force in the last two chapters when Tillie and Jaslyn narrate).

If you love language, then Colum McCann is your writer. He is, indeed, a writer’s writer. There isn’t a scene in this novel that is not full of rich, sensual detail. In my review, I make every attempt to highlight McCann’s brilliant use of imagery that so aptly catches the high-definition quality of his stunning scenes and characters.

Structurally, the novel is a tour-de-force. In general, it is structured around the tightrope event and by all of the narrative voices of the characters. Sometimes McCann chooses to use third-person narratives for the chapters. But the novel’s structural strength, I believe, lies in the very unique voices of individualized narrators.

I have not read a Colum McCann novel before “Let the Great World Spin.” If his other novels have half the energy of this one, he will be in my permanent favorites file for a very long time.

McCann, in no uncertain terms, is a genius. He fictionalizes a real historical event—the famous tightrope-walking stunt of a French aerialist who precariously balances himself as he walks between the two Twin Towers—and uses that event as the narrative ground around which he creates a host of characters you will not quickly forget.

Even the tightrope walker, who “believed in walking beautifully,” is given a strong fleshed-out identity as a man who loves illusion, a daring character whose tightrope magic holds a crowd of New York City watchers spellbound as he lives out his epic moment of fantasized self-dissolution (he describes his tightroping stunt as “the old cure of forgetting,” where he could find that final place for “his body” to be “at ease”).

He is also a disciplined artisan who becomes a craftsman of illusion by balancing umbrellas on his nose, juggling pins, balls, flaming torches, performing for tourists on tightrope wire or riding a unicycle on a rope in Washington Square Park. He would hire himself out at parties as a magician or pose as a Belgian arms dealer, an appraiser from Sotheby’s, even a jockey—anything that would prepare him for the ultimate daredevil act to win over the imaginations of the Twin Towers spectators.

It is the tightrope spectacle that moves in and out of the various lives of the other characters who often have no connection to the event other than knowing about it through someone else or reading about it in a newspaper.

Some of the characters have a more direct connection to the event: a group of hackers from California who manage to dial up several onlookers who are at the scene; a judge. Solomon Soderberg, who metes out a symbolic monetary fine to the tightrope walker right after he sentences a prostitute, Tillie, to prison time (McCann gives Tillie a richly textured character as one of the narrators towards the end of the novel); and Marcia, a fashion designer, who witnesses the Twin Towers event on her way to a support-group of mothers whose sons were killed in the Vietnam War. Marcia passionately associates the tightrope walker with her son who was killed in a helicopter accident–”that’s my boy up there,” she says (on this particular day, the support group is meeting at the Park-Avenue home of the judge’s wife, Claire Soderberg; their only son, Joshua, a computer geek, was killed in Vietnam when three grenades were tossed into a restaurant the son was at).

Gloria, another mother, and the only black in the group, lost all three of her sons. She returns to Claire’s apartment after being mugged near her ghetto apartment. A life-long friendship between the two women begins from that moment after Claire admits that she only offered Gloria money to work for her out of her own loneliness; Gloria, in turns, admits that she didn’t belong to any choir, a lie she told to avoid staying longer at Claire’s apartment.

Structurally, McCann uses Gloria to tie together the other compelling narratives of this provocative novel when she eventually adopts two children from the ghetto apartment where she lives after the children’s mother, the prostitute, Jazzlyn, is instantly killed in an automobile accident (The prostitute and her mother, Tillie, become friends with one of the other main characters, Corrigan, whose brief life McCann powerfully capsulizes in the early part of the novel).

McCann’s brilliant ending has one of the adopted children, Jaslyn, as the final narrator who tells us that she and her sister took the dying Gloria, back to her home town in Missouri. On the last page, McCann, poignantly has Jaslyn lie down next to the dying Claire, in her Park Avenue apartment. Jasyln says to herself, “It is enough. The world spins. We stumble on.”

The driver of the van, Corrigan, is a young Irish monk who has given his life over to doing what he tells his mother is “God’s work” to rescue the world from poverty and injustice. Corrigan’s self-styled liberation-theology model is aptly described to his brother, Cieran: “Christ never rejected the world. If He had rejected it, He would have rejected mystery and in that, rejecting faith.” He further capsulizes his simple ethical philosophy by telling his brother that all of Christianity could be written on the back of a cigarette pack: “do unto others…”

After Corrigan and his brother leave Ireland, he begins his acetic, but social activist life in South Bronx with its “gangs of kids on street corners, fire hydrants, huge puddles of stagnant water, wild dogs, homeless men pushing shopping carts piled high with copper wire,” the ghetto world of plastic bags “caught in the gusts of summer wind,” discarded drug needles, old domino players, pimps, early morning hookers in their bright red dyed hair and “sparkling silver eyeliner,” and churches with graffiti “tags.”

To balance the terrible, but cluttered and decaying beauty of the ghetto, McCann, a writer provocatively attached to the sensual world of everything he portrays, describes Corrigan’s apartment as the environment of a simple ascetic and mendicant with its “Peace” and “Justice” sticker near the outside doorbell, and, inside, a torn sofa, a simple wooden crucifix, a Bible, a prayer kneeler, a low table, and his favorite books by Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day.

Corrigan befriends many of the local prostitutes who use his bathroom between tricks (never a writer to miss a detail, McCann describes the bathroom as full of “tampons” and “sad polyps of condoms”). He also drives a van for a nursing home and is constantly harassed by one of the Jewish patients, Albee, a foul-mouth grandmaster chess player, who always complains that Corrigan drives “like a pussy” (Corrigan later hires a group of prostitutes to service Albee on his birthday, another example of Corrigan’s unique brand of liberation theology).

Corrigan is a modern tortured Abelard, a monk sworn to celibacy, but, like Abelard, meets the grand passion of his brief life, Adelita, who has three children and is a widow (her husband had been killed in Guatemala). After his first sexual experience with her, he drives out to Mantauk, “to find God.” The haunting images of her “neck” and her “clavicle,” her “touch,” are constantly juxtaposed to his fear of losing his connection to his God. McCann never gives Corrigan the luxury of abandoning that God. He eventually dies in the hospital after the van accident on the FDR.

Just when a reader thinks that McCann might be finished with his characters, he introduces us to two others, Lara and Blaine, two New York city urban artists on their way to their upstate New York cabin, their getaway from the drug-ridden, avant garde abstract-art world of the city. Blaine is driving his old Pontiac classic that hits Corrigan’s van from behind forcing the van into its fatal crash. Blaine and his wife flee from the scene and drive to their upstate cabin. Blaine remains addicted to his cocaine, but goes back to a more classical painting style after leaving the city; Lara morphs back into painting urban landscapes in her rural transition from the urban abstract artist she once was.

Lara becomes so haunted by Jazzlyn’s face and mangled body after the accident, she eventually returns to the hospital where Corrigan has died. She is given Corrigan’s possessions and returns them to Cieran at the ghetto apartment. She also visits Tillie in prison and arranges to have Tillie’s two grandchildren visit the grandmother.

After attending Jazzlyn’s funeral, she and Cieran go out to a bar in the same car that caused the accident. Cieran realizes that it is the car and only admonishes her for not stopping. After she leaves the bar, she looks back and sees Cieran’s face looking at her through the bar window. She simply says, “there is fear of love” (a prophetic statement that only becomes meaningful when Jazzyln’s daughter and Gloria’s adopted daughter, Jaslyn, goes to Ireland to visit Cieran and discovers that he has married Lara).

Tillie and Jaslyn are the last two narrative voices of the novel.

Tillie Henderson, “alias Miss Bliss, alias Puzzle, alias Rosa P,” in her pink parasol and “on the stroll,” in her active street days, now describes her life as a “fuck-up,” from her prison cell. As “strictly a lie-down girl, a flatbacker,” she admits to herself that “the men were just bodies moving on me. Bits of color.” Her life-long interest in the poetry of Rumi was sparked by a Middle-Eastern john who asked her to read Rumi’s poetry to him. She also recalls telling him her own story of a city policeman who protectively follows and older couple through Central Park (McCann has this wonderful way of taking his characters beyond the traditional stereotypes).

Tillie willingly takes the rap for her daughter, Jazzlyn, and, after beating up one of the female prison administrators, whom she initially tries to seduce, is given an added sentence. We are told by the granddaughter, Jaslyn, that her grandmother dies in prison, a destitute street-loser driven only by “cold hard cash,” a lonely woman, whose one final act of generosity to her daughter becomes totally meaningless after the fatal van accident (readers probably remember Tillie’s comment to Lara when Lara arranged to have Tillie’s grandchildren visit her in prison: “There ain’t no such thing as getting home).

Jaslyn, the biological daughter of Jazzlyn and granddaughter of Tillie, is given the final narrative voice. Her adopted-daughter role is given more significance by McCann than her biological heritage. It is through Jaslyn that we find out that Gloria adopted her and her sister, Janice, and took them to Poughkeepsie to live. Jaslyn works helping out survivors of Katrina and Rita to fill out their tax forms. On the flight to New York to make her final visit to her adopted mother’s friend, Claire, she meets an Italian doctor. Her brief sexual encounter with the doctor in New York and the poignant scene with Gloria on her deathbed both give a strong sense of hope to McCann’s richly textured story.

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