Sunday, 28 August 2011

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann | Balancing the stories of the city

Oh wow. Reading Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann was such a treat. I've been taken on a journey to 1974 New York, and delivered right back into the present, intact and improved.

Using the 1974 high-wire walk of Phillipe Petit as a starting point, the writer introduces the readers to a group of narrators whose lives all changed in this very day. The narrators are all different, ranging from the Irishman visiting his "undercover-priest" brother, the hooker, the computer hacker, the wealthy but lonely Park Avenue housewife grieving her dead son, her unlikely new best friend from the Bronx, the former artist who has been living a 1920s lifestyle, and the high-wire walker himself. All of them are connected somehow, but how is only revealed little by little.

What really impressed me with all these different narrators, is how completely different and individual each one's voice is. McCann writes beautifully, evocatively and convinsingly for each person. Each of them stand out, and it is clear that they are all telling their own story of the city. Some of it truly beautiful, while some is ugly and dark. One of the narrators talks about the high-wire walk as "an attempt at beauty. The intersection of a man with the city, the abruptly reformed, the newly appropriated public space, the city as art" (2009, p. 103), but she also sees it as "Something vulgar.../ Or maybe not vulgar. Something cheap" (ibid.).

Another narrator views the event differently: "Every now and then the city shook its soul out. It assailed you with an image, or a day, or a crime, or a terror, or a beauty so difficult to wrap your mind around that you had to shake your head in disbelief" (p. 247).

McCann tries to capture this dichotomy of the city, and he is successful. And all the while, the high-wire walk stands as a centrepiece, as a sort of mystery inside the narrative, retaining the tension, keeping the story "tight" and swaying with the breeze. On the novel's first page, the spectators of the high-wire walk are as enthralled as I was as a reader of this book: "None of them had yet made sense of the line strung at his feet from one tower to the other. Rather, it was the manshape that held them there, their necks craned, torn between the promise of doom and the disappointment of the ordinary" (p. 3).
The line could in a larger sense be the line that connects the narrators of this book. And the expectations are the same for the viewers as for the readers.

What instantly struck me when I started reading this novel, is the unusual metaphors and striking similies. "Revolving doors pushed quarters of conversations out into the street" (p. 4).

New Yorks is a "city with its fingers in the garbage, a city that ate off dirty dishes" (p. 32).

The "undercover"-priest Corrigan's prayers and psalms "staked him to a purpose" (p. 21) and he's later "in the cramped space of his own prayers" (p. 71).

While the novel focuses strongly on the city, there is also a strong theme of loss, and war. Many of the narrators of this novel have lost someone close to them in the Vietnam war. The Twin Towers the high-wire walker chooses as his stage, is today a symbol of the war against terror. Thus the mourning mothers of the story echo the mourning mothers of New York after 9/11, both those who suffered immediate losses then, and all of those who've lost their sons to the war against terror.

Despite the strong themes of loss, there is also one of hope. The city might take, but it also gives. Two young girls who lose their mother are taken in by one of our narrators, and are given a new chance in life. At the end of the book, we suddenly find ourselves in 2006 New York, and one of these girls is narrating her story. And her story does not repeat that of long line of hookers in her past.

This is a beautifully written novel, one which deserves reading, studying, discussions, contemplations, admirations. I loved it, and I felt like I was part of a mystery, the mystery of the city as I was reading it. I've never felt any strong desire to visit New York, but I do now.

Read it and weep. Read it and laugh. Or both. Just read it!

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