Let The Great World Spin
By Colum McCann
Multi-protagonist novels that change voices each chapter can be extraordinarily problematic. The writer must capture the reader, build an engaging story around a particular character and then follow through with the story in a matter of twenty to thirty pages before doing it again. And then again. And then again. An emotionally exhausting endeavor, I would imagine. The writer then has to weave all these stories together in a way that denotes a complete novel as opposed to simply a collection of short stories with an over-riding theme. It's a style I enjoy when the author is talented enough to employ it (for example Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell) but in the hands of less talented writers, the results are often nothing short of a train wreck. So I'm often wary at the beginning of such reads.
From the reader's perspective, these sorts of novels can be emotionally taxing. The reader becomes heavily invested in a character that may or may not appear in any of the subsequent chapters (and then, often only in passing). While this sort of reader baiting offers tantalizing morsels of context outside the character's primary story, starting over ever chapter with a new protagonist often takes the wind out of a novels sails, and quickly. Again, if this sort of novel is written poorly, reading it can become a burden very quickly.
Not so with Colum McCann's 2007 novel Let The Great World Spin. McCann seems to understand this style of writing well. I have not read anything else by McCann but I would hazard a guess that this isn't the first novel that he has written in this style. Despite feeling emotionally drained following the end of any specific chapter, I found myself falling hopelessly into new chapters almost immediately after starting them. By the middle of the novel, I could almost guess as to who might be the main character of the next chapter given the characters that had appeared in passing in the previous ones, each character fleshing out the over-arching story, and I couldn't wait to see what more I would learn about the central veins of the story.
McCann weaves a tapestry of stories that not only encapsulates the lives of his characters, but establishes New York City as the primary character of the entire novel, making the characters simply bits of a larger theme. The protagonists (there are 11 in total) survey the heights and depths of the city from Park Avenue and the Financial District to the dankest recesses of the subway lines and the grimiest slums in the Bronx. While each character's story is itself a window into the human experience, the collection is a delicious cross-section of life in one of the world's most dichotomous cities, a city synonymous with reinvention and new beginnings. In this respect Let The Great World Spin is similar to Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides in the way that it establishes the setting as a primary character in the novel, making it a living, breathing character. One with both compassion and cruelty.
The novel wraps itself around the real life events of August 7th, 1974. On that day a man named Phillipe Petit somehow managed to string a tightrope from the North to the South Towers of New York's recently completed World Trade Center. In an act of unlicensed artistry, Petit proceeded to walk the length of the rope several times much to the delight of New Yorkers and much to the chagrin of the New York City Police Department. This real life episode becomes the lynch-pin for the fictionalized stories that appear in the novel. While love, redemption and forgiveness are all central themes to this wonderfully crafted novel, what McCann seems to be telling us is that while Petit's captivating antics were elevated hundreds of feet above the city, what we don't see are the millions of people walking their very own tightropes throughout the city (and one presumes throughout the world) each and every day. We all take our risks, defy and deny ourselves and each other and walk that precious line for all we are worth.
Excellent book. Highly recommended.