Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

Having focused on modern and contemporary American literature, I was amazed to find that I had somehow overlooked Colum McCann’s writing until only recently. I’d heard of Zoli, and have been meaning to read it for many years now, but it has somehow never made it home with me. It’s supposed to be one of the best historical fiction books about Gypsies in World War II Europe, and after reading Let the Great World Spin I cannot wait to get my hands on McCann’s other books.

With an entirely new time period, cast of characters, and tone, Let the Great World Spin ultimately tells the tale of an unnamed thrill seeker who, on a quest for bigger and greater challenges, finds himself walking, running, dancing, and laying on a tightrope suspended over 100 stories in the air between the twin towers. The novel strives to reveal the slowly spreading reactions of the audience as it spreads from street corner to street corner, then to the news reports on tv,  into the court house, and then into the minds and narratives of the bustling city of NYC. The slowness of people to recognize what was happening above their heads reminded me of just how ingrained it is for us to view the world in view limited to people and shaped by our expectations/definitions of normal. The thrill seeker, by placing himself in an unexpected space, is arguably challenging the confines of the human view and also challenging the assumption that what he is doing is actually a performance. If it is out of the scope of view of his audience, I find myself re-thinking his motives and, yet again, who this adrenaline junkie is and why he has worked so hard for this single stunt.

What I found so compelling about McCann’s storytelling is that rather than offering insight into this determined daredevil as I so much desired, he wove an incredible cast of people together that have all been pushed to a breaking point in their own, separate lives, and yet who all find a way to pass over the breaking point by sharing in the experience of the tightrope walker. While witnessing or failing to witness the stunt brings the characters in to focus, it is the grief and aloneness that unites them in this story. The novel is populated with outsiders who are, in reality, normal people who just feel that they cannot fit in and/or get their lives back on track.

It is simultaneously heart-wrenching and powerfully hopeful, provocative and startlingly quiet. There is no part of the narrative that impedes on the quietness and transcendent-like experience that the tightrope walker has miles above the city coming to life with morning traffic, but the narrative often feels quite the opposite. The care and detail with which McCann crafted these characters is immediately clear and that, in and of itself, was enough to grab and hold on to my attention throughout the novel. If you are interested in the cannon of contemporary New York-centric literature from an immigrant’s (i.e. an outsider, like his cast of characters!) perspective, this is a must read novel. I was deeply moved by McCann’s writing, and as I said earlier, I  am excited to read other works by him.

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