Let The Great World Spin

(Bloomsbury £11.99)

Literary Review   September 2009

Walking a tightrope is a telling, if familiar, metaphor for the precariousness of contemporary life.  Nowhere is this more so than in New York, the epitome of urban culture, a city of extraordinary wealth and extreme alienation, where boatloads of immigrants from across the globe meet coachloads of itinerants from across America….  And another hundred people just got off of the train.

Colum McCann’s thrilling new novel features tightrope walking as both a metaphor and an actual event.  In the first instance, it becomes a powerful image of both the ambition and brutality of life in twentieth-century New York.  As Judge Solomon Soderberg, one of its principal characters, puts it, America is ‘the sort of place where you should be allowed to walk as high as you wanted.  But what if you were the one walking underneath?  What if the tightrope walker really had fallen?’

In the second instance, McCann puts Philippe Petit’s extraordinary tightrope walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, arguably the most famous such feat since Houdini’s, at the heart of the book.  Indeed, the bulk of it is set on or around 7th August 1974, the day of the walk, which recently featured in the Oscar-winning documentary, Man on Wire.  In a similar, though far more ambitious, manner to Nicola Barker’s use of David Blaine’s suspension in a glass box above the Thames in her 2005 novel, Clear, McCann uses Petit’s stunt to explore the lives of a disparate group of New Yorkers, who are all either witnesses to it or caught up in its aftermath.

Petit himself appears in the novel, preparing for his walk by undergoing rigorous physical training in the Rocky Mountains and humiliating employment as a New York party entertainer, both of which are McCann’s inventions.  The walk itself is described at one remove through a group of Californian hackers, who break into the public phone system and chat to bystanders on the street.  Not for nothing is one of them a balletomane who watches it through the same opera glasses she trained on Baryshnikov and Makarova at the Met the night before, for this, in the words of another character, is ‘The city as art.’

Petit may be the centre of the novel but it is the bystanders who are its heart.  Let the Great World Spin is a choral symphony in which a whole range of New York voices is heard:  poignantly, in the case of a support group for the mothers of sons killed in Vietnam;  defiantly in the case of the black prostitutes selling themselves on the streets;  mystically in the case of Corrigan, the Irish monk who leaves Dublin during the Troubles and moves to the Bronx where he finds himself at increasing odds with God, as result both of the evil that he sees all around him and of his own desire for Adelita, the Guatemalan care-worker in the day centre for which he works.

Most of the novel’s myriad voices are first-person;  only the stories of Petit himself and Solomon and his wife, Claire are told in the third.  McCann has an extraordinary ability, part-poet part-ventriloquist, to capture the speech rhythms of his disparate characters.  As in Dancer, his fictionalised portrait of Nureyev, he has an enviable talent for conveying extreme emotional states and physical sensations, often by the simple juxtaposition of the physical and the abstract, as when Petit is described as ‘pureness moving’ or ‘carrying his life from one side to the other’.

The book has received enormous and well-deserved praise in America for its depiction of New York, but its achievement is far greater.  It is a novel about the interconnectedness of society:  how people from the opposite sides of the tracks, who might never brush up against one another in their everyday lives are nonetheless intimately linked, be it through personal grief, war, the law courts, a road accident, a phone conversation or, simply, gazing into the sky at the same moment to have their minds expanded by a man on a wire.

Let The Great World Spin is a marvellous novel.  Like Petit, McCann has taken enormous risks in his chosen field, walking his high wire with grace and skill and not a single false step.