Let the Great World Spin (McCann)

Let the Great World Spin
Colum McCann, 2009
Random House
400 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780812973990

In the dawning light of a late-summer morning, the people of lower Manhattan stand hushed, staring up in disbelief at the Twin Towers. It is August 1974, and a mysterious tightrope walker is running, dancing, leaping between the towers, suspended a quarter mile above the ground. In the streets below, a slew of ordinary lives become extraordinary in bestselling novelist Colum McCann’s stunningly intricate portrait of a city and its people.

Let the Great World Spin is the critically acclaimed author’s most ambitious novel yet: a dazzlingly rich vision of the pain, loveliness, mystery, and promise of New York City in the 1970s.

Corrigan, a radical young Irish monk, struggles with his own demons as he lives among the prostitutes in the middle of the burning Bronx. A group of mothers gather in a Park Avenue apartment to mourn their sons who died in Vietnam, only to discover just how much divides them even in grief. A young artist finds herself at the scene of a hit-and-run that sends her own life careening sideways. Tillie, a thirty-eight-year-old grandmother, turns tricks alongside her teenage daughter, determined not only to take care of her family but to prove her own worth.

Elegantly weaving together these and other seemingly disparate lives, McCann’s powerful allegory comes alive in the unforgettable voices of the city’s people, unexpectedly drawn together by hope, beauty, and the “artistic crime of the century.” A sweeping and radical social novel, Let the Great World Spin captures the spirit of America in a time of transition, extraordinary promise, and, in hindsight, heartbreaking innocence. Hailed as a“fiercely original talent” (San Francisco Chronicle), award-winning novelist McCann has delivered a triumphantly American masterpiece that awakens in us a sense of what the novel can achieve, confront, and even heal. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Where—Dublin, Ireland
Awards—Pushcart Prize; Rooney Prize; Hennessy Award for 
   Irish Literature; Irish Independent Hughes and Hughes/
   Sunday Independent Novel of the Year; Ireland Fund 
   of Monaco Princess Grace Memorial Literary Award;
   Deauville Festival of Cinema Literary Prize; named French
   Chevalier des arts et lettres; inducted into Ireland's
Currently—lives in New York City

Colum McCann is an Irish writer of literary fiction—two collections of short stories and several novels, most recently TransAtlantic (2013). He is a Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing in the Master of Fine Arts program at Hunter College, New York and a regular visitor to the European Graduate School.

McCann's fiction has been published in 35 languages. His novels include Songdogs (1995), This Side of Brightness (1998), Dancer (2003), Zoli (2006), Let the Great World Spin (2009), and TransAtlantic (2013). He has written for numerous newspapers and periodicals, including the New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, GQ, Times (of London), Irish Times, Granta, and La Repubblica. His short story "Everything in this Country Must" was made into a short film directed by Gary McKendry. It was nominated for an Academy Award in 2005.

Early and private life
McCann was born in Dublin and studied journalism in the former College of Commerce in Rathmines, now the Dublin Institute of Technology He began his career as a reporter for the Irish Press, and had his own column and byline by the age of 21.

In 1986 he arrived in the United States with the purpose of writing a novel. He soon found that he was lacking the life experience to undertake such a project, so he took a bicycle tour across North America for the next 18 months, collecting many of the experiences that he later said influenced his fiction, especially the wide range of voices and backgrounds of his characters.

He settled in Texas from 1988 until 1991 where he worked as a wilderness guide in a program for juvenile delinquents in Texas, and completed his B.A in the University of Texas. In 1992 he married Allison Hawke and moved to Japan, where the McCanns lived for a year and a half. He and his wife then moved to New York where they currently reside with their three children, Isabella, John Michael, and Christian.

Major works
McCann's 2009 novel Let the Great World Spin uses the true story of Philippe Petit as a "pull-through metaphor" and weaves together a powerful allegory of 9/11. The novel has won numerous honours, notably the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.  In 2010, McCann and musician Joe Hurley cowrote a song-cycle—“The House That Horse Built (Let the Great World Spin)”—based on the character of Tillie.

On 16 June 2009, McCann published a Bloomsday remembrance of his long-deceased grandfather, whom he met only once, and of finding him again in the pages of James Joyce's Ulysses.

McCann's 2013 novel Transatlantic tells the intertwined stories of Alcock and Brown (the first non-stop transatlantic fliers in 1919), the visit of Frederick Douglass to Ireland in 1845/46, and the story of the Irish peace process as negotiated by Senator George Mitchell in 1998. The book fuses these stories with fictional narratives of women spanning the course of two centuries. (From Wikipedia. Retrieved 5/22/2013.)

Book Reviews 
Let the Great World Spin is an emotional tour de force. It is a heartbreaking book, but not a depressing one. Through their anguish, McCann’s characters manage to find comfort, even a kind of redemption.... Always in the background is a time and a place—the waning days of Nixon and Vietnam, and New York in the 1970s. In recent years, we’ve seen the emergence of a new generation of New York novelists led by Jonathan Lethem and Colson Whitehead, both native New Yorkers. McCann brings an immigrant’s refreshing sense of awe to the same terrain. “Every now and then the city shook its soul out,” he writes. “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.
Jonathan Mahler - New York Times

McCann can craft penetrating phrases—a smoker resembles "his last cigarette, ashen and ready to fall"—but his theme is stale, and the exhaustive back stories he gives each character never pay off. McCann relies on streams of short sentences that can seem lazy and distracted. "Pureness moving" describes a break-dancer 140 pages before the exact phrase is used again to describe Petit. Perhaps the repetition is deliberate, but, either way, the line doesn't land a punch. By book's end, McCann is writing of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, the width of his canvas enhancing neither the plot nor our concern for it.
Mike Peed - Washington Post

McCann's sweeping new novel hinges on Philippe Petit's illicit 1974 high-wire walk between the twin towers. It is the aftermath, in which Petit appears in the courtroom of Judge Solomon Soderberg, that sets events into motion. Solomon, anxious to get to Petit, quickly dispenses with a petty larceny involving mother/daughter hookers Tillie and Jazzlyn Henderson. Jazzlyn is let go, but is killed on the way home in a traffic accident. Also killed is John Corrigan, a priest who was giving her a ride. The other driver, an artist named Blaine, drives away, and the next day his wife, Lara, feeling guilty, tries to check on the victims, leading her to meet John's brother, with whom she'll form an enduring bond. Meanwhile, Solomon's wife, Claire, meets with a group of mothers who have lost sons in Vietnam. One of them, Gloria, lives in the same building where John lived, which is how Claire, taking Gloria home, witnesses a small salvation. McCann's dogged, DeLillo—like ambition to show American magic and dread sometimes comes unfocused—John Corrigan in particular never seems real—but he succeeds in giving us a high-wire performance of style and heart.
Publishers Weekly

[B]est-selling literary novelist McCann allows himself more artistic freedom in his shimmering, shattering fifth novel. It begins on August 7, 1974, when New Yorkers are stopped in their tracks by the sight of a man walking between the towers of the World Trade Center.... In McCann’s wise and elegiac novel of origins and consequences, each of his finely drawn, unexpectedly connected characters balances above an abyss, evincing great courage with every step. —Donna Seaman

The famous 1974 tightrope walk between the World Trade Center towers is a central motif in this unwieldy paean to the adopted city of Dublin-born McCann. Told by a succession of narrators representing diverse social strata, the novel recalls Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), except that where Bonfire was deeply cynical about Reagan-era New York, McCann's take on the grittier, 1970s city is deadly earnest. On the day that "the tightrope walker" (never named, but obviously modeled on Philippe Petit) strolls between the Twin Towers, other New Yorkers are performing quieter acts of courage. Ciaran has come from Dublin to the Bronx to rescue his brother Corrigan, a monk whose ministry involves providing shelter and respite to an impromptu congregation of freeway underpass hookers. Corrigan chastely yearns for Adelita, his co-worker at a nursing home. Claire, heiress wife of Solomon, a judge at the "Shithouse" (Manhattan criminal court), has joined a support group of bereaved mothers whose sons died in the Vietnam War. With much trepidation, she hosts the group-including Gloria, Corrigan's neighbor and the only African-American member-at her Park Avenue penthouse. Two of Corrigan's prostitute flock, Jazzlyn and her mother Tillie, are picked up on an outstanding warrant, and he accompanies them to their arraignment in Solomon's courtroom, where the newly arrested sky-walker is among those waiting to plead. Cocaine-addled painters Blaine and Lara, once again fleeing the Manhattan art scene, also flee the accident scene after their classic car clips Corrigan's van from the rear as he's driving Jazzlyn home. (Tillie, having taken the rap for her daughter, is in jail.) Peripheral characters command occasional chapters as well, and this series of linked stories never really gels as a novel. Unfocused and overlong, though written with verve, empathy and stylistic mastery.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions 
1. Let the Great World Spin is told through the eyes of eleven different characters. What is the effect of this chorus of voices? Why do you think the author chose to tell the story this way? If you had to choose a single character to narrate the whole book, who would it be, and why? What do you think might be lost, or gained, by narrowing the story to a single perspective?

2. As McCann explains in the author’s note, the book’s title comes from “Locksley Hall,” an 1835 poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, which was itself inspired by a series of ancient Arabic poems. Why do you think McCann chose to use this title for such a modern American story? What does the title mean to you, and do you think it affects your relationship to the book as a reader? Would this be a different novel, do you think, if it had been called something else, like “Highwire”?

3. The narrative takes place almost exclusively in New York City, but could it have taken place in any other city in the world? How can this be seen as a specifically “New York” novel, and how might it not be? Are there ways in which the characters are emblematic of their time and place, or is there an “everyman” quality to them?

4. The novel opens with an extraordinary tightrope walk between the World Trade Center towers. This is a fictionalization of a famous stunt by Philippe Petit in August 1974—yet the tightrope walker in the novel remains anonymous, unrelated to any of the other characters. What do you think the effect is of weaving this historical fact into the fiction of the other characters’ stories? What do you think McCann intends toachieve with this, and in what ways do you think he succeeds?

5. How important do you think this historic walk is in the novel itself? In what ways would the stories–and story–McCann is telling be different if the novel had been set on a different day, or in a different era?

6. Do you see ways in which the tightrope might function as a metaphor, or symbol, throughout the book?

7. In the chapter titled “This Is the House That Horse Built” we get an intimate glimpse into the life of a New York prostitute in the 1970s. She considers herself a failure. Do you agree with her? Or do you think she achieves grace despite the circumstances of her life?

8. All but one of the chapters in Let the Great World Spin are set over the course of a couple of days in early August 1974. Why do you think McCann chose to jump thirty-two years, to 2006, for the final chapter? In what ways do these pages add to, complicate, or even change the story that came before? Why do you think he chose the character of Jaslyn to tell that final piece of the story?

9. What do you think Jaslyn discovers at the end of the novel?

10. What parallels do you see between the society of the 1970s, as McCann depicts it in the novel, and today? How do you believe these similarities and differences speak to the changes in America and the world over the past several decades? Would it be fair to say that America itself is one of the evolving characters in the novel, a separate figure whose story is also being told?

11. Adelita says: “The thing about love is that we come alive in bodies not our own.” What does she mean by this?

12. It can be argued that Corrigan and Jazzlyn are the book’s two main characters, yet they die in the opening chapters. Why do you think McCann chose to allow their lives to be destroyed so early in the book? Why did he choose not to tell any of the story through their points of view? In what ways do you think that decision makes these two people more–or less–central and powerful in the story as a whole? Could it be said that it is sometimes the stories not told that affect us the most?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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