K.'s Reviews > Let the Great World Spin

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
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Jun 18, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: historical-fiction
Read from June 18 to 24, 2011

McCann writes a novel powerful in its content, tone and sentence style. He demonstrates how a dozen or so disparate inhabitants of Manhattan are interconnected. Although there are flashbacks and flash forwards, the primary setting of the novel is August 1974 on the day that a performance artist dances upon a cable wire strung 110 stories high between the Trade Towers.

The tone simultaneously celebrates and mourns the human condition. Each character is handled like a jewel, turned over and over so that the light reflects both their beauties and their flaws. McCann also shows how events that seem trivial, unconnected and purposeless end up playing a role in a grander meaning. You must read the novel to see these complex patterns emerge, but one small example of this occurs when an artist leaves his paintings out in the rain and decides that they have more impact because of the subsequent damage. This same theme runs backwards as well: events that are supposed to have meaning end up unraveling to the point of absurdity. For example, a judge feels as though his high prestige job is really a lot more trivial than his admirers imagine.

I have abandoned reading many books because they were too gritty, but McCann--like Walt Whitman--manages to describe the breadth of the human experience without becoming angry, bitter and hopeless. And even the most horrifying events are described beautifully. I don't think he's advocating for tragedy; he has too many characters that fight for positive change. I think that McCann is just trying to sooth people's anger about the crappy elements of life by inviting people to accept the things they cannot change.

After writing the review above, I see that many reviewers describe this novel as a collection of short stories; I beg to differ. McCann has a novel structure in the unity of time and place, in the interconnection of the characters, and through the themes that weave throughout. The unity of a novel is there if you look for it. If one of the chapters was omitted, the novel would be marred. Perhaps what bothers people is the lack of a main character with his/her action unifying the novel. New York City is the main character -- or perhaps the human condition itself. That's a little abstract, but I found this focus quite engaging.
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