‘Let the Great World Spin’

I keep threatening to write a novel the way the barbarians once kept threatening to overrun Rome. Unthinkable, but one day it could happen. On my journey I’ve decided to rejigger my reading list to include more fiction. And today I’m glad I’ve done so.

Let the Great World Spin” by Colum McCann (2009) doesn’t need any extra praise from the likes of me. It’s a National Book Award winner and the critical blurbs on the cover read like an author’s most depraved fantasy. But McCann’s approach to this New York-based novel reminds me in some ways of how I’d like to write about the Iron Range. In an author interview in the postscript he says “Wherever we are now is wherever we once were.”

Though I’m not one to be lured by the mystique of New York I’ve always felt an affinity for the city. If I had to flee, I’d flee there, sure. At some point in the early 1900s both New York and the Iron Range were similarly populated by vast numbers of immigrants who would go on to shape the places they chose to call home. There is something about divergent storylines converging on an interesting place that makes great art. “Let the Great World Spin” is such a work.

McCann goes back to a day in 1974 when a daredevil walked a tightrope connecting the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Below him and around him tiny interactions sprawl out into an unfolding story of regular people performing their own acts of bravery, threatened by their own forces of gravity.

In this time the streets of New York bubbled over with crime. The fresh wounds of Vietnam had yet to scab over. Computer scientists mapped out the bones of what would become the internet with almost no fanfare. And, of course, the man walking between the still-new World Trade Center towers, 110 stories above the pavement, (a true event on which the story is based) reminds us that in 2001 those towers would come crashing down in a terrorist attack.

In writing with exquisite detail about the past, McCann does what many modern writers have tried and failed — he crafts a compelling thematic understanding of post-9/11 America. I recommend the book. Feel free to join me in a discussion in the comments if you’ve read it, too.

* Reviews on this site will be occasional. You’ll note that the links I have here go to Amazon, where I am part of an affiliate program that converts your voluntary purchases into a small commission for me. This is one of the few ways I make money on this blog and I hope you don’t find it too unseemly. My decision to write about books will always be dictated by my editorial judgement, not profit.

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