Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann
Let’s face it, if the first two words you read when you pick up a book are Frank and McCourt you tend to be in trouble – even if it’s just an ungrammatically gushing soundbite. “A blockbuster, groundbreaking, heartbreaking, symphony of a novel”, he declaims across the front cover of Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, taking a handful of unrelated words and ingeniously stringing them together using commas. He helpfully goes on to elaborate on the back cover, returning to the more familiar realm of cliché: “No novelist writing of New York has climbed higher, dived deeper”.
Not that I can put my finger on exactly why, but Frank’s majestically cadenced affirmations of this novel’s ‘lyrical’ and ‘poetic’ excellence led me to expect it to be a bit shite. After all, on face value it ticks quite a few of the boxes. Annoying title? Check. Written by ex-Westlife member? Check. String of platitudinously enthusiastic quotes from B-list novelists and critics all over the (outsized and annoyingly illustrated) cover? Check. Large jacket photo of author wearing jauntily-tied scarf over a suit jacket (known in the fashion world as ‘the Banville look’)? Check. Oprah’s book of the month? Sure.
I was therefore relieved on beginning to read it to find that, instead of being another pseudo-lyrical, parochial lament warbled from the banks of the Liffey – the genre-piece of Enright, Barrie, and McCourt fame – Let The Great World Spin comes over all Don DeLillo. I mean, don’t get me wrong, the set-piece description that begins the book is at times textbook Bad DeLillo, particularly the inauspicious opening sentences: “Those who saw him hushed. On Church Street. Liberty. Cortlandt. West Street. Fulton. Vesey. It was a silence that heard itself, awful and beautiful”.
This is reminiscent of the effortlessly comic Bad DeLillo parodied by The Onion:
From across America, they come to Minneapolis, to Denver, in herds, teaming hordes filled with sounds, smells. In great tidal flows of seething humanity they ease around the I-beam sculptures and move into the sports arenas. They are loaded down with noisemakers and paper and special hats.
The crowds are a slowly spreading ripple and moan. They heave and surge with some unexplainable animal intelligence. They have to walk slowly to accommodate their awe. Snatches of unattributed dialogue—absurdist, yet paradoxically naturalistic—come out of the mass of pressing bodies
However, it’s also at times a bit like Good DeLillo doing what Good DeLillo does best – describing a big, complex mass of phenomena and people by using the narrative eye like a camera lens, zooming in and out and piling images on top of one another to make us feel disoriented and buffeted from all angles. Like in the big set-piece descriptions he tends to slap down at the beginning of novels: the after-carnage of the twin towers falling in Falling Man, the baseball match in Underworld, the ceremony at the start of Mao II.
As is the case in DeLillo’s Falling Man, the description that opens Let The Great World Spin – of a real event, Phillipe Petit’s mindbowing tight-rope walk between the Twin Towers in 1974 (if you haven’t seen Man On Wire you really should) – serves to introduce the defining image that pins the book together (‘defining image’ in this sense is a reciprocal phrase – the image defines the narrative, just as the narrative is at some level an exercise in defining the image).
In DeLillo’s Falling Man, we begin with a virtuoso description of the 9/11 fan/shit collision, only to work our way – via recollections, switches of perspective and a non-linear (slash non-existent) plot – back round to the symmetrical ‘ending’: the moment when the plane smashes into the tower (again). That moment itself is an evolving image, and the narrative is constructed as a means of rotating and re-examining it. Its meaning is fluid, and evolves over the course of the narrative – when we come back to it at the end, it has been altered, or re-contextualised.
Likewise in Let The Great World Spin, the defining image (Phillipe Petit bestriding the twin towers) is given a general articulation at the beginning of the book – from an overall, encompassing perspective – using snapshot and montage techniques to recreate the visual objectivity of film (it’s a bit Man With a Movie Camera). We are then over the course of the narrative shown a series of other, initially unrelated perspectives that are all in some way touched by the initial image – though for each it has a meaning, texture, significance and connotation that is radically different.
So the novel – through fragmented narrative perspectives and a plot that weaves itself around the streets beneath Petit’s hovering silhouette – holds the initial image of a man on a wire between the twin towers up to us, and turns it around, peruses it from different angles, placing it in the periphery of a range of narrative frames that are gradually revealed to be linked together by this central image. An eccentric and conflicted Irish monk and the prostitutes he devotes his life to trying to help – in particular a mother and daughter who work the streets together; a couple of elegantly debauched artists; a Park Avenue housewife, destroyed by the death of her son in Vietnam (a spectre throughout the novel, this being 1974) and quietly cracking up beneath the icy hauteur; her bit-of-a-self-satisfied-dickhead-but-ultimately-you-sense-not-such-a-bad-egg husband, who is the judge at the trials of the prostitutes and, immediately afterwards, of Philip Petit.
Let The Great World Spin never approaches the unreadable troughs of parts of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (another novel made up of a succession of different narratives), though as in that book it has to be said that some of its voices are a lot more convincing than others. Most of the cringe-factor, hammed up Bad DeLillo moments come during the generally unconvincing sections that describe – with mythological gravitas – Petite’s preparations for his stunt. The groping for profundity is just too in-your-face to overlook, and threatens to spoil the more subtle, cumulative effect of the overall design, which is basically a clever and sophisticated one.
As Cloud Atlas proves (sometimes the hard way), this sort of multi-voiced ventriloquism is a tricky act to pull off, and there are some cringe moments when McCann spends 40-odd pages writing in the voice of a New York prostitute – though overall this section actually works surprisingly well. The Diet Modernism stream of consciousness from the perspective of a monied housewife also falls rather flat. But overall the Fails are outweighed by the successes, even if those Fails do seem to come more frequently the more ostentatiously stylised the narrative voice becomes (whether this is an overdone, lyrical literary voice or unevenly pulled-off New Yoik slang).
Even if there are a few seams here and there, McCann’s multi-narrative design is a refreshing departure from the dominant mode of mainstream literary fiction. In many novels – bildungsromans or even Irish misery memoirs – the reference point or centre of gravity is a character or perspective whose evolution we observe as it is influenced by external events. The Real (if you capitalise it people think you’ve read Lacan) is often the predicate, with the perspective of a character or narrator the ultimate subject. With other narrative forms around that can operate in panorama more easily, subjectivity is what literature traditionally brings to the table, a claim to fame that it clings to – it can get inside a character’s head in ways that film can’t.
In Let The Great World Spin, this subject-predicate relationship is flipped round – the characters’ individual perspectives become the predicate that impacts on the subject, which is the image of Petite walking on a wire between the twin towers. Rather than exploring the significance of a chain of events as manifested in their impact on an imagined consciousness, McCann uses a series of imagined consciousnesses to explore the social impact of a strange, profound and artistic image. On a fundamental level it’s a novel that explores the problems of defining – or even describing – a social experience. (Operating in this panoramic mode recalls a Modernist text that tries to reconcile literary narrative with the sheer scale and indefinibility of New York: John dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer).
Overall this is a novel that is refreshingly ambitious in its scope. Walking a risky narrative tightrope, there are undoubtedly a few wobbles along the way. But unlike Cloud Atlas – which falls off the wire and plunges to its sidewalk-besmattering death at around page 250 – Let The Great World Spin just about makes it to the other side.