There are moments in time when the events that unfold are immediately recognizable as historic. Events that mark turning points, impact the future, or just bring people together to collectively reflect on our condition as human beings. Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy and King assassinations, the first moon landing… and then there was the Man on Wire. On August 7, 1974 after years of careful planning, a young and fearless French aerialist surreptitiously strung a cable across the newly erected Twin Towers and brought the city’s morning rush hour to a standstill as he walked, danced, and strutted his way across 1,368 ft above the streets.
Phillipe Petit’s audacious feat shocked the world that day and 35 years later became the star around which rotate a series of interwoven stories in Colum McCann’s novel, Let the Great World Spin. McCann uses Petits’s steel cable of interwoven wires to spin a literary web and link together the disparate lives of characters who, on the surface have no obvious connection. But as the story unfolds, they are joined by fewer than six degrees of separation. The tightrope walk was but a moment in time that binds them, but so too does the grief of the Vietnam War that plays out in agonizingly slow motion throughout the novel.
We meet a devout Jesuit monk and his brother who have emigrated from Ireland to the Bronx, mother and daughter who are drug addicted prostitutes but hopeful their offspring will break the cycle, residents of an elder care facility and a nurse who works with them, a group of mothers grieving for their sons lost in battle, a city court judge, two artists whose marriage is on the rocks, a graffiti artist wannabe/turned photographer, a couple of first generation computer hackers, and the only non-fictional character, Phillipe Petit. It’s quite a lineup and McCann jumps back and forth among them so at times I wished I had a scorecard to keep the players straight. But there is something very gratifying in the “aha moment” when the pieces begin to fit together and the puzzle picture comes into focus.
So, Let the Great World Spin works first as a character novel, telling the compelling stories of citizens of New York City and their interconnectedness. But McCann goes deeper and explores themes of human emotion; his stories provide a mirror to reflect empathy, love, and devotion, as well as their polar opposites.
At times we are the crowd assembled below the Towers riveted to the lives of the characters as they inch onward struggling to maintain their balance. Some make it across unscathed – others are not so lucky. As we look up, we see too, the darkness of a society that casts aside its underclass, that kills its sons and daughters in the name of progress and profit. In the end though, despite the actions of us mortals, the Great World Spins on.