Sunday, January 17, 2010

Book Report: Let the Great World Spin

[post 057]

Let the Great World Spin
a novel by Colum McCann
NY: Random House, 2009
349 pages

Take a careful look at the top of the book cover above and you'll see a wire walker, balancing pole in hand, pencil-thin atop a spreading megalopolis. It is 1974, and the wire walker is Philippe Petit, poised between the twin towers of New York City's World Trade Center.

Let the Great World Spin is not really a novel about Philippe Petit, but it uses his "artistic crime of the 20th century" and August 7, 1974 as the centerpiece for a soaring tale that dissects not just New York City, but the divide between human aspiration and the muck and mire of everyday existence, between all that pulls us up to the heavens and all that yanks us down, down, down. Or as Oscar Wilde once famously put it, "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."

Although Petit is just one of many characters in the book, all the action is refracted through the lens of his walk and arrest. Mc Cann conjures a tapestry of interlocking stories, shifting from 3rd-person to 1st-person narrative, getting into the heads of a broad swath of New Yorkers. The NY Times book review said it much better than I can: "Like a great pitcher in his prime, ­McCann is constantly changing speeds, adopting different voices, tones and narrative styles as he shifts between story lines... McCann just keeps rolling out new people, deftly linking each to the next, as his story moves toward its surprising and deeply affecting conclusion."

All in all, a deeply felt tale, a feat of superior storytelling, and certainly one of the best novels I've read in recent years. I am not at all surprised that it won the National Book Award and was named Amazon's Book of the Year, amongst other honors. A damn good read, and if you're not in the habit of devouring serious contemporary fiction (hey, what's up with that?), this would be a great place to start. And you can get the paperback on Amazon for a mere $7.50 — the price of a beer in many a New York bar.

Update (Sept. 7, 2011):
The NY Times has started a new online book discussion group, Big City Book Club, and their first selection is none other than Let the Great World Spin. The host (Gina Bellafante) poses some questions and readers share their views but, unlike your typical comments section, the host joins in the dialogue on a regular basis. Check it out here.

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