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Let the Great World Spin, By Colum McCann
Friday 18 September 2009
One of the great intriguing truisms about American life is the way that, for all our inherent social conservatism, we are still always dazzled by anyone who engages in a high-wire act. Being a country which promotes the cult of rugged individualism alongside a corporate ethic which so profoundly encourages conformism, the United States has always exulted in acts of derring-do which astound and confound. Whether it be the kid who wins eight gold medals in an Olympic swimming pool, or that neo-fascist who survived the first solo transatlantic flight, or that "one small step for mankind" moment on our lunar sphere, Americans love saluting anyone who, so to speak, defies gravity.
Which is why, in August 1974, when a French acrobat with the nom juste of Philippe Petit stepped out on to a cable stretched between the two towers of Manhattan's World Trade Centre, the nation was gobsmacked. This was a dance with death that was also pure acrobatic art. Or, at Colum McCann so elegantly encapsulates this event in his wonderful new novel, "Within seconds he was pureness moving, and he could do anything he liked. He was inside and outside his body at the same time, indulging in what it meant to belong to the air, no future, no past, and this gave him the offhand vaunt to walk... The core reason for it all was beauty. Walking was a divine delight. Everything was rewritten when he was up in the air".
McCann himself is a writer who doesn't fear high-wire acts. Whether it be his brilliant reinvention of the life and times of Rudolph Nureyev in Dancer (a stunningly realised novel that eschewed all the the easy temptations of biographical fiction), or recreating the world of sandhogs - tunnel diggers - in turn-of-the century New York in This Side of Brightness, or bringing us into the life and times of a Romani gypsy (and plunging us into the tragedy of Eastern Europe from the 1930s onwards) in Zoli, he has always shown himself to be a writer aware of history's strange pirouettes and the primacy of an individual story amid the chaotic rhythms of a given age.
Though McCann was only nine, and living in Dublin, when Petit made his Twin Towers high-wire walk in 1974, it is a testament to his skill as a novelist that he so brilliantly captures the sense of urban malaise and general metropolitan meltdown that characterised New York during this era.
I speak as a native Manhattanite who came of age at that time. Indeed, Let The Great World Spin could best be described as a state-of-the-nation novel which eschews large historic brushstrokes in favour of the interior worlds of citizens trying to make it through their own little hells.
There's a newly arrived emigrant from Dublin named Ciaran Corrigan - whose brother John is both a member of a religious order and a man who, courtesy of his life in the meanest streets of the Bronx, is on a veritable collision course with his own formidable demons.
There's a Park Avenue matron - brilliantly educated, but living in her own luxurious bubble (her husband is a noted judge) - struggling with the death of her only child in Vietnam (not even a soldier, but something of a computer whizz) and finding herself crossing the city's economic divides in search of other mothers who have lost a child to that war. There is an artist - caught between her once-hip downtown credentials and her new-found ascetic life in a Thoreau-like, electricity-less conditions beyond the city limits - whose life randomly (and violently) intersects with the Corrigan brothers. And there is Tillie Henderson alias Miss Bliss alias Puzzle alias Rosa P. alias Sweetcakes - a hooker who also has a connection with that Irish monk who called the Bronx his parish.
What is so admirable about McCann's novel is its canny construction - and the way he is able to interweave these tales (and the wildly disparate worlds they represent) with a stylistic aplomb that never comes across as flamboyant or attention-seeking. More tellingly he is that rare species in contemporary fiction: a literary writer who is an exceptional storyteller. This novel never trumpets itself as a metropolitan kaleidoscope, but prefers the quiet intimacy of personal suffering.
It's a portrait of an era that never flashes its sizeable historical research, but shrewdly uses telling nuance and detail to render so perfectly early-1970s New York, and a narrative which interprets the folly of one man on a high wire as a metaphor for the way we all somehow play out our personal follies and sadnesses. Put baldly: this is an exceptional performance by a writer whose originality and profound humanity is evident throughout this highly original and wondrous novel.
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