Let the Great World Spin (Which Should Be Titled The Dark Side of New York)
New York seems to elicit strong emotions in most people. New Yorkers generally seem to consider themselves slightly better than the rest of us just for residing in its hallowed boundaries. Theater people can't wait to make it there, artists have only made it if they've shown there. It's big and noisy and beautiful and ugly and cultured and gritty. I myself have only visited once, for one long afternoon. Being from Chicago, I expected that it would feel like a city-I am not unfamiliar with the hustle and bustle, after all. But there is something different about New York.
I imagine that it is that je ne sais quoi that makes New York the subject of so much art. Books, plays, movies, television-there is no lack of New York themed writing out there. Since 9-11 I think that to a certain extent all Americans have adopted New York. We celebrate it as a shiny example of America at its best. But like any large urban center New York has its dark side, which is what Colum McCann so artfully portrays in Let the Great World Spin.
Let the Great World Spin is a multi-layered, non-linear look at the lives of several New Yorkers, and how they intersect in the summer of 1974. The backdrop for the story is the tightrope walk of Phillipe Petit between the World Trade Center towers. There is Ciaran Corrigan, whose brother is a missionary working with the hookers in the Bronx. Then there is Claire, a Park Avenue matron whose son was killed in Viet Nam. You have Lara, an artist trying to dry out after the hedonism of the New York art scene in the early 70s, and Tilllie, one of the hookers from under the bridge. As the lives of these people, and more, intersect in seemingly random yet meaningful ways, we see a side of New York that is gritty, dirty, ugly, and hidden from most of the world.
First let me say that I was distracted while reading this novel with the juxtaposition in my mind of the man walking between the Towers and the memories I have of watching the footage of people falling from the Towers on 9-11. I think that for those of us who lived through that horrific day, we will never be able to think about the Towers in any other way again. Every time I watch a movie shot in pre-9-11 New York, I am startled by the World Trade Center in the background. I can't read about the construction of the Towers without thinking about their destruction. This preoccupation may have caused me to miss at least some of what McCann was trying to do in this novel. Because I will admit to not really getting it. I was intrigued enough by the characters and their relationships with each other that I wanted to keep reading, but I've seen this work described as a great New York novel, and I'm not sure what it was trying to say about New York. Most of the novel felt soiled-even the story of the Park Avenue mother and her judge husband felt a little bit dirty. Perhaps the point was that despite Watergate, and Viet Nam, and the Civil Rights movement, and yes, the tightrope walker, the real story was in the lives of the ordinary people, trying to find meaning in the chaos. But surely that story is not uniquely New York. Regardless of what McCann wanted to say about New York, what I took away from Let the Great World Spin is a feeling like he took the rock called urban America and turned it over, exposing the creepy, crawly things living just under the surface.