Great World Spin,
which has been called the first great 9/11 novel, won the
National Book Award a few weeks ago. It’s brilliant,
beautiful, wise, tender, and mesmerizing, and like nothing on the
subject that has gone before.
Colum McCann takes Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk and from
that act of transcendent ecstasy spins a web that cradles 9/11
without ever talking about the event, takes us back to New York in
the 70’s and fast-forwards all the way to 2006. And with these
invisible wires that he weaves, McCann gives us the great
perspective, the sweep of history, the details of lives. The
walk is the figurative heart of the novel: '… the core
reason for it all was beauty. Walking was a divine delight.
Everything was rewritten when he was up in the air. New
things were possible with the human form. It went beyond
What a brilliant way to approach this subject, to approach horror
with the irrepressible ecstasy, the wild glory of life itself.
After reading this novel we thought that John Updike’s
Terrorist and Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist
appeared small in scope, puny in intention. This is a novel
with a great heart. Let the Great World Spin is a
book where the caesura, the sonorous pause, matters.
Speaking of Rachmaninoff, a character never names him, says only:
'He’s Russian…he can stretch his fingers to thirteen keys.'
McCann never speaks directly of Nixon’s resignation the day
after Petit’s mythological crossing, nor does he talk of the
events of 9/11 – but this dwelling instead on the balletic
wildness and grace of Petit’s walk captures the spirit of New
York, and perhaps of America itself. The novel as
redemption. McCann says that the tightrope walk was “…a way
to pull the reader through the novel…” but that “…the story comes
right down to the ground, in the very dark of night, in the
roughest part of New York, when two little girls emerge from a
Bronx housing complex and get rescued by strangers. That,
for me, is the core image of the novel, that’s when the towers get
built back up.”
Two Irish brothers in the burned-out Bronx, an Upper East Side
Judge and his wife, their son in Vietnam, a hooker who quotes Rumi,
all lives that intersect with Petit’s high-wire act. McCann
says that he wanted the novel to be “…a Whitmanesque song of the
city, with everything in there, high and low, rich and poor,
black, white, and Hispanic….” And it is marvelous how
McCann, a New Yorker who was born in Ireland, accomplishes this.
He gives us New York even while he talks of a 'red-tail perning
above the nest….'
The title, which holds within it all the poetry of the book is
from Tennyson’s Locksley Hall. Tennyson, who one
always returns to for the musicality of his language, is said to
have been inspired here by the Mu’allaqat, seven long 6th
Century pre-Islamic Arabic poems.
Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of
Thro' the shadow of the globe we sweep into the younger day;
McCann says in a note at the end of the novel: “Literature can
remind us that not all life is already written down: there are
still so many stories to be told.” And may he go on telling
us his stories, for we loved every minute we spent between the
covers of this tour de force….
Let the Great
Man on Wire,
dir. James Marsh, starring Philippe Petit