When I first started this novel a couple of weeks ago, I thought I may not like it. I actually did not know that it would be an inter-connected series of short stories from different perspectives. I read the first chapter from the point of view of an Irish man new to New York City in the 70s and it was engaging and well written, but I didn't feel an emotional connection. Also wasn't this supposed to be a novel about the man who walked across a tightrope between the World Trade Center towers? Where was he?
I finished it today and can honesty say it was one of the most beautiful things I've read in my entire life. It's one of those books that is so beautiful and so perfect that you feel like it should be fragile, that instead of paper and ink it should be made of glass and spindles, a delicate thing you have to protect. I usually chafe against interconnected short story collections, because as soon as I get involved with one character I'm whisked away to another. But in Let the Great World Spin, l every time I was whisked, often at dizzying speed and variation, from a wealthy judge to a sad and broken prostitute, every time I was thrown through the air of 1970s New York to something new, I found myself falling in love again and again with these characters, these imperfect people who in one moment, from the point of view of another character can seem hollow and mean, and then in the next, from inside their head, be messy and decent and frustrating and just so viscerally human.
McCann hasn't created characters. He's created humans. And he's created their world in such breathtaking detail and honesty that you feel like you could reach out and touch things. You smell sewage in a crumbling, crime ridden Bronx. You feel the oppressive heat of an urban August summer. I don't know how he has done this. This is one of this books where as a writer you read it and your heart breaks because you didn't write it, because you couldn't write it. What he's done is sublime. Most books if they're lucky have a few sublime moments, a few moments where they become more than novels and are these breathing, vibrant creatures capable of changing, challenging and pushing the lives of their reader. This whole book is that way. I don't know how he did it. I wish I did.
And the most remarkable thing is that McCann has done what few other authors have done, he's successfully written a novel about 9/11. And he's done it by writing a book that has nothing to do with 9/11. And I know that doesn't make sense, but if you read this you'll understand what I mean. And it's so genius and right and obvious, because of course the only way you could write about 9/11 is to not focus on what's gone and what's destroyed, but to write about what was there, what was once intact and capable of beauty and solid and real, what we once thought would always be there. Only a couple of chapters in this book actually are from the point of view of the tightrope walker, but in a way the whole novel is. It's someone looking down from midair, at this city suspended in a moment, a city that from that great distance reveals itself as not just a disparate collection of strangers and unrelated parts, but as a whole, a web of life and humanity that is capable of horror and monstrosity but also of such tremendous beauty and goodness and hope.
It's about people trying to pull themselves out of destruction and reach for something new, for some moment of creation, whether it's creating an act of performance art and spectacle in mid-air or simply forging a friendship with someone from a completely different walk of life.
We think about 9/11 and we think about what fell down, about all that was lost. But in Let the Great World Spin, McCann deals with that day and grieves for that day by rebuilding those towers and a tightrope hanging between them. He reconstructs a man in mid air, not falling, not falling like all of those people would one day fall, but frozen, frozen in life and in time, a supreme reminder that sometimes life can reach a moment of grace, even amidst the chaos. And he reconstructs the people living in view of that moment of grace by putting things back together, by going backward to a place when we were whole.
It's just one of the most remarkable books I've ever read.