Colum McCann won the 2009 National Book Award for Let the Great World Spin, one of the more intriguing, artful works of fiction to appear in the past 10 years. McCann’s novel reflects a profoundly Christian imagination at work in subtle and complex ways. If you read only two novels this year, I suggest that you read Let the Great World Spin twice.
McCann uses the 1974 walk by Philippe Petit on a tightrope wire stretched between the towers of the World Trade Center to frame portraits of New Yorkers, some of whom look up from the streets below. McCann watches these watchers with profound insight as he reveals how each of them walks various moral, psychological or theological tightropes of their own. He focuses especially on those who have experienced some version of collapse in their own lives. Some have fallen into addiction or prostitution, while others have been felled by grief over soldier sons who died in Vietnam. The novel lovingly unearths the remnant beauty beneath the layers of grief, grime and guilt that can characterize contemporary urban life.
While the tightrope walker holds this spinning novel together, the pivotal character driving the novel’s plot forward is John Andrew Corrigan, a young Irishman from Dublin who has taken religious vows and has come to New York as an urban monk to minister among the city’s poor. Corrigan is equal parts Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day and the whiskey priest from Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory. He preaches through acts of solidarity, not through sermons, and finds beauty in the midst of all kinds of social ugliness. His brother Ciarran narrates the early portion of the novel and comments about Corrigan, “What was ordeal for others was grace for him.”
Corrigan’s altruism emerged early in his boyhood, in the context of his fractured family, when he gave away blankets and clothing to homeless men on the streets of Dublin. He studied briefly with the Jesuits, who “gave a rigor to his faith,” but “he needed more space for his doubt,” and he finds New York’s urban poor much in need of solace and his unique version of religion. His brother affirms, “His presence sustained people, made them happy, drew out their improbable yearnings.”
McCann shifts the novel’s focus from Corrigan, without ever completely leaving him behind, to consider the inner lives of other New Yorkers in settings ranging from Harlem to Park Avenue to lower Manhattan. He offers a brilliant, heart-rending description of several women meeting in a support group for mothers who have lost one or more sons in Vietnam. In other sections he conveys the perspectives of a young man who photographs subway graffiti, a hacker connecting to New York by means of a phone and computer link, two drug-addicted painters who crash into Corrigan’s life, a mother and daughter caught up in prostitution, and a municipal judge who harbors a secret grief. “Every now and then the city shook its soul out,” McCann notes, and he is there to capture the sparks flying, the aura radiating.
Like Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, McCann’s novel moves toward a conclusion that reveals unexpected, poignant connections among the characters. While Cunningham relied on Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway as a textual template, McCann takes his inspiration from the Gospels, Dante, James Joyce and Toni Morrison. His style ranges widely from taut narrative to lyrical lists in the style of Joyce. The result is a mesmerizing page-turner, but the rate of turning is deliciously slow due to the density of human emotion and experience.
McCann’s narrative coheres at a deep level by uncovering the humanity that unites individuals, particularly in experiences of bereavement and beauty. McCann has captured the deep connections among people even in an urban environment that on the surface might seem to be distancing and distracting. Clearly the fear the onlookers have about the man falling from his tightrope foreshadows the dread people will feel 27 years later as they look up at the same two towers collapsing in a terrorist attack. The man on the wire performed a balancing act no longer possible in the same way in a world now tipped into an age of terror. McCann’s novel achieves its own brave act, finding a balance and connection among characters living in dizzyingly off-kilter times.
Corrigan “believed that the space for God was one of the last great frontiers,” and McCann has infused his novel with the sense that his characters perceive God’s presence in the good works, love and affection they experience. As one character states, in the midst of suffering and conflicted family and national histories “we have each other for the healing.” Like the tightrope walker, McCann successfully moves between the towering doubts and aspirations of his readers, encouraging them in their own seemingly impossible feats of faith and imagination.
The novel’s conclusion brings us far forward in time from 1974 to 2006, after the twin towers have fallen. Although the prospect of further falls is never far away, the reader ends with a sense of having soared in the imagination. The novel’s title employs the syntax of Genesis (“Let there be light...”) to invite us to say along with McCann, “Let the great world spin,” affirming that in spite of pain and loss, the world truly is great.