Let the Great World Spin
March 9, 2010
Look back at your English’s class curriculum for the past years of school. When was the youngest book on the list written or published? Among the most recent are J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, two novels completed in the 1950s. While history classes’ curricula are constantly being lengthened with each year, literature at times appears stagnant. For the past decades, the same works have been studied. Is the written word a dead art?
One of the more recent books being hailed a “new classic” is Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, which has been cited recently in English classes at USC Aiken as a potential “new classic.”
With its dense plot and staggering list of protagonists (ultimately weighing in at around approximately eleven separate personalities with unique narrating voices), its theme or purpose is similarly difficult to navigate. Esquire magazine has called it “the first 9/11 novel.” It has also been called another variation on the “Great American novel,” despite the fact that the author is Irish. Another viable descriptor is “an ode to New York City.”
All of this is true. To the un-interpretative eye it is an attempt to paint a landscape of American culture. On a deeper level, it attempts to capture in words a universal human spirit that is present in all of its characters, despite their racial, religious, and social differences.
The book begins on the streets of New York City with a crowd of spectators exclaiming that something is happening on the Twin Towers. The modern reader’s immediate mental response, of course, is to assume that the setting is at ground zero on September 11, 2001.
In actuality, the event spoken of in the prologue is tightrope walker Philippe Petit’s illegal trek across the gap between the Towers on a rope—in 1974. The significant events of the plot all occur on this day; this factual event is thus treated as a connection between all the characters, an occurrence that affects them all.
An ambitious aspect of the novel is the sheer social scope its several characters capture. The long list includes (but certainly is not limited to) an upper-class white woman who recently lost her son to the war in Vietnam, her detached judge husband, two Irish brothers who emigrate to New York, a mother-daughter pair of prostitutes with matching hearts of gold, and a drug-addicted artist couple whose reckless actions have tragic consequences.
The ever-changing wheel of narrators gives McCann an opportunity to flex his versatility muscle as he captures several distinct voices; it also provides different perspectives and worldviews. However, what is most remarkable about this technique are the commonalities shared between every character: the questioning of God, the lack of faith in the justice system, the powerlessness they feel about death, the marked lack of permanence or stability in their lives, and the paramount importance of family, whether biological or chosen.
Another significant narrative technique McCann employs is a sense of interconnectivity between the lives of the narrators in the course of a single day. Beyond the fact that all of them hear about or observe the tale of the tightrope walker, each does things that affect the others, often without their knowledge.
This ties into the question about the book’s title, which in turn serves as a central question posed by the book. What is the meaning of “Let the great world spin?” Does it refer to God’s actions or lack thereof? Does it then suggest that a divine source has backed away from responsibility of the world and simply “let it spin,” or allow it to exist without intervention? In contrast, could it be directed toward the human characters, who will never fully comprehend their importance or the connections that bind them together? Should the characters simply let go of attempting to seize the power in their lives and accept that it is ultimately out of their control?
One of the major themes of the novel is the infinite cycle of human action; from death redemption comes. However, McCann avoids the saccharine cliché that no death is needless or that any tragedy can ever be completely redeemed. The mothers who suffer loss at the hands of the Vietnam War are able to form a friendship that rivals blood connections out of their shared sense of grief, but it does not erase the horror of their sons’ untimely death. A character that is able to serve as a surrogate parent to orphaned children is given a new purpose in life, but the children’s loss is no less painful.
Rebuilding is necessary, but McCann seems to insist that it cannot be done with ignorance or irresponsibility. This is exemplified in one scene when the two artists view ruined artwork in two ways: one sees it as an opportunity to try a new style of art, while the other recognizes it as a symbol of the pointlessness of their work and the destructive nature of their actions.
If the title is taken to connote a lack of divine intervention, then the human characters are solely responsible for the destruction in the book. However, they are also responsible for the development and redemption that arises from it. The world spins, the cycle of destruction and redemption and back again continues, but a few humans can carve out connections to each other that make their lives at least temporarily meaningful.
Finally, one must question why Let the Great World Spin is termed a “9/11 book.” The event is not recounted in the novel, nor is it explicitly mentioned. Instead, it serves as a shadow hanging over the awe of the characters at the tightrope walker’s exploits. The characters begin innocent in the sense that the war is apart from them, separate from their daily lives. However, as their actions and the looming attack in the future demonstrate, the human capacity to destroy is constantly evoked. Beyond this, however, the book also shows how humans unite in the face of this destruction.
This reviewer, lacking sufficient foresight, cannot determine if Let the Great World Spin can be termed “great literature” that will be taught to our children in English classes to come. However, it definitely is a great book.