Saturday, September 11, 2010

Colum McCann's Great World Spins

Let the Great World Spin (2009)is the third novel by Colum McCann, an Irishman who teaches at Hunter College and is a long-time New York City resident. He has the great idea to write a novel about various NYC denizens, their lives intertwining, on or about August 7th 1974, the day that Philippe Petit walked between the still-unfinished twin towers of the World Trade Center, two days before the resignation of Richard Nixon and eight months before the fall of Saigon. McCann has written a novel of social realism in the grand style, focused on a mother-daughter team of prostitutes in the Bronx, an Irishman who befriends them as part of his mission as a socially-active monk, his brother, and a group of women who have lost sons in the war in Vietnam. It is a novel of straightforward depiction; there is no mystery, no murder, no farcical or ingenious plot tying the novel together. 9/11 is left alone to resonate by itself, which it surely does.

This is a very ambitious book, and it reads well. I didn't leave it alone much until I was through with it. There is a ferocious focus on race mostly through the development of the stories of Tillie and Jazzlyn, multiple generations of the chronic underclass. The toll of the war, fought by conscripted soldiers, on families apolitical and otherwise is also a major theme. The novel belies the fashionable idea that modern novelists are lost in postmodernist, meta-narrative games; here we have nothing but earnest engagement.

Having said all that, I have my hesitations with this novel. The prose is good enough and one would not want to overwrite with this kind of material but the canvas is so large and ambitious that at times McCann can be heard grinding the damn thing out, executing the concept. Also the book is not quite the "novel of the city" that it purports to be: McCann is interested in human actions and responses and the reader looking for lyrical cityscapes will be disappointed. NYC is not quite one of the characters, seldom rising to more than stage and background. Nonetheless I do recommend this novel as an excellent example of latter-day social realism.

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