All changed, changed utterly / A terrible beauty is born. (Yeats, Easter 1916)
It was the new World Trade Center then, still under construction in 1974, the talk of New York, when on that muggy morning in August, Philip Petit took to the sky. Suspended on a wire between the Towers, 110 stories above the ground, suspending all disbelief, he walked, he ran, he skipped a beat, dancing between life and death.
“Those who saw him hushed.” From its opening line, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann holds us in rapt attention to life in the big city and its people living on the edge.
In ten interrelated stories, McCann draws characters firmly planted on solid ground, feet on the street, moving through the “thrum of the subway,” peering out from office windows, sipping tea in a Park Avenue penthouse, stopping for a powder in a fleabag tenemant, careening off the road to oblivion. McCann’s characters -- prostitutes, priests, judges, artists, computer hackers, mothers in mourning, sons killed in Vietnam -- collide and crash and touch one another in unexpected ways.
Count on an Irish writer to capture the spirit of America on the brink of change. Evoking the innocence and hope of a time not so distant, when the internet was ARPANET still taking baby steps, when AIDS was a mysterious disorder of the blood, McCann leaves the reader to flash-forward. We know all too well how the story ends: it’s not the skywalker, but the Towers that fall.
Eventually, inevitably we all fall. And therein spins the tale. McCann’s contemporary Joycean narrative spins, but never settles on the tightrope walker in the air. Rather it asks what sort of tightrope do we walk on the ground and how hard do we fall.
Wayfarers, Let the World Spin is a heart-stopping, drop-dead gorgeous must-read of a book. Synchronicity at its best. If you haven’t yet picked it up and fallen in love, please do!