Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann

This is my second novel by Colum McCann. Set mostly in New York in 1974, with the Vietnam war as its backdrop, a series of characters spin around the tightrope walk of Philippe Petit who managed to break into the Twin Towers, stretch a rope between the two and walk right out over the city. 

The different characters all turn around this walk. What was happening as it took place and whether they saw it, and how their lives were somehow linked by that and by a car crash involving an Irish monk and a prostitute who he driving back to the Bronx from jail.

To say too much more about the plot would spoil the novel. What surprised me was how particular to McCann the book felt. Though he’s writing about different characters, McCann has a style that is recognisably his. His imaginative retelling of Philippe Petit’s love of the highwire is probably most moving to me. Perhaps it is no surprise that he reappeared in the other, and later, novel of McCann’s that I read, Apeirogon, set mostly in Israel and Palestine. 

I was engaged in the book. I wanted the characters to succeed, to realise their dreams, to have a chance at love and contentment, but I also felt curiously distanced from the novel. It may be that since reading Apeirogon I have learned of the allegations made against McCann in relation to his creative writing teaching. It may be that they influence the way I imagine McCann thinking about art and its wider impact upon human society. As if a higher artistic path excuses immorality because we are all flawed but those who can lift us into artistic and philosophical plains should be judged differently? I found myself reading the book by rote, simply following the trajectories of the characters’ lives just to finish and I think I did not give the book a fair reading. It now exists beyond McCann. All the control he had a chance to employ over the novel, is complete and it lives now in its readers. I should have read it from that perspective.

It is a prize-winning novel and there is much to admire in it. I am fascinated by his interest in belief and justice, by his examination of our ability to love and judge, but there is a strange insistence on the individual’s need to pursue their own desires and dreams – the way that Philippe Petit walks between the Twin Towers with apparently no concern for anything that he might possibly drop, or any equipment that might fall, even the possibility of his own body, all of which could seriously damage people walking and working below – regardless of the possible pitfalls for others. Again, perhaps I am being unfair.

McCann is an extraordinary writer. He likes to pick at awkward moral uncertainties that fester within us and our systems of governance. This feels impressive and important, but I’m not sure that I enjoy his work.

I’ll be reviewing Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder next.