On August 7, 1974, Frenchman Philippe Petit stepped out onto a 200kg wire cable suspended over 400 metres above street level, stretched between the tops of the recently built Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre, a 25kg custom-made balancing pole in his hands. During his tightrope walk that lasted three quarters of an hour, his co-conspirators watched him run, lay down flat on the wire, and kneel and salute, making eight passes in total. Around him rang out the siren song of the New York City Fire Department, the thuk-thuk-thuk of helicopters, the appeals and threats from police on the rooftops of both towers, and the cheers of onlookers.
This historical event forms the nucleus of Colum McCann’s fictional 2009 book, Let the Great World Spin. In the great city that hummed and whirred by the shadow of its Twin Towers, McCann’s novel interlinks the diverse lives of its characters. Each chapter is a slice of life taken through the eyes of a different person; as in life, varying perspectives co-exist in mutual opposition.
In an interview last year with Irish author, Catherine Dunne, McCann discussed his belief in the ‘democracy of storytelling’, his conviction
That stories can cross all sorts of borders and boundaries. I don’t know of a greater privilege than being allowed to tell a story or to listen to a story. They’re the only thing we have that can trump life itself.
McCann’s pluralistic ethos strikingly characterises Let the Great World Spin. The book gives a voice to the traditionally voiceless, those who have been pushed to the fringes of society, be it by race, gender or circumstance. Take, for example, Gloria, an African-American twice-divorced mother of three dead Vietnam veterans; or Adelita, an immigrant, nurse and widowed mother of two whose medical studies were arrested by war in Guatemala. Particularly moving is the account of Tillie Henderson, a 38-year-old grandmother and streetwalker, a poignant example of the vicious cycle of drug abuse, prostitution and poverty. Then there are those sympathetic to their plight: John Corrigan, an ascetic Irish monk, – known to all, including his brother Ciaran, simply as Corrigan – called to serve in the Bronx, who looks out for Tillie and the other prostitutes; and Claire, a grieving well-to-do Park Avenue housewife who meets Gloria through a gathering of veterans’ mothers. The book is a profound testament to the fundamental human desire to share, communicate and connect with others. Gloria, during one of the mothers’ meetings, reflects:
Funny how it was, everyone perched in their own little world with the deep need to talk, each person with their own tale, beginning in some strange middle point, then trying so hard to tell it all, to have it all make sense, logical and final.
The effect of the democratic structure of the book is a wonderfully realistic rendering of the city it is set in. The diversity of background, history, race and outlook present in McCann’s novel is what also characterises New York City, in all its clamorous, frenetic, gritty splendour. Writing a book with as many developed characters as feature in Let the Great World Spin would be an ambitious and impressive feat in itself, even without McCann’s deft interweaving of stories. The lives of its characters converge gradually, puzzle piece by puzzle piece slowly assembled to create an intact rendering of both New York and the novel as a whole. Claire, the Upper East Side housewife, desperately needs someone with whom she can vocalise and share her grief, and so becomes attached to Gloria, who lives in the projects in the Bronx, near the underpass where Tillie and her daughter Jazzlyn prostitute themselves, who use Corrigan’s bare apartment as a tinkling spot, and so on.
The connections, although distinct, are convincing rather than contrived (in the latter category, for example, would fall the comet-shaped birthmark all the focal characters are blemished by in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas). They are fictional manifestations of the real findings of the small-world experiment, which reminds us that despite our highly prized individual autonomy, we are far more interconnected than we realise. The well-known study, authored by Jeffrey Travers and Stanley Milgrim, concluded that the average path of communication between two arbitrary people in the United States was less than six intermediaries, which undoubtedly has contributed to the popularity of the ‘six degrees of separation’ theory. (Randomly selected people in Boston and Nebraska were asked to send a letter to a target recipient in Massachusetts. The average path length was 4.4 intermediaries from Boston and 5.7 from Nebraska.) But the connections created in Let the Great World Spin cannot begin to be approximated by data. McCann depicts them with such insight and humanity that they are unreal, in the sense that they are fictitious, and yet simultaneously hyper-real: fortuitous, uncanny and unexpected in the way that life is. And where better of a place for them to surface than in the density of the Big Apple? Gloria becomes keenly aware of this:
It had never occurred to me before but everything in New York is built upon another thing, nothing is entirely by itself, each thing as strange as the last, and connected.
There are peripheral links in addition to the major narrative nexuses. One chapter is focalised through a 14-year-old amateur photographer who shoots photos of underground graffiti. Similar, although brief, descriptions pre-empt his story in the accounts of Ciaran – John Corrigan’s brother and a new New Yorker – and Claire, the housewife. Blink and you’ll miss it. In one of the book’s few awkward exchanges, one of the Corrigan brothers declares to the other, rather too forthrightly, that every night he dreams about a woman (whose name I will omit for the sake of not ‘spoiling the plot’), in which he is ‘“running [his]… lips down along her spine, like a skiff down a river.”’An hour and a half north of the city, in a cabin in upstate New York, Lara Liveman, a 28-year-old visual artist, lies on her stomach as her husband, Blaine, sprinkles cocaine in the hollow of her back. These are subtle reminders of the relationships we have with others even in the ignorance of their existence.
The centrepiece of the book, to which all its narratives are connected, is the tightrope walk. Petit spent six years planning and preparing for the feat, and in the lead-up staged walks across the northern pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge as well as the towers of the Notre Dame. A photograph of his World Trade Centre walk is included in McCann’s book: Petit an inkblot between the towers, a large commercial jet in the top left corner. Both transfixing and ominous, it is a visual equivalent of the presentiment of disaster in E.B. White’s fantastic 1949 essay, ‘Here is New York’:
A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate millions.
In the final section of the book, set three decades years after the walk, a young female character reflects upon the image:
A man high in the air while a plane disappears, it seems, into the edge of the building. One small scrap of history meeting a larger one. As if the walking man were somehow anticipating what would come later. The intrusion of time and history. The collision point of stories. We wait for the explosion but it never occurs. The plane passes, the tightrope walker gets to the end of the wire. Things don’t fall apart.
Two crimes: one dubbed ‘the artistic crime of the century’, that brought the Twin Towers widespread appeal and attention; and another that would later destroy them. The responses to witnessing Petit’s walk, of both real spectators and McCann’s characters, parallel eyewitness accounts of watching the planes collide with the towers in 2001: there is a common strand of disbelief, of the surreal.
Also shared is the simultaneous dread and anticipation of the fall. In the opening section of Let the Great World Spin, McCann describes the onlookers:
…many of the watchers realized with a shiver that no matter what they said, they really wanted to witness a great fall, see someone arc downward all that distance, to disappear from the sight line, flail, smash to the ground…
Who can forget the tragic images that emerged during 9/11 of people trapped in the floors above the collisions, their heads out of windows, some waving white. And then there was the heart-rending footage of those who jumped, their bodies floating downwards to oblivion. The Falling Man.
September 11 was, as the tightrope walk is in McCann’s novel, ‘the collision point of stories.’ A senseless act of terrorism wreaked destruction of terrible beauty, from which emerged so many interlinked stories of grief, of sacrifice, of courage and of the fortitude of the human spirit.
Let the Great World Spin
by Colum McCann