GAN Quest: Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann


😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

let the great world spinOne August morning in 1974, a man was spotted standing on top of one of the newly-built Twin Towers. A crowd quickly gathered, wondering if he was going to jump. Some prayed for his safety and begged him to come down, others egged him on to jump, in that ugly way crowds have. But in a moment of unforgettable magic, Philippe Petit stepped out onto an inch-thick wire, 1350 feet above the ground, and walked between the towers. For 45 minutes he held the city enthralled as he walked back and forth, sitting, even lying on the wire.

When something as momentous as 9/11 happens, how do you deal with it in fiction? To tell the story of the events themselves can feel maudlin, voyeuristic – a kind of cashing-in on tragedy. Colum McCann’s book only obliquely refers to that day, but the iconic status of the Twin Towers, their presence in the book, means it’s never far from the reader’s mind. And it’s no coincidence that the one picture McCann has chosen to illustrate the book, with the benefit of hindsight becomes terrifyingly prescient.

philippe petit plane

Instead, McCann chooses a different unique moment in the history of the Twin Towers, using it as a starting point to tell the stories of some of the people whose lives intersected while Petit walked. It’s not a celebration of New York, exactly – it’s too clear-sighted about the many problems that existed at a point when the city was drowning in drugs and crime, and the country was reeling from Vietnam. But it is a deeply affectionate picture, a warts and all portrait of its people struggling to achieve that point of balance, to make their own walk, to recognise the occasional moment of magic in their own lives.

One of those out-of-the-ordinary days that made sense of the slew of ordinary days. New York had a way of doing that. Every now and then the city shook its soul out. It assailed you with an image, or a day, or a crime, or a terror, or a beauty so difficult to wrap your mind around that you had to shake your head in disbelief.

In the end I loved the book, but it took a while for me to get there. Rather appropriately, it was almost exactly at the mid-point that I suddenly became invested in the lives McCann describes. I suspect this is one of those books that will actually work better on a re-read, because knowing how the stories play out will add the emotional content to the early chapters which I felt was a little lacking on a first read.

philippe petit sitting

Although I grew to love it, I can’t in truth say the book is unflawed. Let me get my usual foul language rant out of the way first. Some of the chapters are little more than long streams of foul-mouthed, unimaginative swearing, either in dialogue or when he’s writing some characters’ narratives in first person. An author should do more than pick up speech traits – mimicry is not art. Being brutal about it, one can train a parrot to repeat speech. But in fiction, an author should be able to achieve a sense of authenticity without simply parroting the poor language skills of the people on whom he’s basing his characters.

It’s a pity because, when he ceases the mimicry and writes in his own creative voice, he writes quite beautifully. The sections where he describes Petit’s preparation and walk create such brilliant atmosphere that I felt all the terror and exhilaration as if I were there on top of the Tower with him. His characterisation is superb – these people gradually became real to me so that I cared what happened to them. And he avoids any emotional trickery or contrived coincidence, so that their stories feel as real as their personalities.

Within seconds he was pureness moving, and he could do anything he liked. He was inside and outside his body at the same time, indulging in what it meant to belong to the air, no future, no past, and this gave him the offhand vaunt to his walk. He was carrying his life from one side to the other. On the lookout for the moment when he wasn’t even aware of his breath.

The core reason for it all was beauty. Walking was a divine delight. Everything was rewritten when he was up in the air. New things were possible with the human form. It went beyond equilibrium.

He felt for a moment uncreated. Another kind of awake.


The other major flaw is that some of the sections don’t add anything and, in fact, serve only to break the flow and interrupt the development of an emotional bond between reader and characters. Some of the threads carry through the book, recurring and twining around each other, like an intricate dance. But a few of them are entirely separate – for example, the section about the boy who photographs graffiti on the underground, or the hackers who – well, I can’t really tell you what the hackers do, because it was so full of unnecessary techie jargon that almost the only words I understood were the incessant swear words, and I tired of them so thoroughly I skipped the bulk of that chapter in the end. I guess McCann was trying to cover everything he could think of that was relevant to New York or the time, but I felt the book would have been tighter and more effective if it had stayed more focused.

begorrathon 2016

Despite all this, the major stories have a depth and fundamental truth to them that in the end lifts the book to within touching distance of greatness. Corr, the religious brother working amongst New York’s prostitutes and drug dealers, is caught between his vow of celibacy and his love for a woman. Tillie tells her own story of her life as a prostitute and her shame as she sees her beloved daughter Jazzlyn follow her onto the streets. Claire is mourning the son she lost in Vietnam and trying to find a kind of solace in the company of other bereaved mothers. Gloria, whose life would have broken many women, finding a way to survive by holding out a generous hand to those around her. Solomon, the judge who spends his days brokering deals and plea bargains, suddenly tasked to find an appropriate punishment for this man who has committed trespass to walk between the Towers, and in doing so has caused a whole city to raise its eyes. As they cross each other’s paths, McCann shows how single moments can change entire lives, and ripple out to touch the lives of others.

He has shaved. I want to tell him off for using my razor. His skin looks shiny and raw.

A week later – after the accident – I will come home and tap out his hairs at the side of my sink, arrange them in patterns, obsessively, over and over. I will count them out to reconstitute them. I will gather them against the side of the sink and try to create his portrait there.

McCann paints New York as a city that lived for the moment, instantly forgetting its own history – a place without the memorials and statues that fill other great capitals of the world. And he leaves the reader to realise how that all changed when the Twin Towers fell – their absence a memorial that will exist as long as anyone remembers seeing them soar above the city skyline, and will have a half-life in photos, newsreels, art and literature for long after that. But as his characters walk their own wires and the great world spins, ultimately he reminds us that some moments bring magic and wonder rather than tragedy, and hope exists even at the darkest times.

The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough.

Colum McCann
Colum McCann

* * * * * * *

Great American Novel Quest

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post…

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

us flagColum McCann is Irish by birth and nationality (so this review is also part of Reading Ireland Month) but has lived in the US for thirty years. I reckon he’s assimilated pretty well so… achieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

us flagYes, it’s a great picture of New York in the ’70s, when the city was at its peak of crime and social decay, and also references the changes brought by 9/11 to the city’s psyche. Achieved.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

us flagYes, using Petit’s walk and the ’70s to obliquely discuss 9/11 is an innovative and successful approach. So – achieved.

Must be superbly written.

us flagDespite his too frequent lapses into speech mimicry and foul language, and his occasional lack of focus, the majority of the book is indeed superbly written. So in the spirit of generosity inherent in the book, I’m going to say… achieved.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagSadly, while the book undoubtedly captures parts of the New York experience brilliantly, I don’t feel it is wide enough in scope to meet this criterion. So… not achieved.

* * * * * * *

So not The Great American Novel but, with 4½ stars and 4 GAN flags, I hereby declare this…

A Great American Novel.


* * * * * * *


63 thoughts on “GAN Quest: Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

  1. I’ve always felt that that walk was such a defining moment, FictionFan. I’m glad McCann chose to focus on it, to be honest. And it’s a fascinating nexus for the story, isn’t it? I do know what you mean about the language, though. I’ve read far too many books like that, where you have to wonder what the point of that kind of language is. It almost never serves a story, in my opinion. Still, it sounds like quite an interesting look at a certain place at a pivotal time.

    • I don’t actually remember the walk – I suspect our media weren’t as obsessed with all things American back then as they are now. But looking at the pictures and youtube clips – wow! Amazing and terrifying! And an intriguing way for McCann to get over the iconic status that the Twin Towers held from as soon as they went up. I know I’m fighting a lost battle over the language thing, but it really does seem incredibly lazy and talentless to me – before 1960, no author aspiring to literary merit would have copied down screeds of repetitive four-letter words and expected anyone to call it literature…

      • I couldn’t possibly agree more, FIctionFan. And honestly, some of the best insults I’ve ever read weren’t even four-letter words! It’s funny, too. In real life, most people don’t speak like that. Yes, of course they use profanity, and some more than others. But non-stop? Not anyone I know…

        • Nor me. In fact, the entire bookish blogosphere is remarkably free of profanity too, thankfully – which makes me wonder why people are willing to tolerate it in books. The problem is that I believe it normalises it, leading to more and more people thinking it’s acceptable to talk like that in real life… which makes me wonder why we bother to spend so much of our taxes on education… oh dear! I think I need chocolate… 😉

  2. This does sound like a very interesting book indeed, particularly the characters which I am already curious about. Also – isn’t it dreadful the way people gather to watch a potential ‘jumper’? And the ones who shout stupid stuff – hideous. People are dreadful at times.

    • I spotted that when I was looking for images. I’ll look out for it – he certainly seems to have done some amazing performances, as well as the Twin Towers walk.

  3. Awesome review, FEF! To achieve all of those criteria would be hard for any book, I’m thinking.

    Okay, so I’m imagining walking up that high on an inch wide thingy. Wow. That’d be brutally scary. Of course I wouldn’t do it. Yeah, not unless I had a parachute, I’m thinking. Or rocket boosters. Didn’t they just make a movie of this? Maybe?

    • Aw, thank you! *grins* Yes, but it should be hard. This one wasn’t even really trying to achieve the last one, though.

      Terrifying! Even that pic of him sitting on the wire gives me vertigo every time I look at it. No, don’t do it! My heart couldn’t stand the stress! Even though I knew Petit survived I was still a nervous wreck just reading about the thing. I don’t know – they did make a movie about Petit I think, but I don’t know if they’ve made one of the book.

      • True. It should be so, so, so, so, so hard, that only Mark Twain could win. *nods like a parrot*

        The movie was about one chap walking across some sort of line like that. Imagine if you threw stuff at him on his journey. That’d be cruel, but sorta fun, if he dodged appropriately–when he needed to, that is.

        • Tchah! He had his chance – and blew it! *admires the parrot impersonation*

          *laughs lots* You’re so mean! But I’m impressed that you can throw things 1350 ft into the air – you have superpowers that you’ve been keeping hidden, haven’t you?

          • You’re so…so…so…unfair, the sudden! *throws many Mark Twain books at FEF*

            Oh no. I’d throw from the top story windows! Or fire a BB gun or something. You know, get him running. We don’t have all day, after all, for him to cross.

            • *nods* See? Even you’re trying to get rid of them now…

              *laughs* You do make me laugh, you know, you know! I’m unwillingly forced to agree that that sounds like a whole lot of fun…

            • Well…that’s just because they’re books. I’m really not that violent. On a day to day basis.

              Haha! Great. It’s so awesome we see eye to eye on most things.

            • I’ve given them to a good cause – the local bonfire…

              *laughs lots* Yeah, who cares about the trivial things like politics, religion, the meaning of life? We agree about the important stuff like… er… like beanies being cooler than stetsons!

            • He deserves it… *vengeful face*

              *laughs* That sounds… scary! Well, you’ve certainly got more chance of persuading me about religion than Republicanism… *throws darts at picture of Trump*

            • Well, that’s actually good news! But I should say a few things here… Trump is NOT a Republican. He’s a rogue beast. Republicans aren’t good. The establishment stinks. It’s time for a revolution. Would you like to join?

            • Trump is barely even human – in fact, I think they should DNA test him! *laughs* Goodness! You’ve turned into an anarchist! Yes! Let’s have a revolution – then we can either set up a communist state, or declare me Empress! Which would you prefer?

            • Oh no no no. This professor is the leader, see. So, here’s the thing: No communism, of course. None at all. We’ll separate the world into warring states. That way there’ll be battles all the time.

            • Well, OK, but when we’re not fighting we can still get together to watch an occasional movie, right? We don’t have to tell our troops – they can be busily cleaning their kit for the next battle. Hmm… I suspect that’ll make me Putin and you Trump. *laughs gleefully* Thank goodness I get the better hairdo!

  4. I must admit, I loved this one. I recommended it to everyone I knew, and then realised that others weren’t as keen. I just love McCann’s writing. My favourite of his is Dancer – fantastic stuff. Lovely review as always.

    • Thank you. 🙂 It does seem to have mixed reviews and I can totally understand what a lot of the people who hated it mean. For me, the good bits were brilliant, and outweighed the less good bits in the end, but it was touch and go for a while. It’s the only one of his I’ve read. I’ve added Transatlantic to the TBR – have you read it and if so, what did you think?

      • I haven’t read Transatlantic, although I had hoped to get to it this month – hah! I read and reviewed Thirteen Ways of Looking at the end of last year and thought it was stunning.

        • Ha! I probably won’t get around to it now until next Begorrathon! Oh yes, I remember being very tempted by Thirteen Ways of Looking too… oh dear! Really must grow that extra head soon…

  5. I was going to read this book for Reading Ireland last year (because I own it), but I didn’t. Then I was thinking of trying for it again this year… but it didn’t happen. But, now I’m glad that I’ve held off, because when I do read it I will keep in mind the flaws you’ve pointed out as a reminder to keep going if I’m feeling discouraged. Great review!

    • Thank you! 🙂 I’ve been meaning to try either this or Transatlantic for ages, so Reading Ireland was just the push I needed to finally make it happen. I definitely spent most of the first half wondering why so many people think it’s great, but once it all began to come together in the second half, I was glad I’d persevered… enjoy!

  6. Love your review of this book. Some time back, I read Transatlantic by him, and quite a few flaws and highlights that you mention about this book apply to Transatlantic too, Looks like he has a very specific writing style.

    • Thank you. 🙂 I’ve added Transatlantic to my TBR, because the subject matter really appeals to me. I’m kinda sorry to hear it has similar flaws but hopefully, like this one, I’ll find it worth it overall…

  7. I’m glad you liked it! Definitely not without its flaws but I think McCann does a create job of creating characters and evoking that gritty feel of NY in the 70s.

    • So am I, even if it took me a while to get there! Yes, his characterisation is a major strength, and I loved the way he writes, for the most part. I’m looking forward to trying some of his other stuff now…

  8. Glad you liked this one enough to declare it ‘A Great American Novel,’ even if it didn’t meet all the criteria on your list, FF. I haven’t read it, but it sounds interesting (except for the foul language, which I find annoying as a reader). Frankly, it feels like the lazy way of conveying emotion because even the basest of criminals has to express himself once in a while without swearing, right? And no way would I attempt high-wire walking. No way!

    • I admit it was touch and go with this one – if I’d been in a less generous mood, the amount of swearing would have stopped it getting the ‘Great’ title. Lazy is exactly what I feel about it – if I just want to listen to people swearing I can do that anywhere in Glasgow, anytime! I’m looking for literature to do something more than just mimic street-talk – OK in small doses, but not screeds of the stuff! Ha! The high-wire stuff is terrifying – even just looking at that picture of him sitting on the wire gives me vertigo!

  9. Oh, thank you for reviewing this, FF!! I never even thought about the foul language, but I should have known it would have bothered you. I know how you feel about profanity. I, however, have no problem with non-gratuitous foul language. I think it is very effective in many cases and portrays a realistic, like it or not, way in which we use language today. I worked in NY and Washington DC many years, rode the subways, took the trains, and I can tell you, this is indeed how people speak. In my opinion, it is the fluid language of impoverished, and not-so-impoverished, streets and he would have done a huge disservice to clean up the language. He’s too smart of a writer to misuse language and too compassionate to use it gratuitously. (I believe McCann actually hung out in the underpasses at night with prostitutes for his research.) But, of course, this is my opinion. I can forgive a host of flaws when I deem the writing excellent enough, which is why I think I wasn’t bothered when he went off course a bit. Sometimes I finding these meanderings enriching and enlightening and they end up being my favorite passages. However, I do understand how some might be turned off by this. Donna Tart’s, The Goldfinch, was highly criticized for this as well. I agree with you that it lacks the last criteria for the GAN, but I don’t think it was his intention to capture the entire American experience. In any case, I love your review! As always, it is a thoughtful and engaging assessment! Well done!

    • Thanks, DD! 😀 Re the language, it’s genuinely not that I’m particularly prudish about swearing in real life. It’s just that in literary fiction, I’m really not looking for that kind of authenticity – what I’m looking for is profundity or emotional truth, a light shining on the human condition, and screeds of mimicry of street talk (and I agree he does it very well) gets in the way of that. As I’ve said more than once on the blog before, what I’m looking for in lit-fic can be summed up by the quote from Gustave Flaubert – “Human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when all the time we long to move the stars to pity.” While parts of this book undoubtedly moved the stars, I spent too long watching those bears dance…

      Ha! I hated The Goldfinch! But in this one there were probably only two or three chapters I’d have cut, and the rest made up for it. Once I saw the threads begin to come together it began to work, and I could then appreciate the earlier parts more than I did while I was reading them. And the stuff abut Petit in particualr was brilliantly done, I thought. And yes, I agree he wasn’t going for that pesky last criterion – but that’s fine. It keeps the title of The GAN a rare thing, as it should be… 🙂

  10. Great review. I remember seeing TV pictures of the walk and feeling sick with dread. Heights are so not my thing. I haven’t read, or even heard of, this book before – one for the list, maybe.

    • Thank you. 🙂 I don’t remember it from the time, but just looking at that picture of him sitting on the wire brings me out in hives! And McCann wrote those bits brilliantly – he actually had me having butterflies even though I knew that it all went fine. Despite my criticisms, I do think he’s a writer well worth getting to know…

  11. This is just the sort of book I love, when done well. There is something very appealing about taking the Twin Towers to their inception and building characters around it. I do like it when a book is told with characters lives intersecting although I’m not sure how well I’d take to those that are a little bit more isolated – definitely a book for me to look out for though and as always a great review!

    • I liked the idea very much – I woudn’t really want to read a book based directly on 9/11, and this was a great way of referencing it without going into maudlin overload, if you know what I mean. Personally I’d have cut about three chapters for being irrelevant, but they didn’t destroy the book, and as the various strands became clearer in the second half it made me appreciate the first half more. I’ll definitely go on to read some of his other stuff…

  12. Oh, so close to achieving full GAN status… This has been sitting on my shelf for a few years already. It would be nice to focus on a different point in the Twin Towers’ history, rather than always automatically thinking of their destruction. I think the image of the burning towers that is still so vivid in my mind has always made me hesitant to actually sit down to read the book.

    • Yep, that pesky last criterion is tricky – but it means the title of The GAN is very rare, which is as it should be! I liked the idea of telling a different story about the Twin Towers very much – I wouldn’t really want to read a book about the actual events of 9/11, I think. But this one had a much more positive and hopeful message overall than I was expecting, though some of the individual stories were quite tough.

  13. You always write the best reviews! 🙂 While I don’t think I’ll pick up this book quickly, it does sound interesting and yes, this looks like those books which we may appreciate more on a second reading. 🙂

    • Aw, thank you! 🙂 Yes, sometimes fitting in a re-read isn’t easy, but some books work better when you don’t have to think about the plot and can just appreciate the writing.

  14. I’m sure I watched a documentary on this a year or so ago and it was fascinating but I’m not sure it’s the type of book that would appeal to me. I like the idea of the lives of New Yorker’s intersecting though and am interested in the down and out side of the city in the 70’s, which again I was watching a show on recently.

    • I really want to watch the film about Petit – he sounds like a fascinating character. The book certainly seems to divide opinion – lots of people seem to have thoroughly hated it, and though I liked it, I could understand why they felt that way. I’ll be intrigued to read another of his books and see if he sticks to the same style…

  15. Interesting how memory works. I had completely forgotten the foul language and techie things and only remembered the intertwining of stories and the breathtaking prep for the walk. I agree that it’s not the GAN, but I do think it’s A GAN, as you say. And now that you mention it, it did take me some time to become “invested” in the characters because I spent some time identifying the different threads and wondering how all of them were going to come together. It’s quite a complex undertaking.

    • I used to forget books in their entirety before I started reviewing, which was quite nice in a way because re-reads felt like reading for the first time. Now I only remember the bits I put in the review. I thought the bit about preparing for the walk was brilliant – I was actually getting physical nervousness symptoms while reading it. And I liked that he didn’t pull the threads too closely together in the end – that would have felt contrived. Instead he just had them bump into each other and then away again for the most part, which felt nicely realistic.

  16. The photo threw me completely, until you drew my attention to him, I didn’t even notice the tight-rope walker. I don’t think this book is for me, I feel horribly uneasy about the tight-rope walk, even if it all worked out okay.

    • I did wonder how visible he’d actually have been to people on the ground, especially since the photos make it look like a misty cloudy day. But they must have been able to see enough, because apparently a huge crowd really did gather. I know what you mean – the pictures alone bring on severe vertigo. But he’s only in the book a bit – most of it is about the other characters.

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