Let the Great World Spin* is not a story about competing DJs sporting “Where’s Molly?” tanks. Although, while I’m on the subject of douchebags, let me highly recommend the movie We Are Your Friends starring Zac Effron. Mid-spin, he inspiringly questions the crowd, “Does it ever get better than this???” Cue echoes and awe. I’m serious in my recommendation.
Instead, the 2009 novel by Colum McCann, takes a historical event, fictionalizes it, and uses it as a launching point for multiple overlapping stories. In 1974, Philippe Petit walked on a tightrope that he rigged between the Twin Towers. The novel portrays the same stunt performed by a fictitious character. *Fun* fact: tightrope walking is called funambulism.
While the daring feat is entertaining in its own right, McCann chooses to shift focus. His novel features 12 + protagonists; each is connected in some way to the Twin Tower tightroper, but their stories take us in vastly different directions. Sometimes, we’re flung to the past. Sometimes, we’re punted to the future. Sometimes we chill in the present. Similar to Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, the narrative bounces around, but there’s an element of fluidity given the connection between characters.
A novel overflowing with protagonists is difficult to execute. How much time do you spend on each? Do you emphasize cohesion, having characters relate to each other in a complete closed loop, or do you allow for holes? In my opinion, McCann navigated these issues pretty well; however, I don’t think it’s entirely appropriate to congratulate a guy on the ability to create a bunch of problems for himself and then respond in a slightly above average way. Maybe build fewer hurdles and then jump over them perfectly? It’s like when dunk contest participants have an elaborate, impressive start but they’re not able to finish. Maybe my standards are too high-- but if your book wins a National Book Award for Fiction, when perfect predecessors like To Kill a Mockingbird, Catch-22, Franny and Zooey, Everything That Rises Must Converge, and Slaughterhouse-Five only came as finalists, best believe I expect a slam-dunk.
At his best (and his best is very, very good), I yearned for the continuation of those stories. Give me more of the recovered-addict seeking contrition. At his worst, I wondered about the relevancy or value of those stories. Don’t throw me an isolated chapter about a computer hacker with little to no context. These are my demands!
In a post-script interview, McCann acknowledges the connection between the destruction of the Towers on 9/11 and the redemptive powers of a sprawling but cohesive city that comes together in times of darkness. Not just overwhelming darkness, like that of 9/11, but the little darknesses that plague everyday life. He breathes this message into his novel, and I’m thankful that his work exudes optimism even when it’s punctuated with sadness. Unfortunately, the extensive narration came across as excessive to me, despite his noble efforts. Let the Great World Spin receives 3 out of 5 camel humps.
*McCann, Colum. Let the Great World Spin. New York: Random House, 2009. Print.