First Line: Those who saw him hushed.
Let the Great World Spin is a series of interconnected stories revolving around (for the most part) Phillip Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Shifting PoV from character to character, McCann explores the intersection and interrelatedness of New York City’s disparate populace, how each life touches another and even the smallest of touches results in change.
Thematically, this is a bold, brave work where McCann attempts to explore a post 9/11 NYC by reaching back to the NYC of 1974. Each of the individual story lines focuses on something new, some aspect of the great melting pot that, in theory, will add not only to the environment of 1974 NYC, but also that of post 9/11 NYC.
And though I found it exceedingly well written, I have… issues… with Let the Great World Spin.
First, and not necessarily foremost, this isn’t a post 9/11 story. The connections are too subtle or vague to allow for any kind of revelation or insight into NYC of 2012 (or of 2009, when it was published). Much of this is due to the overall structure of Let the Great World Spin. I found, or rather I didn’t find, a single, cohesive story that complimented what McCann was trying to do thematically.
Throughout all the stories, however, what I did see was a thorough and extremely well constructed exploration of the nature of time. It is, I think, one of the strongest elements linking all the different stories. But is it enough to hold the entire work together? Just barely. And while it isn’t enough to bring everything under a single roof, it does provide a kind of framework for the reader, a set of parameters for a story that seems otherwise lacking.
Regardless of whose PoV I was reading, what shined through the most was an authorial focus on form. Much of the individual portraits were cliches at best, stereotypes that provided neither motivation nor resolution. Descriptions were beautifully written but went nowhere, and I found myself skimming through large sections of the text because they seemed to simply stagnate under the weight of the prose. For a book whose overriding theme is reliant upon the stories of individual people, I found the incompleteness of character, lack of action, and devotion to stereotype counterproductive and, at the close of a character’s section, often muttered out loud…
Even though the stories all revolve around Petit’s walk between the towers, the lack of a single through-line tying things together left me as unfocused as the text, as did the lack of a single protagonist or antagonist to become invested in. I suppose you could say that NYC itself is one or the other – or even both – but that isn’t particularly well justified by the structurally fragmented story lines. Instead, there is an over-reliance upon thematic expression, and the story behind the stories, whatever it is, suffers because of it.
As is often the case when my tastes collide with modern Literature (note the capital “L”), I found the book to be self-absorbed, focused more on McCann himself and his own unique vision of NYC than on storytelling. It’s beautiful but empty; rich but shallow – two things that most certainly do not describe New York City in any era.
In the end, Let the Great World Spin aspires to much but delivers little.