I want to make two points about Colum McCann’s novel Let The Great World Spin. First, it’s an excellent example of how movies have influenced literature. In the 1960’s Robert Altman started making movies with ensemble casts, like M*A*S*H and his early masterpiece Nashville. These movies featured a wide range of characters each involved in their own plot. Their paths crossed during the movie, sometimes dramatically, sometimes subtly, but their plots remained their own. Robert Altman continues to make movies like this and many other directors have followed his example from Paul Thomas Anderson with Magnolia to Paul Haggis with Crash to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Amores Perros and Babel. The point in each being that our lives are interconnected in ways we cannot completely understand. Six degrees of separation. I won’t be at all surprised when someday soon the characters in one movie begin to appear in another.
In Mr. McCann’s wonderful novel, Let The Great World Spin, the connections hang by a thread, or rather a reinforced steel cable. A radical clergyman who lives among the prostitutes in the rougher parts of New York City’s Bronx neighborhood, an uptown woman living in an East Side penthouse apartment, a twice divorced mother who has lost three sons to the war in Vietnam, and a tightrope walker who dreams of stretching his cable between the towers of the almost finished World Trade Center along with their friends and family make the cast of narrators in Let The Great World Spin.
Anyone who has ever lived in a city can tell you that there really aren’t any cities, just very big villages. Live in a city long enough and you’ll find out everyone knows somebody who knows somebody else. Maybe you didn’t see the guy who walked across the Twin Towers, but someone in your building probably did, or knows someone who did. And we can’t read a novel about the day in 1974 when Philippe Petit made his famous walk without thinking of the day in September almost 30 years later when the towers fell. One of Mr. McCann’s narrators points out the foreshadowing in Fernando Marcano’s photograph of Philippe Pettit (below).
I’ve been thinking about these ensemble cast movies and books and their literary antecedents. While large casts of characters were typical in 19th century novels. Dickens, Trollope, Hugo, Elliot, what I think separates movies like Nashville and books like Let The Great World Spin from works like Bleak House and Les Miserables is the way the characters in 19th century novels tend to serve as a means to advance the plot. While Mr. Altman and Mr. McCann are concerned with plot, their main loyalty lies with their characters. In order to explore their characters, they’ll both leave the audience hanging in ways that Dickens or Hugo would never consider.
Not that Mr. McCann leaves his readers hanging. Let The Great World Spin details only glimpses into the lives of its characters, but these glimpses illustrate each character’s life with spotlight intensity. His light never illuminates the entire stage at once, but his spotlight shows each character in such extreme emotional detail that we learn all we need to know about them. Mr. McCann shows us how our entire lives can be present in the action of a single day. All that we are is the sum of all that we have been.
The second point I want to make about Let The Great World Spin is how much I found Mr. McCann’s writing to match his description of one of his characters:
She rose and went to the record player. I couldn’t see the sleeve of the record she took out. She cleaned the vinyl with a soft yellow cloth and then she lifted the needle. She did everything small as if it was extraordinary and necessary.
Mr. McCann writes everything small, as if it is extraordinary and necessary and he writes it all well enough to show that it is, in fact, extraordinary and necessary even when it seems like something inconsequential.
It seems fitting to run this review from my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. today. History repeats, whether you forget it or not. I’ve kept Let the Great World Spin to re-read in my old age, which I think begins the year after next. I remember it as a wonderful book. I think this review is pretty good too. “All that we are is the sum of all that we have been.” That should be on a pillow. I think it’s a pillow worthy line.