The Short Version: As Philippe Petit prepares for and then embarks on his majestic high-wire act between the World Trade Towers, New York City spins madly on beneath him – coming to a halt only for a moment, to see the man on the wire, then spinning back off in varied directions, perhaps never even knowing just how connected its citizens are.
The Review: Hmm.
I find it difficult, sometimes, to cut across the grain of popular consensus. This is not to say that I don’t do it or that I won’t do it – I have and shall continue to – but I have a moment of inward struggle when I pick up a book (see a play or film, hear an album or song) that has been critically lauded and I find it to be… utterly mundane. I think finding a critically lauded work to be utter crap is a more preferable state of being – because then you have, at least, worked me into a lather. But with a book like this, I just feel like I missed something because I didn’t really like it but I also didn’t exactly NOT like it and so I’m stuck wondering what, exactly, got so many people so excited.
This is a short story novel – not only that, it is a New York City short story novel. As a result, even though this one was published a few years later – but I read it first, Let the Great World Spin cannot help but be compared in some way to A Visit From the Goon Squad. But that does McCann a disservice, sets him up right away to be knocked down, and so I tried my best to read the novel without thinking in that way. And then I realized it was pretty easy to do that – they are, after all, quite different novels. So that is the last I’ll speak of it.
McCann’s novel is set on the day (and in the days leading up to as well as a moment long after) that Philippe Petit tightrope walked between the newly constructed (actually, still under construction) World Trade Towers. It is, of course, a moment of particular poignance in this city. But I do not see this, not even remotely, as a 9/11 novel – despite the fact that everyone and their mother seems to’ve called it that. Is it a 9/11 novel simply because it has something to do with the World Trade Center? Joseph O’Neill (whose book I hated and yet still include here) and Teddy Wayne wrote about the actual impact of the event, yet this is the novel that takes some sort of special credit for being the most… I don’t know, important? It won the National Book Award, which makes me a little nervous to be reading another NBA winner shortly (this past year’s, The Round House) – but only because I don’t see why this book was deemed so extraordinary.
The characters feel, in large part, like they were pulled out of stock: the Irish priest who takes care of everyone but himself, the conflicted hooker, the washed-up artist, the formerly-idealistic judge, the desperate housewife. There is not a single character in this book who feels remotely original – as though their actual iterations were all on vacation and, Thursday Next-style, they had understudies on in their parts who were only so developed beyond the basics. The plots, too, are relatively contrived – especially in that there’s really very little plot except to wait and see how the characters are all going to connect. The individual stories… none of them had much pulse to me, with the exception of the short background interludes about Petit. They were interesting enough to keep me moving forward but not interesting enough to propel me along. I was not bored by the book but I also did not seek out time to read it. I allowed myself to be distracted by other things because, in reality, other things would likely be as interesting.
The real sadness about all this is that Colum McCann can craft a damn fine sentence. His writing, the actual stringing-together-of-words, is beautiful. You can open this book to any page and undoubtedly find a gem of a sentence there. So how did he fail so miserably in crafting an original and propulsive story? The book feels like the heat of a New York August day – which is fitting, since that’s when it’s set, but anyone who has lived in one of those days will tell you that they can be oppressive and muggy and you enjoy being out in them for only so long.
Even as a student of this city (to use an utterly ridiculous turn of phrase), I was only interested in a limited capacity. The city in 1974 was, without doubt, a hellhole. This was not the city it is today. But Patti Smith wrote about the city during those days and was able to pull up both nostalgia and revulsion – whereas McCann sort of keeps it on an even keel. The closest I got to experiencing a city that is different from the one I live in now was during the brief chapter about the kid who surfs subway trains to snap pictures of the graffiti tags in the tunnels. This is a cool thing, by the way, although much less of a fixture today. But in that moment, when he was writing about the way the trains used to look… that was a moment of “whoa, man, I’d love to see that – to understand that” because I, quite simply, can’t. Today’s trains are nothing like that, even on the older lines (hey there, all trains on the West side of Manhattan…), and so it was a genuine curio. But even though the Bronx and Harlem and even my neighborhood (I genuinely thought for a moment that McCann had put the Soderbergs in my friend Rebecca’s family’s penthouse on 79th) have changed considerably in the last nearly-40 years… I didn’t feel like I was reading about a city that was alive. I felt like it wasn’t deeply enough connected to reality to be alive.
Rating: 3 out of 5. I cannot, in good conscience, give this book any less than this rating – the prose is too damn beautiful and the short story that comes from the three sections about Petit (four, if you include his brief appearance in the courtroom story) stands on its own merits as something quite enjoyable. But I felt so let down by this book, after having had my expectations raised so high. There are other, better books about New York – about 9/11 – about how interconnected we all are. Or perhaps I’m just not in the right mood – but regardless, this one felt like a bit of a waste of my time.