Sunday, January 17, 2010

#2: Let the Great World Spin

Adorning the front cover of Colum McCann's latest novel, Let the Great World Spin, is a circular insignia with the caption "National Book Award Winner." Dave Eggers, in a review excerpt, promises the reader (s)he will be "giddy, dizzy, overwhelmed," and on the back cover Frank McCourt frets about the impossibility of a comparable followup for McCann.

These are all good signs. And fortunately for the author and his loyal readers, they ring (mostly) true. His is a tale of grief, loss, hope, codependency, death, rebirth, and a host of other themes and narratives, all interwoven with fragility. However, it is this very fragility that at times seems forced, even summoning to mind -- in what is possibly a sacrilegious comparison, though I'm not certain to whose detriment -- Paul Haggis' 2004 film Crash. Both works attempt to gather together the broken pieces of human lives in an urban metropolis and make sense of them in a way that accounts for their similarities and their differences.

And yet in so doing, McCann occasionally undermines the realism of his otherwise gritty, up-close-and-personal feel. Reading this book can sometimes feel like walking down the street while tethered to a helium balloon; one is mostly on the ground but is periodically compelled to float up and into the clouds. This may appear to be an appropriate metaphor for a novel in which a tightrope walker hops, skips, and dances between the World Trade Center towers, soaring above the city and its inhabitants, but the execution felt a tad incredible, if not cheap.

For example, one of the novel's characters presides in a courtroom in which four other people central to the story are present. It's not that this is abnormal -- aren't interconnected stories a staple of many modern novels, especially ones set in a city like New York? -- but McCann sneaks these facts up on you as if his salary is measured in "ohhh"s and ''hmm"s: "The bridge stepped away and cleared her throat. Docket ending six-eight-seven, she said. The People versus Tillie Henderson and Jazzlyn Henderson. Step up, please." (Hmm, so Tillie was tried in Soderberg's courtroom. Now it's all coming together.)

Is there a better way to tell these stories? Honestly, I'm not sure. Perhaps McCann could've simply begun the story with scenes making explicit the connections among the main characters. Or maybe I'm just inherently skeptical of any book with an ensemble cast that must magically coalesce over the course of three hundred-plus pages. Complicating matters further is the way in which McCann slides in and out of voices, often with a strange affection for racial and class stereotypes, from a young graffiti enthusiast snapping photos on the subway to an upper-class wife grieving over her perished son to Tillie Henderson, a prostitute from the Bronx, all while skipping from the first-person voice to the third and back again. Expounds Tillie: "I was the first nigger absolute regular on that stroll. They called me Rosa Parks. They used to say I was a chewing-gum spot. Black. And on the pavement. That's how it is in the life, word. You joke a lot." Hmm indeed.

And yet, if asked if Let the Great World Spin were a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down, I'd place it (and not too reluctantly) into the former category. If the reader focuses less on the chance intersections of the characters and more on the individuality of each of their stories, the novel is strangely more complete. Let the Great World Spin hovers in that gray area between a collection of thematic vignettes and a cohesive novel. In the end, I suppose it is a little of both, which is quite possibly exactly what Colum McCann had in mind in the first place. In which case: Well done, sir. You've written a fine novel, word.

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