Sunday, August 15, 2010

'Let The Great World Spin' by Colum McCann

"A poet with every living breath" proclaims Peter Carey of Colum McCann, with the kind of effusiveness that is now entirely typical from big authors providing a cover quote to help a lesser-known author flog their book. For once, however, this appears to be more than mere hyperbole.

McCann's book, set around Philippe Petit's tightrope walk between the Twin Towers in 1974, is told from the multiple perspectives of people in New York at the time, and shimmers with pretty words and turns-of-phrase from start to finish. My reading of it suffered from lack of time due to work and wedding preparations, meaning some of the intensity of the book was lost through my spending over a month on it. Nevertheless, it was hard not to feel that it featured one or two fairly superfluous narrators - particularly the teenaged photographer Fernando, whose function within the centre of the novel I couldn't really understand.
More impressive were the middle-aged Claire - grieving for her son killed in Vietnam, and the loud-mouthed prostitute Tillie - an intriguing blend of arrogance and contrition.
Ultimately, I found the narration of the story a mixed bag: largely compelling but occasionally flagging. However, it is the constant beauty of McCann's prose that makes this book essential reading for those who are as concerned with style, perspective and profoundness as they are with out and out storytelling. Nowhere is this better seen than in the sections of the book that deal with Petit's (though he is unnamed in the book) daring walk:

"Within seconds he was pureness moving, and he could do anything he liked. He was inside and outside his body at the same time, indulging in what it meant to belong to the air, no future, no past, and this gave him the offhand vaunt to his walk. He was carrying his life from one side to the other. On the lookout for the moment when he wasn't even aware of his breath.

The core reason for it all was beauty. Walking was a divine delight. Everything was rewritten when he was up in the air. New things were possible with the human form. It went beyond equilibrium.

     He felt for a moment uncreated. Another kind of awake."


emordino said...

Philippe Petit, you say. I'm 40% more intrigued about this book now. Have you seen Man On Wire? Cracking stuff altogether.

Andrew said...

Yep, I saw it when it came out back in the day. I was meaning to say in my review that the book makes a very nice companion piece to the film.

You're welcome to borrow the book, McCann is handy enough with the vowels and consonants and I'd say you'd like it.

Kieran said...

I'd recommend this book to almost anyone. You hit the nail on the head with your comment about the constant beauty of the prose. Poetic and profound, but only rarely so heavy that it drew attention to itself rather than the narrators or story. What really got me though was the warmth and heart in it, which I hadn't been expecting. The characters were the most real of any book I've read since Richard Ford's Sportswriter trilogy.

After I leant this to both my parents and they both loved it, I sent them the DVD of Man on Wire, which as you say makes a great companion piece.

Anyway, just glad to see an Irish writer living up to the hype.

Andrew said...

Hi Kieran, thanks for the comment. The only other book I've read by McCann thus far is called 'Everything in This Country Must' and I'd highly recommend it. It's two short stories and a novella and has a similar poetic loveliness to 'Let The great World Spin' - along with a superb ear for different Irish accents and dialect.

Radge said...

The character of Tillie really resonated with me.

Corrigan, too, though it took me so long to get through (damnable distractions) that come the end of the book I'd forgotten a lot of him.

I'm currently struggling through 'Dancer.' Brilliantly written but the subject matter isn't as compelling as in 'Let The Great World Spin.'

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