Colum McCann's new novel, Let the Great World Spin, begins with a historical event, a man walking across a tightrope between the World Trade Center towers in New York on Aug. 7, 1974. This was no ordinary daredevil act but, as McCann so eloquently conveys, a work of art.
It's also a metaphor for 9/11, and for his ability to weave such an intricate tale, one that is both moving and mesmerizing, keeping the reader in its thrall to the last line.
McCann's brilliant conceit uses a fictionalized account of Philippe Petit's high-wire performance to bring the seemingly disparate lives of many watching or hearing about this "artistic crime of the century" into a unified tale of love and heartbreak. Whether grieving mothers who have lost their sons in Vietnam, a pair of Irish brothers (one a renegade monk), a young Bronx grandmother working as a hooker and her daughter, a judge or a drug-using artist, they are all connected.
Let the Great World Spin is comparable in some ways to James Joyce's Ulysses, in that it's a tale of the interwoven lives of ordinary people that takes place for the most part over the course of one day, coupled with brilliant interior monologues, each one a literary riff reminiscent of Joyce's stream of consciousness.
McCann's writing is symphonic; the introduction alone is like a soliloquy one can read over and over again for its beautiful resonance. Open to any page and you'll hear everyday music: "A few umbrella tips clinked against the pavement. Revolving doors pushed quarters of conversation out into the street." Or the daily ritual of a man leaving his Park Avenue apartment: "And then there's the drifting sounds, the snap of the lock, the dim bell, the elevator boy — G'morning Mr. Soderberg! — the whine of the door, the clank of machinery, the soft murmur of descent, the clanging stop at the lobby below, the roundelay of the cables rising."
If God is in the details, then McCann is surely close to heaven.
Annette Gallagher Weisman is a freelance writer in Ohio.