Let The Great World Spin: How not to judge a book by its cover

There was a lot of buzz when this book came out a couple of years ago but I’ve been avoiding it, albeit a bit curious to know what it’s about. My reason? I just didn’t like the cover, still don’t. This is what I see in our local bookstores:

But after two years, and knowing that it has won the National Book Award  (Fiction, 2009), I could not resist anymore. I read it recently and was pleasantly surprised by its structure and intricately woven content. Allow me to offer a glimpse into what’s inside the cover… for those who still have not ventured into it.

The book begins with the true event of the Man On Wire. On a fine August day in 1974, NYC, in the early morning hour, an extraordinary feat took place in front of unbelieving eyes on the streets in Manhattan. One hundred and ten stories above ground, between the newly built Twin Towers, a man was walking, dancing, even lying on a wire strung across the two buildings. Interestingly, the novel is not so much about this man with extraordinary courage and skills, his name not even mentioned until the “Author’s Note” just before the back cover. Instead, the book is about the ordinary humanity on the ground. On that day they are joined by amazement of one man walking precariously in midair, oblivious that it is a metaphor for some of them and their life down on the streets. Here are the stories of a few individuals on that otherwise very ordinary day:

Corrigan, a young priest from Dublin, lives in a rough and drug-infested neighborhood, fending for and befriending prostitutes and the poor. McCann’s characterization is complex and layered. On the surface, we see an altruistic worker, sacrificing his youth, health and even life for the lowly, abused, and despised:

“The comfort he got from the hard, cold truth–the filth, the war, the poverty–was that life could be capable of small beauties. He wasn’t interested in the glorious tales of the afterlife or the notions of a honey-soaked heaven… Rather he consoled himself with the fact that, in the real world, when he looked closely into the darkness he might find the presence of a light, damaged and bruised, but a little light all the same.”

As I read deeper, and with McCann’s captivating storytelling of Corrigan’s broken home while growing up in Dublin, and his strained relationship with his estranged father, I suspect that his transplanted life in NYC could well be a search for redemption, or maybe subconsciously, a defiance against a cruel world, an act just to spite his past.

We read too about a mother and daughter’s entanglement in the underworld of prostitution. We see the reality they have to deal with, as another generation of young daughters are growing up under their care. And yet, as if life has not dealt harshly enough, tragedy strikes. But McCann does not leave us in despair. Through the ingenious weaving of characters and circumstances, he skillfully lifts us out of a miry mess onto a higher plane.

We also read about a support group of mothers who have lost their sons in the Vietnam War.  McCann has sensitively shown us that, even sharing the same loss and grief, their common ground could easily be shaken by the nuances of class and race, as those magnified in the interactions between Claire, the wife of a judge living on Park Avenue and Gloria, a black woman from a housing project in the Bronx. And yet, we are gently led to experience the exhilarating triumph of how compassion can turn mere common ground into powerful bonds, changing grief into commitment and purpose.

Finally we are led one full circle back to the man on wire, and the judge who has to handle his case. Judge Soderberg himself is a father who has lost a son in Vietnam. Like the man on wire, his son had taken the risk to enlist by his own will, not as a fighting soldier but only to offer his computer expertise. No matter, risks are what the two face and one of them succumbs to it. As a judge, how is he going to rule this 25 year-old risking his life to do something he believes to be purposeful and rewarding?

The book ends in the modern day, when a younger generation witness an extreme act of malice done to the Twin Towers. But we also see a new generation raised by grace–fruits of the very individuals who were impacted on that fateful day when the man walked on wire a thousand feet in midair decades earlier. It’s about the choices we make, despite the miry mess we tread on the ground.

While McCann presents these characters and their stories as separate threads in different chapters, he eventually weave them together, tying all loose ends to make a beautiful human tapestry. Like the wire walker, their own lives are no less challenging. They too have to take risks to step out and deal with their circumstances. Theirs is a balancing act as well, in their choices to do the right thing, in their search for meaning, every step of the way.

McCann’s storytelling is visual, his descriptions stylish, many scenes made alive by real-life dialogues that one would expect in the filthy, dark corners of NYC. The book offers an experience quite like my reading of screenplays, but with its literary form, it is much more gratifying.  Also, I was not too surprised to find out that Colum McCann is not only a novelist but a screenwriter as well. Further search leads me to the info that “Let the Great World Spin” is now a film in development by producer J.J. Abram of “Star Trek”(2009) fame.  mmm… let’s just hope the movie adaptation won’t be a 3D spectacular, but a real, human experience as the novel has so sensitively portrayed.

~~~1/2 Ripples

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, HarperCollins Publishers, 2009, 349 pages.


If I’d seen this cover in the store, I would have grabbed it at first sight:

CLICK HERE to Colum McCann’s beautifully-designed website, and an exploration of the cover art.

CLICK HERE to go to the artist Matteo Pericoli’s wonderful website which I highly recommend.