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.

Man On Wire (2008, DVD): Romancing the Towers

man-on-wire1When the idea of building the World Trade Center Twin Towers began to germinate in NYC, on the other side of the globe, a young man in France started to weave a dream.  He wanted to walk across the top of the Towers on a wire after they were built.  Six years later, with the Towers nearing completion, Philippe Petit fulfilled his dream a few days short of his 25th birthday.  On August 7, 1974, he stepped on a wire strung across the roof top of the then tallest buildings in the world.  Hailed as ‘The Artistic Crime of the Century’, Philippe Petit’s breathtaking, and illegal, high wire act is the ultimate test of the human spirit, pushing the limit of audacity and strength.

Based on Philippe Petit’s book To Reach The Clouds,  Man On Wire has won over 20 film awards only a few short months after its release, ultimately receiving the Oscar Best Documentary for 2008.  Director James Marsh chronicles the extraordinary endeavor of Philippe Petit by means of interviews, dramatic re-creation, and archival footage.  Before the WTC, Petit had walked across the two steeples of the Nortre Dame Cathedral in Paris, and the Sydney Harbour Bridge.  The WTC Towers meant the summit of his aspirations.  In a Sundance Film Festival interview, he described his act as ‘marrying the Towers’.

 Director James Marsh has chosen a very human angle to present his subject, such that we’re not just watching an extraordinary circus feat.  The documentary reveals a child growing up with unusual physical talents.  It vividly depicts the fearlessness of youth, the weaving of a fairy tale, the bond of friendship without which Philippe could not have achieved, and finally the euphoria of a dream fulfilled.  The smile on Philippe’s face while on the wire says it all.

The interviews in the film have also brought some very personal elements into this enthralling event.  We see Philippe’s childhood friend and accomplice Jean-Louis overcome with emotion, now more than 30 years later, as he recalls and is still moved by the immensity of the experience.

It’s a crime, no doubt, but it’s team work of the highest level of difficulty.  That they had to haul hundreds of pounds of wire and equipment up to the roof top, shoot the wire across, anchor it safe, all without detection was itself an incredible feat.  Once that was done, the rest was easy for Philippe, he just needed to walk on the wire suspended 1,350 feet above ground.

And that is when the artful part comes in.  Philippe had not just walked on tightrope, but performed with grace and serenity, movements conjuring up images of ballet on air.  For 45 minutes, he slow-danced across the Towers eight times, lay, knelt, and sat on the wire to the amazement of the awestruck crowd on the ground.  There was unspeakable beauty in his magnificent boldness.

Police had to threaten him with a helicopter to get him off.  He and his friends were immediately handcuffed, taken to jail, and Phillipe undergone a psychiatric examination.  He was later released and given a life-time pass to the Towers.  When asked why he did it, he answered:

“There’s no why… Life should be lived on the edge.”

Excellent special features that come with the DVD include Philippe Petit’s 1973 Sydney Harbour Bridge Crossing, exclusive interview with Philippe Petit, and an animated short film based on the children book by Mordicai Gerstein “The Man Who Walked Between the Towers”, narrated by Jake Gyllenhaal.  Further,  in this post 9/11 world, the DVD is even more significant in that it chronicles someone who had taken the arduous steps to appreciate and to relate to the Towers in a most memorable way.

And then there’s the music.  I admit it’s the music that has enthralled me from the start, yes, even with just the menu.  While Michael Nyman has written some fantastic original score for the documentary, it’s French composer Eric Satie’s pieces that so captivate me.   Satie’s Gymnopedie No. 1 is the music that augments the beauty of Philippe’s poetic walk on wire.

While most of us would rather watch life being lived on the edge from the comfort of our living room, we would be inspired nonetheless to venture out of our couch for a little more excitement, and motivated to take just a bit more risks with our life.  For us ordinary folks, maybe living life to the fullest is an aspiration challenging enough.

~ ~ ~ ½ Ripples

  “If no one ever took risks, Michaelangelo would have painted the Sistine floor.”      — Neil Simon 


Philippe Petit and James Marsh Interviews:

Click here for the  NPR’s Studio 360 Interview

Click here for the Sundance Film Festival Interview on YouTube