The majority of Colum McCann’s novel Let The Great World Spin Takes place in and around New York in August 1974. New York is Dublin-born McCann’s adopted home and this is very definitely a New York novel, where the character of the city looms large. The starting point for the novel is a fictionalised version of a true event when Philippe Petit walked between the twin towera of the World Trade Center on a tightrope. It is this death-defying feat that locates the novel in its particular time and place, a time of political and social change and upheaval in the wake of the events of 1968, the anti-Vietnam War movement and the Watergate scandal and the resignation of Nixon. And, of course, New ork, the melting pot, where prostitutes and drug addicts rub shoulders with judges’ wives, recent immigrants and bohemian artists. McCann uses this point in history to relate the stories of a varied cast of characters, who together represent this multi-dimensional city. Like the charcaters on the busy streets, looking up at the tightrope walker, their stories also rib shoulders and intertwine.
On one page there is a reproduction of a photograph taken of Petit’s actual tightrope walk, although here it is fictionalised and attributed to one of the characters in the book. As the tightrope walker makes his way between the Twin Towers, in the top left hand corner an aeroplane speeds by, in an eerie anticipation of the event of almost thirty years later. And, of course, this is really a 9/11 story, in spite of its setting in 1974. The final section of the novel takes place in 2006.
This is ultimately a geneous and tender portrayal of New York and New Yorkers. It is a city of ordinary people, trying to do what’s right and get by, disconnected (indeed victims of) the greater political context – whether that is the war in Vietnam or the war in Iraq (part of the context of the latter part of the novel). McCann has the benefits of being both an outsider and an insider and his message is clear and articulate. There is a compassion with a people who suffer history, rather than make it, and just as the tightrope walker travels betwen the Twin Towers, so do they (and, by extension, we) travel precariously between events of political magnitude. Careful not to look down, one smallmistake could cause us to fall off our tightropes.