Colum McCann weaves stories betwixt and between the disparate neighborhoods and towers of New York in his most recent work Let the Great World Spin. His world of stories pivots on a single event, even as the characters’ lives dip and turn in ways that draw them far from what occurs early one morning in New York City. McCann passes the reader from narrator to narrator with ease. As is to be expected in a book where Manhattan is the backdrop, a wide range of characters appears in the pages of Spin.
Always at the periphery of their narratives hovers the solitary figure of a man traversing a grand distance, at a grander height, on the thread of a wire.
Phillipe Petit’s walk between the World Trade Centers was a fraction of a day decades ago. Its impact had faded from consciousness, having yet to be brought to the attention of the next generation. A different story now envelops the Twin Towers, casting the more innocent event in the dark. September 11 is only mentioned once in McCann’s collection but its shadow hovers behind the text. His stories evaluate the disparate reality of the transience and endurance of a moment. And despite its potential for dominancy, McCann deftly maintains control over the force he has put to use in his collection.
Spin provides entrance into the lives of a hooker, priest, nurse, artist, Park Avenue mother and many more. The person on whom McCann focuses his lens next is never predictable. He jumps and dodges through his cast of characters. The reader’s view of each one is intimate. With each acquaintance a new angle emerges from which to consider the walker’s feat. In some stories the man in the sky only flutters briefly against the structure of the character’s life. McCann does not suggest that lives were changed by the man’s walk through the sky. But the walk itself is emblematic. It is a resistance, a challenge, and a moment of beauty.
The time the reader spends alongside the walker proves the most magnetic. McCann has measured command over his craft and each story draws the reader into its twists. Swaths of characters’ lives are revealed in most of the stories but with the walker the material relates directly to the moment. He is attuned to the weather, the bend of the wind, the suppleness of his body. The anecdotes that examine the walker express the simplicity of what he wanted to do. In these sections nothing exterior exists. There is only balance, a wire, height and the sky. Desire, pure and simple, is frozen above the heads of people full of their own buzzing lives. The walk fulfills nothing more or less than a determined craving. Politics, Vietnam, death, crime, motherhood, marriage, remain reassuringly outside the scope of what this man set out to achieve. He capers. His body is life and movement as he gambols in space. In McCann’s print, the moment is alive again and it works to extinguish all the rest.
Of course the lightheartedness of the walker’s triumph is meant to stand against the events of 9/11 that occurred almost thirty years later. The bliss is momentary. McCann’s stories bear testimony to this as much as they create a patchwork view of New York. Inevitably the September 11 theme has been abused and can verge on wearisome when mishandled. But McCann’s collection examines the same buildings for chapters on end without succumbing to the obvious. His silence makes the event all the more powerful and the reader is immersed in other lives even as the Towers spin toward their conclusion.