True Story: I was visiting the eye doctor a few weeks back, and I needed to get my pupils dilated to finish the examination. It takes about half an hour for the drops to take effect, so I was sent out to the waiting room. Rather than look at old copies of Redbook, I walked two doors down to the local indie bookseller to browse for a while. I came across Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin on the shelf and picked it up. For reasons unknown to me, I was dead set against this novel despite it being a National Book Award winner and having garnered near universal rave reviews. With my vision starting to blur, I read all of the accolades on the first six(!) pages inside the cover (and then more on the back cover) and remained unconvinced. Then I noticed the epigraph, which is a quote from Aleksandr Hemon’s The Lazarus Project (read my review):
All the lives we could live, all the people we will never know, never will be, they are everywhere. That is what the world is.
That passage is underlined in my copy of Hemon’s book, and it finally sealed the deal for me. Then my eyes lost focus with the bonus of my retinas searing from the sunlight streaming through the bookstore windows. It was time to throw some bills on the counter and leave with my purchase.
The prologue of the novel is a brief passage recounting Phillipe Petit’s walk on a high wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center in the 1970s. That’s him depicted as a stick figure on the paperback version of the book. From there the novel bounces between the stories of various people of wildly disparate backgrounds living in New York City at the time. Each of the strands has a connection to Petit’s almost incomprehensible stunt. Eventually the various strands connect in entirely believable but totally random ways. Like life.
The high wire act that McCann pulls off with this novel is writing about the September 11 terrorist attacks while barely touching on the act itself. Invoking the image of the towers before their completion and Petit’s incredible act of artistry is enough for the reader to fill in the blanks for themselves. The last few chapters of the book hopscotch over the eighties, nineties, and 2001 directly to present day.
Back to that Hemon quote epigraph. A central theme of this novel is certainly the richness of life and the many unseen connections that we all have with one another. The world is made up of people that we will never know and possibilities for ourselves that we may never fully realize or even recognize. The challenge that McCann lays before us is to find the connections within the breadth of humanity we encounter in our everyday lives and to look within ourselves for the lives that we could/should be living. If that’s not as powerful a “message” as you are likely to encounter in contemporary fiction, I don’t know what is. If you’ve waited as long as I did to get on board the Let the Great World Spin bandwagon, do it now.