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Let the Great World Spin: A Novel
by Colum McCann
Paperback : 375 pages
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In the dawning light of a late-summer morning, the people of lower Manhattan stand hushed, staring up in disbelief at the Twin Towers. It is August 1974, and a mysterious tightrope walker is running, dancing, leaping between the towers, suspended a quarter mile above the ground. In the streets below, a slew of ordinary lives become extraordinary in bestselling novelist Colum McCann’s stunningly intricate portrait of a city and its people.
Let the Great World Spin is the critically acclaimed author’s most ambitious novel yet: a dazzlingly rich vision of the pain, loveliness, mystery, and promise of New York City in the 1970s.
Corrigan, a radical young Irish monk, struggles with his own demons as he lives among the prostitutes in the middle of the burning Bronx. A group of mothers gather in a Park Avenue apartment to mourn their sons who died in Vietnam, only to discover just how much divides them even in grief. A young artist finds herself at the scene of a hit-and-run that sends her own life careening sideways. Tillie, a thirty-eight-year-old grandmother, turns tricks alongside her teenage daughter, determined not only to take care of her family but to prove her own worth.
Elegantly weaving together these and other seemingly disparate lives, McCann’s powerful allegory comes alive in the unforgettable voices of the city’s people, unexpectedly drawn together by hope, beauty, and the “artistic crime of the century.”
A sweeping and radical social novel, Let the Great World Spin captures the spirit of America in a time of transition, extraordinary promise, and, in hindsight, heartbreaking innocence. Hailed as a “fiercely original talent” (San Francisco Chronicle), award-winning novelist McCann has delivered a triumphantly American masterpiece that awakens in us a sense of what the novel can achieve, confront, and even heal.
Amazon Best of the Month, June 2009: Colum McCann has worked some exquisite magic with Let the Great World Spin, conjuring a novel of electromagnetic force that defies gravity. It's August of 1974, a summer "hot and serious and full of death and betrayal," and Watergate and the Vietnam War make the world feel precarious. A stunned hush pauses the cacophonous universe of New York City as a man on a cable walks (repeatedly) between World Trade Center towers. This extraordinary, real-life feat by French funambulist Philippe Petit becomes the touchstone for stories that briefly submerge you in ten varied and intense lives--a street priest, heroin-addicted hookers, mothers mourning sons lost in war, young artists, a Park Avenue judge. All their lives are ordinary and unforgettable, overlapping at the edges, occasionally converging. And when they coalesce in the final pages, the moment hums with such grace that its memory might tighten your throat weeks later. You might find yourself paused, considering the universe of lives one city contains in any slice of time, each of us a singular world, sometimes passing close enough to touch or collide, to birth a new generation or kill it, sending out ripples, leaving residue, an imprint, marking each other, our city, the very air--compassionately or callously, unable to see all the damage we do or heal. And most of us stumbling, just trying not to trip, or step in something awful.
But then someone does something extraordinary, like dancing on a cable strung 110 stories in the air, or imagining a magnificent novel that lifts us up for a sky-scraping, dizzy glimpse of something greater: the sordid grandeur of this whirling world, "bigger than its buildings, bigger than its inhabitants." --Mari MalcolmAmazon Exclusive: Frank McCourt on Let the Great World Spin
Frank McCourt (1930-2009) was born in Brooklyn, New York, to Irish immigrant parents, grew up in Limerick, Ireland, and returned to America in 1949. For thirty years he taught in New York City high schools. His first book, Angela's Ashes, won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the L.A. Times Book Award. In 2006, he won the prestigious Ellis Island Family Heritage Award for Exemplary Service in the Field of the Arts and the United Federation of Teachers John Dewey Award for Excellence in Education. McCourt also wrote Tis and Teacher Man, both memoirs. Read his exclusive Amazon guest review of Let the Great World Spin:
Now I worry about Colum McCann. What is he going to do after this blockbuster groundbreaking heartbreaking symphony of a novel? No novelist writing of New York has climbed higher, dived deeper.
Trust me, this is the sort of book that you will take off your shelf over and over again as the years go along. It’s a story of the early 1970s, but it’s also the story of our present times. And it is, in many ways, a story of a moment of lasting redemption even in the face of all the evidence.
There are dozens of intimate tales and threads at the core of Let the Great World Spin. On one level there’s the tightrope walker making his way across the World Trade Center towers. But as the novel goes along the “walker” becomes less and less of a focal point and we begin to care more about the people down below, on the pavement, in the ordinary throes of their existence. There’s an Irish monk living in the Bronx projects. There’s a Park Avenue mother in mourning for her dead son, who was blown up in the cafés of Saigon. There are the original computer hackers who "visit" New York in an early echo of the Internet. There’s an artist who has learn to return to the simplicity of love. And then--in possibly the book’s wildest and most ambitious section--there’s a Bronx hooker who has brought up her children in “the house that horse built”--“horse” of course being the heroin that was ubiquitous in the '70s.
All the voices feel realized and authentic and the writing floats along. This was my city back then--and now. McCann has written about New York before, but never quite as piercingly or as provocatively as this. This is fiction that gets the heart thumping.
The stories are interweaved so that it is one story, on one day, in one city, and yet it is also a history of the present time. In Let the Great World Spin, you can’t ignore the overtones for today: suffice it to say that the novel is held together by an act of redemption and beauty. I didn’t want to stop turning the pages.
I’m really not sure what McCann will do after this, but this is a great New York book, not just for New Yorkers but for anyone who walks any sort of tightrope at all. And yes, it doesn’t surprise me that it takes an Irishman to capture the heart of the city... --Frank McCourt(Photo © Kit DeFever)
Those who saw him hushed. On Church Street. Liberty. Cortlandt. West Street. Fulton. Vesey. It was a silence that heard itself, awful and beautiful. Some thought at first that it must have been a trick of the light, something to do with the weather, an accident of shadowfall. Others figured it might be the perfect city joke–stand around and point upward, until people gathered, tilted their heads, nodded, affirmed, until all were staring upward at nothing at all, like waiting for the end of a Lenny Bruce gag. But the longer they watched, the surer they were. He stood at the very edge of the building, shaped dark against the gray of the morning. A window washer maybe. Or a construction worker. Or a jumper. ... view entire excerpt...
Discussion QuestionsFrom the publisher:
1. Let the Great World Spin brings us into the lives of a dozen different fictional characters from many walks of life, from Park Avenue mothers to street-walking prostitutes to computer hackers to radical monks. Why does Colum McCann embrace such a diverse tapestry of characters? Is it reflective of the all-encompassing nature of the city?
2) The novel tales place almost exclusively in New York, but could it have taken place in any other city in the world? Is there an “everyman” quality to the characters? Or does the novel need New York to make it “spin”?
3) The “walker” is suggested by Philippe Petit, who actually walked a tightrope across the World Trade Center towers in August 1974. However, McCann never uses his name, except in the acknowledgments, and the tightrope walker in the novel remains largely anonymous. The drama of the walk gets superseded by the drama of the ordinary lives. Is McCann suggesting that the ordinary gesture is as important as what was once called “the artistic crime of the twentieth century”? Is the ordinary life (Corrigan’s, Lara’s, etc.) as important as the grand public life?
4) The characters are woven together, but they do not realize how close they are to one another. What is the web that holds them together? Is this a genuine reflection of life? Are any of the characters not tied together? What, in your opinion, happens to the phone phreakers?
5) In the chapter titled “This Is the House That Horse Built,” we get an intimate glimpse of the life of a New York prostitute in the 1970s. Do you think Tillie achieves grace despite the circumstances of her life?
6) If you were to have one character tell this story, who would you choose? What does that choice reflect in us, the readers? Would the novel still be able to achieve a kaleidoscopic viewpoint?
7) Most of the novel takes place when the World Trade Center was being completed in 1974, when liberation theology was forging an identity (Corrigan), when artists were pushing frontiers (Lara), when the Internet was being born (the phone phreakers), when the country was learning to deal with the wounds of Vietnam (Claire/ Joshua). Is the novel more about creation than destruction?
8) The book is structured in four parts, the first three held together by the tightrope. In your opinion, are all of the characters walking a tightrope? Is the “art” of their lives as precise as the “art” of the tightrope walker?
9) McCann uses a real photograph of a plane going across the sky while the tightrope walker is still in midair. He attributes the byline to a fictional character, Fernando Yunqué Marcano who was introduced in the chapter “Tag.” What effect does this have on the reader? What does McCann want to achieve by interweaving fact and fiction?
10) Both Corrigan and Jazzlyn—two of the main towers of the novel—die in the first chapter. Why are these particular characters chosen for the fall? Much of the rest of the book is spent building their lives up, getting to know them through other people. They are referenced and described, yet we never hear about them in the first person (except in reported speech). Their minds and voices are a curious presence and simultaneous absence. Why does McCann depict these characters in the third person?
11) Adelita says: “The thing about love is that we come alive in bodies not our own” (page 275). What does she mean by this? 12) What does Jaslyn discover at the end of the novel, when she goes to visit the aging Claire?
13) McCann tells us in the Author’s Note that the title is inspired by a nineteenth-century English poem that in turn was inspired by sixth-century Arabic poetry. Now he uses it for a twenty-firstcentury American novel. What connections is the author making?
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