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Let the Great World Spin: A Novel
by Colum McCann

Published: 2009
Paperback : 0 pages
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Discussion Questions

From 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 The drama of the walk gets superseded by the drama of the ordinary lives.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?

Suggested by Members

Who was your favorite character and why/
by Peggy1217 (see profile) 02/06/16

The photo in the book was attributed to a fictional character, Fernando in "Tag." Did you catch that?!
by lrecuay (see profile) 06/02/11

Compare and contrast the events that took place at the World Trade Center in 1974 and 2001
Why do you think Jaslyn bought the picture of the WTC on 2001
Why do you think the judge rendered the walker the sentence he did?
by smulcon (see profile) 03/28/11

Would a monk really choose to live the life Ciaran chose? What is a monk? How is Ciaran's chosen path similar to the life of a Catholic Worker family?
Discuss "improvisation".
by Chapterscam (see profile) 03/24/11

How true to life were the characters? How would you classify each character?
by sandrasegal (see profile) 08/07/09

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub


“This is a gorgeous book, multilayered and deeply felt, and it’s a damned lot of fun to read, too. Leave it to an Irishman to write one of the greatest-ever novels about New York. There’s so much passion and humor and pure lifeforce on every page of Let the Great World Spin that you’ll find yourself giddy, dizzy, overwhelmed.”–Dave Eggers, editor of McSweeney’s and author of What Is the What

“In his own gritty and lyrical voice, Colum McCann has lifted up a handful of souls to the light in this big-hearted, adroit and probing novel, and brought forth a spectrum of the painful, the beautiful and the unexpected.”–Amy Bloom, author of Away

“Every character … grabs you by the throat and makes you care. McCann's dazzling polyphony walks the high wire and succeeds triumphantly.”–Emma Donoghue, author of The Sealed Letter

“What a book! Complex and captivating … a very sensual novel.”–John Boyne, author of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

“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.”–Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes

“With Philippe Petit’s breathless 1974 tightrope walk between the uncompleted WTC towers at its axis, Colum McCann offers us a lyrical cycloramic high-low portrait of New York City in its days of burning; Park Avenue matrons, Bronx junkies, Center Street judges, downtown artists and their uptown subway-tagging brethren, street priests, weary cops, wearier hookers, grieving mothers of an Asian war freshly put to bed; a masterful chorus of voices all obliviously connected by the most ephemeral vision; a pin-dot of a man walking on air 110 stories above their heads.”–Richard Price, author of Lush Life

“Stunning… [an] elegiac glimpse of hope…It’s a novel rooted firmly in time and place. It vividly captures New York at its worst and best. But it transcends all that. In the end, it’s a novel about families – the ones we’re born into and the ones we make for ourselves.”–USA Today

“The first great 9/11 novel...Let the Great World Spin stands as a kind of corrective to Don DeLillo’s remorselessly precise and punishing Falling Man…It is a pre-9/11 novel that delivers the sense that so many of the 9/11 novels have missed: We are all dancing on the wire of history, and even on solid ground we breathe the thinnest of air.”–Esquire

“Mesmerizing…A Joycean look at the lives of New Yorkers changed by a single act on a single day….Colum McCann’s marvelously rich novel…weaves a portrait of a city and a moment, dizzyingly satisfying to read and difficult to put down.”–Seattle Times

“Vibrantly whole… With a series of spare, gorgeously wrought vignettes, Colum McCann brings 1970s New York to life…And as always, McCann’s heart-stoppingly simple descriptions wow. A-”–Entertainment Weekly

“An act of pure bravado, dizzying proof that to keep your balance you need to know how to fall.”–O, The Oprah Magazine, oprah.com’s “Books You Can’t Put Down” Summer Reading List Selection

“The Great New York Novel. With echoes of Wolfe, Doctorow, and DeLillo, Colum McCann’s mesmerizing Let the Great World Spin is a prophetic portrait of New York City in the summer of 1974…A fine introduction to a major talent. It is one of the year’s best novels.”–Taylor Antrim, The Daily Beast

“McCann…both resurrects and redeems the horrors of Sept. 11, creating a metaphorical landscape of human endurance in the face of unspeakable tragedy…. This is McCann's gift, finding grace in grief and magic in the mundane.”–San Francisco Chronicle, Top Shelf: Recommended Reading Selection

“A shimmering, shattering novel. In McCann’s wise and elegiac novel of origins and consequences, each of his finely drawn, unexpectedly connected characters balances above an abyss, evincing great courage with every step.”–Booklist, starred

“Colum McCann has worked some exquisite magic with Let the Great World Spin, conjuring a novel of electromagnetic force that defies gravity...A magnificent novel…hums with such grace that its memory might tighten your throat weeks later.”–The Courier-Dispatch, Louisville KY

“If William Butler Yeats and Allen Ginsberg had written a novel together, it would be this sad, this deep, this urban, this manic and this highly charged.…. McCann’s power – his language, his human understanding, his vision–holds us in an embrace as encompassing as the great world itself.”–Buffalo News

“Beautiful, heady…As worn down as McCann's characters are, they each struggle heroically against life's downward pull, and that's what makes the novel so powerfully uplifting.”–Richmond Times-Dispatch

“Seductive [with a] propulsive pace…This is a New York teeming with leathery men and vicious beauties. The city itself is a stalled machine. People don't arrive here; they crawl into it. McCann's style is lyrical and sharp, as he expertly weaves together the lives of a handful of seemingly disparate characters.”–The Oregonian

“If major writers like Don DeLillo and Jay McInerney failed to capture the diversity of voices affected by tragedy in their early attempts at Sept. 11 novels, McCann succeeds…. In the end, McCann sees hope in a country that has, like his own narrative, recognized the voices of all its people. Hope in recognizing our flaws as a nation. And hope, despite the war we’re still in, of learning from our mistakes.”–Kansas City Star

“A sprawling, lyrical new book…Colum McCann [is a] novelist you should know a lot more about.”–New York Magazine

“McCann masterfully delineates each character’s voice… He lends a forgiving tenderness that invigorates the timeless notion that we are not really all the different under the skin, each of us longing for love, for beauty, for those connections that will quell our loneliness.”–Bookpage

author interview from the publisher

A conversation with Colum McCann and Nathan Englander

Nathan Englander was born in New York in 1970. His short fiction has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and numerous anthologies including The Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and The Pushcart Prize. Englander’s story collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, earned him a PEN/Malamud Award and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Sue Kaufman Prize. He was a Guggenheim Fellow in 2003 and a Fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library in 2004. His first novel, The Ministry of Special Cases, was published in 2007. He lives in New York City.

Nathan Englander: I think everyone likes to go off calling his or her latest book a big departure. But as a reader of yours, as someone who gets a little private access to your brainpan, I really think Let the Great World Spin is a departure for you. How do you feel about that?

Colum McCann: I suppose the great dream of this writing lark is that the books continuously get newer and deeper and stronger. Or at least we hope that we’re not repeating ourselves. Vonnegut said that we have to be continually jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down. I think that’s what happened with this book. I saw a big cliff and I took off. Inevitably I will smash to the ground. That’s what happens with every book. At this moment, though, I’m still flying, still catching the updrafts, still trying to understand it.

NE: There’s no way to talk about the Twin Towers without recalling the tragedy of their destruction. Did you see this as a 9/11 book when you started? Do you see it as one now?

CM: I remember you and I talking about this book while walking through Central Park together in 2004—how I couldn’t shake the dust of 9/11 off me, how I had to clear it from the air around me. I was finishing Zoli at the time, but really I was looking toward this book. At first it was a “eureka” moment because I was wondering how it might be possible to talk about the events of that terrible September, and all the Septembers that followed, and I said, “Ah yeah, that’s it. I should go backwards. Wherever we are now is wherever we once were.”

But as the years went on, the image of Petit became increasingly iconic and consequently less original. There was a film, a book, a New Yorker cover. Still, I couldn’t back away from the image. I wanted to reanimate it and give it a different meaning. And eventually I used the tightrope walk only as a way to pull the reader through the novel. In fact, the tightrope walker doesn’t matter at all in the end of the story. The story comes right down to the ground, in the very dark of night, in the roughest part of New York, when two little girls emerge from a Bronx housing complex and get rescued by strangers. That, for me, is the core image of the novel. That’s the moment when the towers get built back up. So yes, I wanted to shake 9/11 out of my body by going all the way back to a different point of innocence. I wanted to know how I felt about war, and art, and liberation theology, and issues of technology, all these things that were on our minds back in ’74 and are on our minds today also.

NE: The way the past is woven into the present—not just lined up with it but braided in.

CM: Yes, exactly. It’s important to say that this is my own emotional response to 9/11, it’s not a measured intellectual response.

It’s my stab at a personal healing. I’m not here to preach. I just lay out a landscape so that people can walk into it, or walk out, hopefully with their souls shifted sideways an instant. I’m not interested in telling people what to think, but I do hope that I’m allowing them a new space in which to breathe. And so—in this respect—it doesn’t have to be a 9/11 novel at all. It could also be just a book about New York in 1974 and how we are all intimately connected.

NE: It’s a humble position, and I think it’s the right one, to boot. Authorial intent doesn’t much matter once the book is out there. If I write a funny, happy story, and all it ever does is make people cry—well then it’s a sad story, whether I agree or not. What the reader sees on the page is what’s there.

CM: That’s exactly it. As writers we have to respect and like our readers. I want to acknowledge that they’ve taken a chance and that, more than likely, they’re smarter than me, or more courageous, or at the very least they will continue the book further than I can. They can complete the story. And really the ending of this particular book says: There is no end. There is grief and there is love and they spin together in this human body, which is, in itself, also a book.

NE: You talk about souls shifting sideways in people. The souls of books shift along the way as well. Did you envision the whole plot of this book in advance? How do you even map out such a thing?

CM: I just get happily lost over and over again! It’s a fairly intricate maze, but I never mapped it out, it just kept unfolding for me. Part of the joy of writing, as you know, is that we cast the boat out from the shore without any clue when, or if, we’re going to be able to hit land. This novel terrified me in the sense that there were times I didn’t feel like I was writing it at all. I was being blown around by twelve different voices.

NE: Corrigan is such an interesting, troubled, sincerely hopeless character. The one thing that’s clear to me is that he truly believes, and he feels that’s maybe enough to inspire—just putting that belief in the world. Does that make sense to you?

CM: Absolutely. He believes because it’s there and it’s real, it’s in front of his eyes. Funnily enough, I miss that man. I’m so sorry he died. There are times I want to roll back the stone and apologize to him. I kept trying to resurrect him but he refused my advances. Isn’t it strange, that we can create characters from dust and then they become more real than the person we met at the party last night? I think about Kaddish from Ministry of Special Cases that way. He is flesh-and-blood real to me, a brilliant character. I am still climbing over the graveyard wall with him.

NE: You’re a nice man. Thanks for that. My question, then, is about the challenges you set for a character, whether it’s the length of a tightrope or the height of a wall.

CM: The higher the better, right?

NE: Maybe so. But how high is the one Corrigan has to climb?

CM: You know, with Corrigan I wanted him not just to walk the wall but to follow the loops of the razor wire, to find himself circling the barbs. I have wanted for a long time to write about faith and belonging, especially in a radical Catholic context. I wanted a man who would look at the world in all its filth and poverty and yet still believe that, one day, the meek might actually want it. And Corrigan was the one who liberated me in this book. He was the one who brought me back to Dublin, then zipped me back over to New York, and then introduced me to all the other characters in the book. It was as if he led me by the hand and said, “I want you to meet this woman, Tillie. . . .”

NE: I mentioned the way Corrigan holds on to his belief. I think your Tillie has some of that too. There’s a kind of hope in her. A person who’s given up doesn’t threaten to give God a drubbing if she doesn’t find her Jazzlyn waiting in heaven. To me, Tillie still believes in something.

CM: She has to believe. Otherwise it’s completely hopeless. Even in suicide there’s a belief that she will see her daughter once more. It’s strange but as I grow older, I find myself developing more optimism. I keep inching toward the point where I believe that it’s more difficult to have hope than it is to embrace cynicism. In the deep dark end, there’s no point unless we have at least a modicum of hope. We trawl our way through the darkness hoping to find a pinpoint of light. But isn’t it remarkable that the cynics of this world—the politicians, the corporations, the squinty-eyed critics—seem to think that they have a claim on intelligence? They seem to think that it’s cooler, more intellectually engaging, to be miserable, that there’s some sort of moral heft in cynicism. But I think a good novel can be a doorstop to despair. I also think the real bravery comes with those who are prepared to go through that door and look at the world in all its grime and torment, and still find something of value, no matter how small. I like those authors like yourself, like Aleksandar Hemon, like John Wray, like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who have the courage of their convictions. There is a light to their work, an open door.

NE: Let’s talk about this alleged ‘light,’ Mr. McCann, and where it comes from. If I understand the rules, light needs a source. Would it be fair to say that everything starts to brighten up for you once you begin your research? And when I say research, what I really mean is when you go off and live, as best you can, what you’re writing about. I know we’re focused on Let the Great World Spin, but how about you over-answer for me and share a bit about sandhogs and subway tunnels and your time with the Romani people?

CM: I don’t mean for this to sound trite, but I really like life. I enjoy my time here. I always quote Mandelstam on this score: “But we must love this poor earth, for we have not seen another.” And I love engaging with life on the ground. I have a theory that a lot of the light rises up from beneath us: We have to keep moving in order for it to surround us. But I like the dark places also. I want to dwell for a while in the more anonymous corners and see what happens there.

So often I go out and live my books a little. I don’t want to write about myself. If I wrote exclusively about myself it would be a book about me sitting on my arse in a New York apartment, a middle-class white man with a wonderful wife and three fabulous children. But as Montaigne says: “Happiness writes white.” It doesn’t hit the page. So we have to search elsewhere. And so for me the logical conclusion is that I have to write outside my life. Every time I write a book I feel like I go to university. I take a brand-new three-year crash course in that which I want to know. For This Side of Brightness I went down into the subway tunnels and hung out with the homeless people. I also chatted with the sandhogs who built the tunnels. For Dancer I went to Russia, hung out in hospitals and dancehalls and Stalin-era apartments. For Zoli I went to Slovakia and over the course of two months wandered my way around the Gypsy camps. Of course I can’t write when I travel like this. But I’m preparing myself to write. I like getting in semi-dangerous situations. I’m not anywhere near as brave as someone like William T. Vollmann, or Dave Eggers, but I like getting close to the edge. There’s a raw electricity to it. And then I can live out my demons in fiction and come home, spend time with my kids, be ordinary, precisely because the rest of my day has been extraordinary.

And for Let the Great World Spin, I did a fair amount of research—I went out in New York with homicide detectives, chatted with folks in the Bronx, dug through piles of rap sheets, spent time with computer hackers, that sort of thing. One thing I want to say is that I had a lot of fun writing this book. It wrenched a lot out of me emotionally, but I enjoyed the process, and wrote it relatively quickly.

NE: This is not your first New York novel—how was writing about the recent past different than reaching back a century?

CM: No different at all. The thing that matters most to me are the words on the page, how they meet, how they touch. Of course a time or a landscape will define the type of language you use, but I’m pretty comfortable roaming around in different hats.

NE: Let the Great World Spin paints a broad picture of New York. Do you want to talk about the various worlds you walk us through?

CM: I wanted it to be a Whitmanesque song of the city, with everything in there—high and low, rich and poor, black, white, and Hispanic. Hungry, exhausted, filthy, vivacious, everything this lovely city is. I wanted to catch some of that music and slap it down on the page so that even those who have never been to New York can be temporarily transported there.

NE: The idea of the world spinning reaches way beyond the title. It’s central to this book, and I think it’s central to some of your other novels as well—Songdogs, This Side of Brightness, even Dancer, really. They’re all about people moving, crossing borders, people who end up as citizens of the world, if that’s not too syrupy a way to say it—or maybe you see them as displaced?

CM: I’m interested in what Ondaatje calls the “international mongrels of the world,” or what Rushdie calls the “international bastards,” all those people with no place and yet every place inside them. The best line I ever heard along these lines was from John Berger. I met him in Paris. We were both a little over-served, shall we say, wine and vodka, and I asked him where he was from. He looked at me strangely, as we are friends and we’d been corresponding a long time, and he said, “England, of course.” And I said in the most ridiculous way, “I know, I know, I know, but where are you from from?” He smiled that big smile of his, those eyes of his. He waited a long time and then he said that he was “a citizen—no, no, not a citizen—a patriot of elsewhere.”

NE: “A patriot of elsewhere.” It doesn’t get much better than that. And New York can feel like a sort of elsewhere sometimes. I was just in Nigeria, and when people asked me what country I was from, I kept slipping and saying, “New York.” It turns into its own floating territory when I’m far away. One of the points of this novel is that, no matter how many worlds New York contains within it, it’s really a wonderful, singular, unified city. You show that on page one of the book—we all look up at the sky together. But you also do it later, weaving all the grieving mothers together at Claire’s house, all those mothers and all those lives.

CM: Nine million stories taking place at any one time. Imagine the music.

NE: A lot of it Irish.

CM: Jewish too. The immigrant experience. All of us are sort of lost and looking for a way to go back home. So we go back home in books, stories.

NE: Did you meet Philippe Petit? Has he discussed the book with you?

CM: No—not yet anyway. We talked on the phone and we chatted about the book, and I sent it to him, but we haven’t met, and I don’t know how he feels about it. I hope he likes it, but I didn’t write it to please him. We each walk different tightropes. I love what he did. I think he’s an artist. I spun out from his walk, in the same way that the title spins out from Tennyson, which in turn spins out from a series of sixth-century Arabic poems. Everything has a precedent.

NE: You and I are both Matteo Pericoli fans. Do you want to talk about the American hardback cover he drew for your book?

CM: Loved it. Love his work. He stretched the city out. It’s interesting to me how different countries have completely different covers. In England it was a guy bent over backwards, in a sort of wry ironic way. In France it was a figure high in the sky. In Germany it was a constructionist cover, a man rolling upon a globe. It says so much about how different we are, how vast and spinning this globe is. But Matteo Pericoli’s work is especially beautiful in my opinion, and I will always cherish that first edition.

NE: Am I allowed to ask what’s next?

CM: You’re allowed to ask, but only if I ask you first.

NE:Me? I’m retired. No, no, I’m working hard. There are a couple of things hopefully headed out into the world. Right now I’m busy digging into a new novel. It’s set in Israel, unless, of course, it ends up in Detroit or Spokane. You never know what a book will demand. And you, my friend, what’s the plan?

CM: Well, I’m recovering, actually. This one knocked the stuffing out of me. And so I’m reading and sketching and watching and waiting. I’m circling around the notion of going home, and by that I mean Ireland, but Ireland is an everywhere now, so who knows? I am also interested in the difficulty of writing about peace, so maybe Ireland, maybe Israel, we’ll see. That’s part of the joy. Having no idea where I’ll spend the next three, four years.

Book Club Recommendations

Good book for discussion
by Peggy1217 (see profile) 02/06/16
Setting is an historical event in NYC and snippets of people's lives who saw the event. Very diverse set of characters, some of whom have a connection

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
by Elisa J. (see profile) 07/04/20

by Heather J. (see profile) 08/28/19

So many intertwined lives beautifully explored. Loved this book.

by Yvonne M. (see profile) 05/19/19

by natalie s. (see profile) 12/08/18

by Elsbeth B. (see profile) 02/23/18

by Tara G. (see profile) 02/22/18

by Sara M. (see profile) 12/12/17

  "Story within a Story"by Mary M. (see profile) 07/12/17

The book 'revolves' around a serious feat, walking a high wire between twin towers in New York City. You will be fascinated by the 'warp' and 'weave' of McCann's stories and it may evoke memories of your... (read more)

by Peggy E. (see profile) 02/06/16

by Melissa H. (see profile) 11/16/15

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