Review: Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann

Miscellanea: Colum McCann and Colm Toibin are the same person in my head. I now feel pleased with myself for finally reading something by Colm Toibin. Also, I find it impossible not to write Colum McCann’s name as Column.

Why I read the end: I realized halfway through the book that nothing in it had interested me enough to make me read the end. I still didn’t care enough to read the end, but I did because I didn’t want to be untrue to my byline. Also because I felt like as a new New Yorker, I should love a book about New York at least enough to read the end.

Look, I wanted to like this book. I did. I wanted to love it. It is the inaugural read of Work Book Club, which some coworkers and I have invented because we get together for drinks and book gossip anyway, and we might as well add it to our calendars and organize ourselves to have all read the same book at the same time. (We had a really hard time not talking about the book before our book club meeting. We kept going: “Where are you in Book Club Book?” “I’m about halfway through, I’m–” “NO NO NO, save it, we can’t talk about Book Club Book until Book Club happens!”)

However, in spite of my strong desire to love it, I did not love it at all. I sort of couldn’t be bothered with it. Its action, divided among a variety of point-of-view characters, anchors on an unnamed Phillipe Petit’s 1974 walk on a wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center, and the arrest of a young New York prostitute and her mother. The writing was at times smooth and elegant, at other times purposefully jerky and disjointed, which I know Colum McCann did on purpose but it just felt like a cheap way to achieve distinction between the narrative voices. This didn’t work for me. The characters felt like stage monologues, not people.

Since I mention it, this is a problem I have with a lot — a lot — of “literary” fiction. One of the definitions of literary ficton that I tend to hear is that it focuses less on plot and more on character. Fair enough, but eschewing plot also tends to mean eschewing character interaction, and that is what interests me. Characters might have interesting pasts, and they might be doing interesting things, but character interaction is where you see it matter. I love it when an author can make plausible a friendship between two utterly different characters. Plot points matter insofar as I get to see the impact they have on the characters I’ve come to love, and I come to love the characters because they don’t exist in isolation. They have friends, and family, and enemies, and acquaintances; they have stupid little inside jokes; they have facets that you don’t see until you put them next to their sister or their old academic rival. That’s how they become real people.

Work Book Club was fun though, even if I wasn’t wild about Book Club Book. We were an awesome book club. I can only recommend, once again, that you work in publishing. My coworkers are so cool, clever, and interesting. They kept saying insightful things, and asking insightful questions, and when I sat around listening to them doing that, insightful things occurred to me too! (Like that the book, which is about 9/11 really, is variations on the theme of what happens when events make it impossible to define yourself the same way you have been accustomed to define yourself.) We had free form discussion, and that worked fine, and it also worked fine to go around the circle and each answer one particular question. All were fruitful discussion-starters.

Next month we’ll be reading The Remains of the Day. I voted for it vociferously because I know I will like it, because I’ve already read it, several years ago. My plan is to read a book about appeasement (appeasement! I had the hardest time producing that word, I could only think of placate, reconcile, etc.) as well as rereading Remains of the Day, and then I will have interesting trivia to share at Book Club. And then my coworkers will think I am clever.

Other people who read it:

Are many.

  • I really enjoyed this book overall, though some parts/characters/voices more than others. How luck you are to have such a great bunch of coworkers and a great book group. Even a book you don’t like fares well when there is scintillating discussion!

    • It did! When I got through with book club I actually found I was liking the book a little more (but still not enough to reread it, I don’t think).

  • I had no desire to read this, so I’m glad someone didn’t like it! I did read Rutherford’s ginormous New York, though…and despite its heft, it was quite good. There’s a lot of history about some of the neighborhoods included, so there a definite sense of place.

    • Oh, good recommendation! I forgot Rutherford had written that big New York book. If only I had a long trip coming up, I could plan on reading Rutherford on my journey. πŸ™‚

  • I wanted to want this, and had it on my wish list for ages, but every time I stood in the bookstore and read a bit of it, my desire for it crumbled away, and in the end I took it off my wish list. But I’m interested in what you say about character interactions. I’m in love with Willa Cather at the moment and her books are literary and about character, but ALL she does is show her characters interacting with one another and it is utterly fascinating. So I think you’re quite right, that that’s where the good stuff is to be found.

    • I vote you do not put the McCann back on your list. It’s not bad, but it’s missable, and life is short.

      Now this is two people gushing about Willa Cather. I maybe should revisit my decision to place her on my Enemies list. :p

  • I bought this book when it first came out, and want to read it, but I admit to being very swayed by your review. I don’t like the different styles of writing (smooth/jerky) when it comes to defining the voice of different characters, and now that I am really thinking about it, I am not exactly why I ever bought this book in the first place. Like all the books I buy, I will eventually read it, but I am going to be looking at it a lot more critically when I do. Thanks for the awesome and honest review. It was appreciated. I also think your new book club/social club sounds extremely interesting. I love talking books with people who have real ideas and opinions.

    • One of the nicest things about work is that everyone reads and has interesting things to say about what they’re reading, and interesting books to recommend. I’m delighted we have formed our book club.

      I hope you like the book better than I did, when you eventually read it!

  • Mumsy

    THAT is an extremely lucid explanation of why I shy away from “literary fiction” (I have to put it in quotes because if I were talking to you, only air quotes could convey my skepticism of this phrase.)

    Also? Reading Lolita in Tehran. I loved it because Nafisi was so good at explaining why stories are so vital to our lives; and people talking to themselves just don’t make good stories.

    • People talking to themselves make terrible stories! And a lot of times the protagonists of books like that will be antiheroes, so even when they are, in fact, interacting with people, they’re really only interacting with their own projections of the people. This is why I hated A Confederacy of Dunces.

  • I recommend watching the documentary about the wire walk, which was odd and fascinating. It sounds more fascinating than this book every time I hear about it.

    I like your comments about characters interacting and lit fic. Maybe this is part of why YA is so fantastic because there are usually friends being friends, or frenemies and sometimes (outside of fantasy) there are even parents who are alive. I guess there are quite a lot of lit fic books where characters exist in their isolated head space, especially when you throw in the ‘woe is me I am such a misunderstood male/hurray for me I am a man who is so much cooler than everyone’ section of lit fic.

    • I do want to see the documentary, for sure! One of the girls in the group saw it, and she said that after seeing it, the sections of the book from the wire walker’s point of view were all in the voice of the real wire walker. She said this made those sections delightful, whereas to me they were just dull.

      YA is good about character interaction! Nearly always, since you mention it. I think YA is less invested in this whole idea of Human Isolation than literary fiction (so-called) is. And the subgenre you mention about alienated men is probably my absolutely least favorite genre of books. They’re so nauseatingly self-consciously earthy. Blech.

  • I hated this book with a hatred I hardly ever encounter in my reading life. Hated the laziness in the depictions of the stereotypical, cardboard-cutout-esque characters and the way their lives hewed exactly to predictable arcs. The bohemian artists souring on their drug-addled existences! The black prostitutes and the haunted Irish enfant terrible! The uptight rich white lawyer’s wife! And OH GOD the middle-class black lady who’s overweight (OF COURSE) and peppers her conversation with phrases like “Mercy!” and “Lordy lordy.” Ugh ugh ugh. The only redeeming parts were those that focused on Petit himself, who, being based on a real person engaged in an interesting project, actually had some heft behind his character development. But I would much rather have just watched the documentary Man on Wire, which took only two hours and was undiluted Petit, rather than having to wade through all McCann’s lukewarm & uninteresting creations.

    I also think the use of Petit’s 1974 performance art piece as a metaphor for 9/11 was cheap and sensationalist. The one did not foreshadow the other, in my humble opinion.

    • See, yes! I hated the way Tillie (the prostitute mother) spoke in her section — it felt so, so contrived. There were occasional moments when McCann got off a good line, but I didn’t think he did a good job at all with making vivid characters.

      However, I disagree about the 9/11 thing. The book is all about figuring out how to define yourself when your defining thing gets taken away. There are all these palpable absences that thread through the book — the sons who died in Vietnam, the brother who’s killed in the car crash, etc. — which plays up the absence of the Twin Towers after 9/11. The point McCann’s making (I believe) is that the 1974 wire walk changed people’s attitudes to the Twin Towers, made them part of New York in a way. Before they were a development everyone hated, and then they became (partly, I think McCann implies, because of the wire walk) a defining feature of the city. The link to 9/11 is the ability of the city to define itself with them and without them.

      Anyway that’s what I thought.

  • Jenny, you reminded meβ€”we used to have a book club at work. As the person who came up with the idea (and usually the only English teacher who participated), I wound up running it, but it was a lot of fun, and my biology teacher friend asked when we were starting it up again. I asked around, and I think there is enough interest to get it going again for next school year. What was nice about it is that teachers from every department participated. In fact, one of the math teachers reads more than I do. We had such a great time with books, and some of the book club members still talk about the books we read that they might not have picked up. I just liked talking about books with grown-ups sometimes. We have a very close faculty, and it seems like a good idea to run a workplace book club to generate that kind of closeness.

    • How fun! As the person running it, do you pick out the books? We do a thing where we alternate choosing books, and whoever’s turn it is, that person chooses three books and we vote. That way nobody feels singly responsible for a book if everyone ends up loathing it. :p

      I hope your work book club’s new iteration comes out awesome!

      • I picked most of them, but we alternated a bit. One of our members picked George Orwell’s Coming Up for Air, which I don’t think I otherwise ever would have read.

  • Amy

    I was in a work book club when I was working in the publishing industry but on the lobbying end so not much actual book time. Must be something about the industry though… πŸ™‚ When we met, we never actually talked about the books because we were too busy eating and drinking. Fun times! We didn’t all love the books we picked either. I actually got the group to dump one – Love in the Time of Cholera. Wanted to love it. Didn’t. Still haven’t finished it either so good on you for at least getting through.

    • Well, we’ve only had the one meeting, and most of the members work in the same building so we have many opportunities to talk about fun stuff. But I think it’s possible as time goes on we’ll be doing more chatting and eating and joking around than talking about our books.

  • I wanted to love this book, too. It came HIGHLY recommended by someone who’s reading taste I trust. And I usually love character-driven novels, especially when all the different stories intersect (like Raymond Carver’s Shortcuts). But this one just didn’t do it for me. I thought Ciaran (Corrigan’s brother) was snobbish and mean-spirited, I felt that the character of Corrigan himself was flat and I couldn’t understand his motives. And I agree with Emily that the bohemian artists were horrid. I just could not get on board with this book. He was struggling too hard to tie up all the story lines and it just felt heavy-handed to me. Have you (or anyone here) read anything else by McCann? I feel like I should just cross him off my list, but I’m willing to give him a second chance if something really stands out.

    • I actually thought he didn’t try hard enough to pull the storylines together. That he made the effort at all surprised and pleased me — I was expecting the whole book to be a disconnected meditation on loss, or something. So I was a little pleased that he bothered imposing a, you know, narrative on the book overall. :p

      I haven’t read anything else by McCann so cannot make any recommendations. I’m planning to forget about him for now unless someone changes my mind.

  • It’s too bad you didn’t like this more… I shy away from literary fiction a lot, too. Most of what I read in that vein, I don’t like… I try to broaden my horizons once in a while with it, though. Your book club sounds like a lot of fun and at least you will like next months book. Besides, not liking a book leads to just as much to talk about as liking a book, so I am sure the meeting will still be productive.

    • I am pleased my book club got me to read this book, because it’s not something I would normally bother with. But it didn’t convert me to being a huge fan of literary (so-called) fiction. I am still deeply skeptical.

  • I had two 9/11 classes last semester and now I can’t even go near a book which is kind of but not about 9/11!

    Remains of the day is fantastic, enjoy! Also, Colum-Column, heh, I know I’ll be giggling when I’m next in the bookstore! πŸ˜€

    • I don’t blame you! If it had been more obviously about 9/11 I think I’d have liked it even less.

  • Characters might have interesting pasts, and they might be doing interesting things, but character interaction is where you see it matter.

    YES. I am 100% in agreement.

    Also, THE REMAINS OF THE DAY is lovely. It’s quite insular, but in a cool, restrained, so-much-going-on-beneath-the-surface way.

    • YES. Like all of Ishiguro’s books in that respect. I am excited to read it again, and to see the film.

  • I’m another of those readers who wasn’t thrilled with Let the Great World Spin. I didn’t find it terrible but if felt… off. Your point about literary fiction is spot on, I think. It’s a problem I’ve encountered a lot myself and while it doesn’t apply to all literary fiction (a large portion of which I do nonetheless enjoy…), it’s an apt description.

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