As my blog readers have probably figured out by now, I have a lot of favorite books. Almost every book I read becomes a favorite as soon as I finish it. It’s like my children – they are all my favorites. But when I am asked about my most recent favorite book, I always answer with Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. It was an almost ideal read for me in so many ways. If you haven’t already read this masterpiece (first published in 2009), I’ll share some thoughts on it here.
First of all, I learned a new word when I read the book - Funambulism (fy-nam-ba-lizm): derived from the Latin funis meaning rope and ambulare meaning walker. It is a word for a ropewalker and also a show, especially of mental agility.
To me a show of mental agility describes the book perfectly. The author Colum McCann says, “We are all, in the end, funambulists.” He says the thing that holds the novel together is the “very low tightrope of human intention that we all negotiate.” We are all trying to get by, dealing with our own struggles. He said, “Some of us walk very close to the ground, but we are hit awful hard. We are, in the end, all funambulists”
In August of 1974, the funambulist Phillipe Petit, a French acrobat, walked on a tightrope between the twin towers of the newly-opened World Trade Center. The Oscar winning documentary “Man on a Wire” tells the story of Petit’s illegal stunt. The image of this particular tightrope walker crossing the space between the Twin Towers is at the start of the novel and becomes the touchstone for most of the characters. We see it again and again throughout the book. The metaphor of a balancing on the thin rope is central for this book. Colum says it was “the catalyst for everything.” But the further along the novel goes, the tightrope walk starts to fade until it disappears from sight all together and what happens on the street corners becomes just as important. But the idea of walking on a thin rope seems to be compared to the risky business of living from day to day. The sign over Petit’s cabin where he trained was NO BODY FALLS HALFWAY. This is definitely a central idea of this book as well.
The book starts on August 7, 1974, the day of Petit’s feat, and mostly revolves around the events of that day in the lives of at least 11 characters all bound by grief. These stories are varied and intense and the narrator’s voice switches throughout the book. But basically these are all ordinary people living extraordinary lives against the backdrop of a funambulist dancing on a wire. The city of New York is also a major player in this book. A character in the novel, “coming to the city was like entering a tunnel and finding to your surprise that the light at the end didn’t matter; sometimes in fact the tunnel made the light tolerable.” The book plays homage to New York, the adopted home of McCann, a native of Ireland.
Let the Great World Spin is about love and loss, resilience and recovery. We see hope for the hopeless and grace in the midst of suffering in this book. McCann definitely sees the hope for all of us. He wrote the book, it seems from interviews I read, to make some sort of personal peace with the tragedy of 9/11. The title came from the great Tennyson poem, “Locksley Hall:”
“Not in vain the distance beacons. Forward, forward let us range,
Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change.”
To McCann, that poem asks, “Is there any hope that this desolation can bring me solace?”
I think he concludes that our lives may be destroyed by grief, but we can reassemble ourselves and regain our balance through grace and hope. Early in the book, one of the main characters, Corrigan, is described this way: “…life could be capable of small beauties. He wanted simply for the world to be a better place and he was in the habit of hoping for it.” That is deeply meaningful to me. I hope for the world to be a better place too.