It is an odd, sheltered and commonly nascent thought when considering how many people we are tangentially connected to throughout every waking day that we will never discover, meet or know. But they’re far closer to us than we imagine. That’s what Let the Great World Spin is all about, in my eyes: the people we affect or those who affect us without either ever knowing full-well what is occurring.
McCann’s National Book Award-winning novel is set up by the real life August 7, 1974 “artistic crime of the century”, when Philippe Petit walked a high-wire between the World Trade Center Twin towers. This is the main backdrop in front of which stands the rest of the events in the story, featuring a dozen or so characters and how their lives are interwoven, spliced, juxtaposed and paralleled in and around the great city of New York. But it’s really only a novel insofar as a dozen random people in an elevator are a novel. I’m stretching here. It’s a suiting image to think of, but McCann’s character’s aren’t random vignettes, they’re carefully plucked examples of what I mentioned above: hidden but impacting players in one others lives; the unbeknownst puppeteers and smoke-and-mirrors operators that keep the strings of life tangled and knotted.
Let the Great World Spin bounces around from scene to scene, setting to setting, person to person and emotion to emotion, but never does it make you feel like you’ve lost track. Every character is separate but none of them are alone. A few times I found myself getting enamoured so deeply in one vignette that (even though it happened similarly just 30 pages earlier) I would be shocked at how McCann managed to betray my power of observation and sneak in how this character was connected to another, or two or three.
It all falls apart and it all comes together, a few times, in fact. But the joy for me in reading this novel was in realizing that it’s not about avoiding looking down at desolation or a mired past, or directing your gaze upward at better aspirations or the future to come, rather it is about looking directly forward, noticing the people all around you because, in doing so, you’re constantly rediscovering your own life.