Colum McCann’s Let The Great World Spin begins with Phillipe Petit high on the wire between the Twin Towers in August of 1974, but his symphonic novel (which recently won the National Book Award) is less about that transcendent moment than it is inspiration for what McCann himself attempts to pull off in 349 pages: a dazzling feat of literary gamesmanship, full of stunts and tricks, awe and wonder. McCann — who never names Petit, and inserts fictional characters into the historical event to suit his prolifically imaginative narrative — returns to the man on wire throughout the book but never reduces his act to easy metaphor. The closest McCann comes is when two men look out a bar window; he writes,
It was as if, looking out, they might’ve seen the walk re-enacted up there, on high. It was America, after all. The sort of place where you should be allowed to walk as high as you wanted.
McCann focuses instead on the lives of people who are unexpectedly linked by seemingly random events and coincidences that converge around Petit’s walk. There is a devout Irish priest who looks after a circle of prostitutes; a lonely Park Avenue woman grieving the death of her son in Vietnam; the judge who sentences Petit after he is arrested; an artist drifting from her husband and shaken by a brutal car accident; a hooker watching her daughter shoot up in front of her. McCann connects each of these people in exquisite, seemingly random detail, somehow avoiding contrivance. He’s after something profound about the ordinariness of lives breaking open into moments of extraordinariness. The book’s epigraph, from Aleksander Hemon’s The Lazarus Project, feels less like an inspiration than a dare: “All the lives we could live, all the people we will never know, never will be, they are everywhere. That is what the world is.” Let The Great World Spin tries to capture all of it, the everywhere-ness of the world (specifically New York, well-accustomed to standing in for the world at large), and if the book falters at points — his attempt to recreate a jailed prostitute’s inner monologue being one of the only acts of literary ventriloquism beyond his grasp — then one can hardly fault McCann for attempting the impossible. We weight the artistic over the technical anyway. And he can especially be forgiven because, like any great performer, he sticks the ending: a poignant, moving scene that connects young and old, life and death, encapsulating the epic sweep of the narrative into nine sublime words: “The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough.”