Walking the Tightrope of Grief
Posted by: Ted Balcom
The October selection for my library book group was Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann. This 2009 novel has won a number of prizes, including the National Book Award. Set in New York City, it takes as its central motif the famous 1974 tightrope walk of Philippe Petit between the World Trade Center towers and utilizes a succession of narrators representing different levels of society. Although the story unfolds 27 years before 9/11, the reader may feel a connection between what happens in McCann’s tale and the historic attack on the twin towers; the choice of setting alone, with its reference to the World Trade Center, carries a strong resonating quality.
The members of my group were quick to point out the symbolic implications of the towers and the tightrope, and more than one remarked on how each of the characters seemed to be walking his or her own tightrope. “Maybe all of us are walking personal tightropes and that’s what the novel is saying,” one participant suggested.
In the book, the tightrope that the characters seem to share is an intense struggle with grief, brought on by a variety of reasons, ranging from the death of sons in Vietnam to a fatal traffic accident. As in the celebrated film, Crash, the characters don’t know one another when the author first introduces them, but gradually they move toward each other and their lives touch in highly dramatic ways.
Some of the book group members liked the way McCann developed his novel, and although the connections between the characters weren’t immediately clear, they felt the device eventually paid off. Others were dissatisfied with what they termed “a collection of short stories” and felt the book lacked cohesion. Some praised the author’s use of language, marveling at his “magical phrases,” while others complained about sentences that “seemed to run on forever.” Most were impressed by his attempt to get inside the minds of people from diverse backgrounds, and they noted his use of shifting between first person and third person narration as an interesting way of portraying the perspectives of various characters.
Is Let the Great World Spin, in the end, a “9/11 book”? We spent quite a bit of time talking about that. The author, a transplanted New Yorker, has admitted in interviews that he felt a strong need to write something in order to come to terms with his feelings about the death and destruction that occurred in his city on that fateful day. It’s probably accurate to say that if 9/11 hadn’t happened, this book wouldn’t have been written. Even if it’s not about what occurred on 9/11, the shadow of that tragic event definitely hangs over the story, and in the last chapter, which flashes forward to the present, there is a passing reference that cannot be overlooked. The grief that the book’s characters must deal with is in so many ways like the grief we all endured after our country was attacked on that bright September morning. This realization creates a powerful effect that makes Let the Great World Spin worth reading and discussing.