Synopses & Reviews
In the dawning light of a late-summer morning, the people of lower Manhattan stand hushed, staring up in disbelief at the Twin Towers. It is August 1974, and a mysterious tightrope walker is running, dancing, leaping between the towers, suspended a quarter mile above the ground. In the streets below, a slew of ordinary lives become extraordinary in bestselling novelist Colum McCann's stunningly intricate portrait of a city and its people.
Let the Great World Spin is the critically acclaimed author's most ambitious novel yet: a dazzlingly rich vision of the pain, loveliness, mystery, and promise of New York City in the 1970s.
Corrigan, a radical young Irish monk, struggles with his own demons as he lives among the prostitutes in the middle of the burning Bronx. A group of mothers gather in a Park Avenue apartment to mourn their sons who died in Vietnam, only to discover just how much divides them even in grief. A young artist finds herself at the scene of a hit-and-run that sends her own life careening sideways. Tillie, a thirty-eight-year-old grandmother, turns tricks alongside her teenage daughter, determined not only to take care of her family but to prove her own worth.
Elegantly weaving together these and other seemingly disparate lives, McCann's powerful allegory comes alive in the unforgettable voices of the city's people, unexpectedly drawn together by hope, beauty, and the artistic crime of the century. A sweeping and radical social novel, Let the Great World Spin captures the spirit of America in a time of transition, extraordinary promise, and, in hindsight, heartbreaking innocence. Hailed as "a fiercely original talent" (San Francisco Chronicle), award-winning novelist McCann has delivered a triumphantly American masterpiece that awakens in us a sense of what the novel can achieve, confront, and even heal.
"[S]himmering, shattering....In McCann's wise and elegiac novel of origins and consequences, each of his finely drawn, unexpectedly connected characters balances above an abyss, evincing great courage with every step." Booklist (starred review)
"One of the most electric, profound novels I have read in years.... It is a mark of the novel's soaring and largely fulfilled ambition that McCann just keeps rolling out new people, deftly linking each to the next, as his story moves toward its surprising and deeply affecting conclusion." Jonathan Mahler, The New York Times Book Review
"McCann gives a superb account of the walker's long practicing....And if some of his other attempts to elevate work into myth are strained, he succeeds with his image of a flight that lifts the heaviness of a whole city." The Boston Globe
"McCann has written more than a supremely woven tapestry of imagined lives; through their struggles, he clears a path for healing and redemption from the cataclysm of a later time." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
"This is a gorgeous book, multilayered and deeply felt, and it's a damned lot of fun to read, too. Leave it to an Irishman to write one of the greatest-ever novels about New York. There's so much passion and humor and pure lifeforce on every page of Let the Great World Spin that you'll find yourself giddy, dizzy, overwhelmed." Dave Eggers, editor of McSweeney's and author of What Is the What
McCann's most ambitious work to date offers a dazzling and hauntingly rich vision of the loveliness, pain, and mystery of life in New York City in the 1970s.
About the Author
Colum McCann is the internationally bestselling author of the novels Zoli, Dancer, This Side of Brightness, and Songdogs, as well as two critically acclaimed story collections. His fiction has been published in thirty languages. He has been a finalist for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and was the inaugural winner of the Ireland Fund of Monaco Literary Award in Memory of Princess Grace. He has been named one of Esquire's "Best and Brightest," and his short film Everything in This Country Must was nominated for an Oscar in 2005. A contributor to The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, and The Paris Review, he teaches in the Hunter College MFA Creative Writing Program. He lives in New York City with his wife and their three children.
Reading Group Guide
1. Let the Great World Spin
is told through the eyes of eleven different characters. What is the effect of this chorus of voices? Why do you think the author chose to tell the story this way? If you had to choose a single character to narrate the whole book, who would it be, and why? What do you think might be lost, or gained, by narrowing the story to a single perspective?
2. As McCann explains in the author’s note, the book’s title comes from “Locksley Hall,” an 1835 poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, which was itself inspired by a series of ancient Arabic poems. Why do you think McCann chose to use this title for such a modern American story? What does the title mean to you, and do you think it affects your relationship to the book as a reader? Would this be a different novel, do you think, if it had been called something else, like “Highwire”?
3. The narrative takes place almost exclusively in New York City, but could it have taken place in any other city in the world? How can this be seen as a specifically “New York” novel, and how might it not be? Are there ways in which the characters are emblematic of their time and place, or is there an “everyman” quality to them?
4. The novel opens with an extraordinary tightrope walk between the World Trade Center towers. This is a fictionalization of a famous stunt by Philippe Petit in August 1974–yet the tightrope walker in the novel remains anonymous, unrelated to any of the other characters. What do you think the effect is of weaving this historical fact into the fiction of the other characters’ stories? What do you think McCann intends to achieve with this, and in what ways do you think he succeeds?
5. How important do you think this historic walk is in the novel itself? In what ways would the stories–and story–McCann is telling be different if the novel had been set on a different day, or in a different era?
6. Do you see ways in which the tightrope might function as a metaphor, or symbol, throughout the book?
7. In the chapter titled “This Is the House That Horse Built” we get an intimate glimpse into the life of a New York prostitute in the 1970s. She considers herself a failure. Do you agree with her? Or do you think she achieves grace despite the circumstances of her life?
8. All but one of the chapters in Let the Great World Spin are set over the course of a couple of days in early August 1974. Why do you think McCann chose to jump thirty-two years, to 2006, for the final chapter? In what ways do these pages add to, complicate, or even change the story that came before? Why do you think he chose the character of Jaslyn to tell that final piece of the story?
9. What do you think Jaslyn discovers at the end of the novel?
10. What parallels do you see between the society of the 1970s, as McCann depicts it in the novel, and today? How do you believe these similarities and differences speak to the changes in America and the world over the past several decades? Would it be fair to say that America itself is one of the evolving characters in the novel, a separate figure whose story is also being told?
11. Adelita says: “The thing about love is that we come alive in bodies not our own.” What does she mean by this?
12. It can be argued that Corrigan and Jazzlyn are the book’s two main characters, yet they die in the opening chapters. Why do you think McCann chose to allow their lives to be destroyed so early in the book? Why did he choose not to tell any of the story through their points of view? In what ways do you think that decision makes these two people more–or less–central and powerful in the story as a whole? Could it be said that it is sometimes the stories not told that affect us the most?
1. Let the Great World Spin
brings us into the lives of a dozen different fictional characters from many walks of life, from Park Avenue mothers to street-walking prostitutes to computer hackers to radical monks. Why does Colum McCann embrace such a diverse tapestry of characters? Is it reflective of the all-encompassing nature of the city?
2) The novel tales place almost exclusively in New York, but could it have taken place in any other city in the world? Is there an “everyman” quality to the characters? Or does the novel need New York to make it “spin”?
3) The “walker” is suggested by Philippe Petit, who actually walked a tightrope across the World Trade Center towers in August 1974. However, McCann never uses his name, except in the acknowledgments, and the tightrope walker in the novel remains largely anonymous. The drama of the walk gets superseded by the drama of the ordinary lives. Is McCann suggesting that the ordinary gesture is as important as what was once called “the artistic crime of the twentieth century”? Is the ordinary life (Corrigan’s, Lara’s, etc.) as important as the grand public life?
4) The characters are woven together, but they do not realize how close they are to one another. What is the web that holds them together? Is this a genuine reflection of life? Are any of the characters not tied together? What, in your opinion, happens to the phone phreakers?
5) In the chapter titled “This Is the House That Horse Built,” we get an intimate glimpse of the life of a New York prostitute in the 1970s. Do you think Tillie achieves grace despite the circumstances of her life?
6) If you were to have one character tell this story, who would you choose? What does that choice reflect in us, the readers? Would the novel still be able to achieve a kaleidoscopic viewpoint?
7) Most of the novel takes place when the World Trade Center was being completed in 1974, when liberation theology was forging an identity (Corrigan), when artists were pushing frontiers (Lara), when the Internet was being born (the phone phreakers), when the country was learning to deal with the wounds of Vietnam (Claire/ Joshua). Is the novel more about creation than destruction?
8) The book is structured in four parts, the first three held together by the tightrope. In your opinion, are all of the characters walking a tightrope? Is the “art” of their lives as precise as the “art” of the tightrope walker?
9) McCann uses a real photograph of a plane going across the sky while the tightrope walker is still in midair. He attributes the byline to a fictional character, Fernando Yunqué Marcano who was introduced in the chapter “Tag.” What effect does this have on the reader? What does McCann want to achieve by interweaving fact and fiction?
10) Both Corrigan and Jazzlyn—two of the main towers of the novel—die in the first chapter. Why are these particular characters chosen for the fall? Much of the rest of the book is spent building their lives up, getting to know them through other people. They are referenced and described, yet we never hear about them in the first person (except in reported speech). Their minds and voices are a curious presence and simultaneous absence. Why does McCann depict these characters in the third person?
11) Adelita says: “The thing about love is that we come alive in bodies not our own” (page 275). What does she mean by this? 12) What does Jaslyn discover at the end of the novel, when she goes to visit the aging Claire?
13) McCann tells us in the Author’s Note that the title is inspired by a nineteenth-century English poem that in turn was inspired by sixth-century Arabic poetry. Now he uses it for a twenty-firstcentury American novel. What connections is the author making?