Saturday, March 13, 2010

Let The Great World Spin, by Colum McCann

It has been a really long time since a novel swept me off my feet, leaving me breathless. Yes, this was one of those books -- one that left me conflicted because I knew that each page I so eagerly turned brought me closer to the end. And I did not want it to end!

Colum McCann was recently interviewed in The Writer's Chronicle by Indy's own Andrew Scott. Here he responds to Scott's question about how he creates sympathetic characters: "Really, I want for my characters to be honest. That means complication. Because nothing is simple, not even simplicity." It is McCann's richly drawn characters, captured with such complicated simplicity, that propel the amazing twists and turns in this novel and bring this work such electricity.

The book begins with a scene of tightrope walker Phillipe Petit as he traverses the distance between the World Trade Center towers. As the crowd gathers, we see the buzzing mass of street life come into focus as they realize, with astonishment and awe, what is taking place above their heads. From here, the story branches off into several separate stories, each one intersecting with the others, either through a common character, or some cleverly placed prop on the stage of one story that ties in with another.

The story with the most compelling characters was the one that featured a mother-daughter pair of prostitutes, Tillie and Jazzlyn. What stays with me still is the humanity, depth and humor with which McCann drew these characters, ones whose lives would not ordinarily inspire such a sense of commonality and compassion. Their tale interweaves, in a knocks-your-socks-off, yet completely believable way, with several other characters' stories. It brought to mind all those "coincidences", the times we find our own stories intersecting with others on and off throughout our lives. (Did I ever tell you the time I bumped into an old boyfriend from St. Louis, one I hadn't seen in years, at The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem?)

McCann's novel brings to mind the experience of standing in front of one of the big canvas impressionist masterpieces in The Art Institute of Chicago. As your eyes pour over the broad expanse you might catch swipes of color, or certain curves, that are echoed throughout the piece; those purposeful touches can be so subtle that if you had not slowed down and payed close attention you might have missed them altogether. It is these thoughtful details, each one seemingly insignificant on its own, that adds depth to the artistry that makes up the whole of the masterpiece.

Here's something new. An experiment, a link to a fascinating article from last week's about the new book by David Shields, "Reality Hunger: A Manifesto" in which Shields proclaims the novel is dead. Seemed provocative to include this in a review of one of the best novels I've read in a long time. Let's hope I've mastered the technology and this link takes you there.
RIP: The novel

1 comment:

  1. I've looked at this book several times in the book store and wanted to purchase it but was held back by the thought of all of the stacks waiting for me at home! Also, my experience with National Book Award finalists and winners has been mixed. Now I'll buy it and look forward to reading it soon! Amy K.