Writer as Funambulist

Last night I finished Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin.

It’s a novel set in New York on the day when Phillipe Petit walked on the wire between the two World Trade Towers, August, 1974.  Characters flash back to other moments in their lives, but the central action happens on that day when something utterly miraculous and remarkable happened in lower Manhattan – and most of Manhattan didn’t know it. 

I’d just watched “Man on Wire” with the boys a few nights ago (they were amazed), and so Petit’s voice and the image from the movie, of his foot gliding out to take that first step on the wire, light years above the city, were alive in my head as I read.

The novel echoes with so many voices that I almost can’t believe that one person wrote them all: Tillie the hooker who turns tricks with her teen-age daughter, the brothers Corrigan from Ireland, the Upper East Side matron whose son died in Viet Nam–and her husband the Jewish judge whose final case of the day is that of some lunatic walking a tightrope between the Trade Towers. Plus a single mother from Missouri, a nurse from Latin America fleeing a miserable marriage, an artist who spends more time in nightclubs than in the studio, underground graffitti artists… and Petit himself.

It is a high-wire act in and of itself, this novel, and in the hands of a lesser writer, we’d end up with some forced deus ex machina moment where all the characters end up watching Petit dance above the city, bonding in their amazement; or where the prostitutes have hearts of gold and find redemption in the arms of the Corrigan brothers. But that doesn’t happen.  What does happen? Well…New York happens: the city itself as it struggles through the seventies wondering if it’s going to survive. 

The characters, too, wonder if they’re going to survive, although not everyone’s struggles are visible to the outside world. Petit’s  death-defying walk literalizes the question of survival, but each character wrestles with how, on this day, she or he will find the courage to go forward. And just as Petit’s walk would not have been possible without the bravery of his comrades, who helped him plan his coup and rig his wire, so too the survival of these characters seems to depend on whether or not they are alone in the world.

When I finished the book I had to sit there for a while, letting the words settle down around me. One sentence in particular continues to ring in my head:  “We stumble on…bring a little noise into the silence, find in others the ongoing of ourselves. It is almost enough.”

The novel’s final image is of a young African American woman sitting by the bedside of a dying white woman, and then these sentences, which ring a slight but important change on the previous: “The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough.”

It is enough.

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