2016 has been the year of life-changing fiction for me. I didn’t think I’d find another tremendous book so soon after finishing Olive Kitteridge, but here I am, astounded and afraid to start another book after finishing this one. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann has quickly spiraled its way up through my ‘favorites’ list. I think I could talk about this book for weeks before I felt finished.
McCann begins this book in a third person omniscient point of view, a perspective I find so difficult to pull off well. The omniscient narrator describes the scene: a crowd of people in the middle of NYC gathering and looking toward the top of the World Trade Center (this was pre 9/11) where a man stands atop the roof. The crowd bursts with curiosities of whether or not he will jump, with potential situations that drove the man to this fate. And then the crowd notices that the man is not a suicidal jumper but is rather a tight-rope walker, embarking on a walk between NYC’s two tallest buildings.
McCann abandons this omniscient point of view for the rest of the novel (thankfully), and instead writes sometimes from a first-person point of view, sometimes from a third-person limited. Despite who’s story he is writing, however, one thing remains constant: the presence of the tight-rope walker. McCann vollies from new character to another new character, enters the mind of a secondary character mentioned only once before, gives voice to a character that once felt hindsight to the central story, but throughout all of these shifts, the tight-rope walker is there, somehow: mentioned on the radio, seen on a walk, discussed in a courtroom. Such a small connection. But it unites.
The protagonist of the story, Corrigan, never has a chapter written from his point of view; rather, McCann personifies his brother, Ciarian in the first person to tell the story of Corrigan, an eccentric and devoted man striving for righteousness and a relationship with God. Both Irish brothers move to New York, Corrigan for a type of priesthood work and Ciarian in attempts to take care of his brother. Corrigan lives amongst hookers and junkies; is continuously beaten up by pimps and misunderstood by cops. He volunteers at a nursing home and lets hookers use his bathroom. Ciarian cannot understand his brother’s lifestyle and his endless devotion to these people that seem to not appreciate what Corrigan does. Corrigan explains: “They’re all throbbing with fear. We all are. Just stand still for an instant and there it is, this fear. If we stopped to take account of it, we’d fall into despair. But we can’t stop.” Ciarian learns more about his brother as time passes, and learns that Corrigan has fallen deeply in love with Adelita, a nurse who works at the nursing home from Guatemala with two kids. Corrigan, because of his pious requirements, feels a deep guilt for desiring Adelita in the ways he does, but notes how impossible it is that this kind of love could be a sin: “And I kissed her. And she kissed me back. I mean, how many men can say they’d rather be nowhere else in the world? I wanted nothing but the here and now. That one moment. There are moments we return to, now and always.” And this sentiment inspires Ciarian: “And yet why shouldn’t they fall in love, if even just for a short while?” At the end of this section, Corrigan gets into a terrible car accident with Jazzlyn, a hooker, in the car. Jazzlyn dies upon impact and Corrigan is sent to the ER where he too eventually passes.
Next, McCann embodies the perspective of a woman named Claire, a wealthy wife of a judge who has lost her son in the Vietnam War and has joined an all-woman’s support group for women who have lost their sons to the war. Claire’s chapter is full of an honest sadness: “Time doesn’t cure everything.” She tends to be a little cynical, her dark thoughts in her mind anxious to be told to the support group: “We have all heard of these things before. The love letter arriving as the teacup falls. I don’t attribute it to God or sentiment. Perhaps it’s chance. Or perhaps chance is just another way to convince ourselves that we are valuable.” One of the main themes throughout the novel is the permanence of a moment despite the impermanence of time; each character voices this theme in different ways, as does Claire: “The simple things come back to us. They rest for a moment by our ribcages then suddenly reach in and twist our hearts a notch backwards. Nothing’s over. The first star at morning is the last one at night.” Claire and her support group seem to be disconnected from Corrigan’s story but McCann expertly ties these characters together towards the end of the story: Gloria, one of the other women in the support group, takes in Jazzlyn’s daughters once Jazzlyn dies, and the two daughters become extremely close to Claire, who becomes Gloria’s best friend. “Good days. They come around the oddest corners.”
“We hurt, and have one another for the healing.”
Next, McCann moves into Lara’s perspective, a young woman living with her husband. The two have struggled with drug addiction and have attempted to live a creative, whimsical life, a life that Lara realizes, randomly, it seems, is not what she wants. The realization occurs, actually, when Corrigan’s van hits their car and Lara witnesses Jazzlyn’s death. “That moment I remember thinking that we’d never survive it, not so much the crash, or even the death of that young girl, but the fact that Blaine went around to check the damage that was done to our car, like our years together, something broken, while behind us we could hear the sirens already on their way, and I knew what would happen to us shortly.” Lara’s heartbreaking revelation becomes even clearer as she cannot shake the crash: Blaine, apparently fine, goes back to drugs and Lara recoils further. “This is not my life. These are not my cobwebs. This is not the darkness I was designed for. The stars above were little pinpoints of light. The longer I looked the more they seemed like clawmarks.” Oof. How does something we once longed for and loved with every fiber of our being become something violent? Stars turned into claws. It happens all the time.
Lara, out of a sense of guilt and sadness, goes to the hospital to check on the driver where she learns he has passed. She finds herself with Corrigan’s (a stranger’s) belongings and a mission to drop his things off at his apartment. Here she meets Ciarian and accompanies him to Jazzlyn’s funeral, a place she does not belong but feels adamant about attending. At the funeral Lara reminisces about her and Blaine, knowing the end is here: “This is happiness, we screamed at each other. Everything was fabulous, even our breakdowns. It was one of those moments I knew there would be no return.” She also notes: “the repeated lies become history, but they don’t necessarily tell the truth.” After the funeral, her and Ciarian go out for drinks where she feels a desire for him. Lara’s section is one of my favorites because I see myself most obviously in her: the fierceness with which she falls in and out of love. Her last passage: “There are rocks deep enough in this earth that no matter what the rupture, they will never see the surface. There is, I think, a fear of love. There is a fear of love.” One of my favorite passages, ever.
McCann then takes on the perspective of Tilly, Jazzlyn’s mother who happens to be a hooker in jail worrying about her grandkids. He then transfers to Solomon, a judge who happens to be married to Claire. The tightrope walker gets a small section describing his preparation for the walk in NYC. And, in the most beautiful section of the novel, McCann gives voice to Adelita, Corrigan’s lover.
“The thing about love is that we come alive in bodies not our own.” Adelita has a strength that I find astounding and inspiring. She has come to an intelligence regarding death, time, and the ways in which things change but also stay the same. “I know already that I will return to this day whenever I want to. I can bid it alive. Preserve it. The river is not where it begins or ends, but right in the middle. You can close your eyes and there will be a light snow falling in NYC, seconds later you’re sunning upon a rock in Zacapa, and seconds later still you are surfing through the Bronx on the strength of our own desire. There is no way to find a word to fit around this feeling. Words resist it. Words give it a pattern it does not own. Words put it in time. They freeze what cannot be stopped. Try to describe the taste of a peach. Try to describe it. Feel the rush of sweetness: we make love.” I relate to this heavily. The vividness of a moment, based on how much love you’re giving at that moment, sticks around, long after the moment passes. It can defy even the finality of death. “Things don’t begin and end. They just keep going.” Adelita begins the chapter with “There is, at least, always this:” and she is right. There is always this. “And so this is how I will leave him as much, and as often, as I can. It was- it is- a Thursday morning a week before the crash, and it fits in the space of every other morning I wake into. He sits between the children on the couch, his arms spread wide, the buttons of his black shirt open, his gaze fixed forward. Nothing will ever really take him from the couch. It is a simple brown thing, with mismatching cushions, and a hole in the armrest where it has been worn through, a few coins from his pocket fallen down into the gaps, and I will take it with me now wherever I go, to Zacapa, or the nursing home, or any other place I happen to find.” It’s been awhile since a passage made me cry the way this one did. The fitting of that morning into every other one- so beautiful.
Gloria, the next perspective, tells the story of her status as a black woman from the south living in NYC. She gives interesting perspectives on marriage and motherhood: “Some people think love is the end of the road, and if you’re lucky enough to find it, you stay there. Other people say it just becomes a cliff you drive off of, but most people know it’s just a thing that changes day after day. I looked across at him and smiled and he smiled back, and we both knew instantly we’d made a mistake.” Change is constant, even when we’re in love. We can fall out. We can fall back in. And Gloria echoes McCann’s theme again: “There’s a part of me that thinks perhaps we go on existing in a place even after we’ve left it.”
The final perspective takes on Jasslyn, Jazzlyn’s youngest daughter, years later. In 2006, Jasslyn returns to NYC to visit a deathly sick Claire. McCann shows her on a plane meeting a new Italian man: “the world delivers its surprises.” Jasslyn visits Claire where Claire’s extended family treat her as lesser and that she doesn’t belong, a subtle form of racism: “She had forgotten that a life is lived in many ways- so many unopened envelopes.” She manages to visit Claire one last time and to visit the apartment her mother used to trick in front of. She reminisces on the vacation she spent meeting Ciarian and his wife Lara in Dublin, the things she learned about her mother. And she meets up again with the stranger: “He smiles, drains his coffee. She can already tell that they will spend the morning here, he will lean forward and touch her neck, they will make love, they will open the curtains, they will tell stories, they will laugh, she will fall asleep with her hand on his chest.” And she thinks perhaps she’ll see him again. But even if not, there is this day. “We stumble on, bring a little noise into silence, find in others the ongoing of ourselves. It is almost enough.” And then, upon seeing Claire one final time, she revises the statement: “The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough.”
It is enough.