Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

I had a couple of cases down south this month, one in Los Angeles and one in Indio, and that meant a solid 14ish hours of driving. I keep a list of books I want to read (or listen to) - you really don’t want to know how long it has grown in the last few years despite my reading 50-60 books a year. This book was fairly close in length to my expected driving time, and my library had it in stock.

Colum McCann is originally from Ireland, but now lives in the United States. He has written a half dozen books or so, but it is this one which won a National Book Award for fiction. (So, if I was doing one of those “read a book in these arbitrary categories” challenge this year, put this one down in that category.)

Let the Great World Spin has both a framing story, and a unifying event that ties together the many - nine to be exact - related episodes. In addition, there are a prologue and two short sections relating the framing story, and an epilogue that ties up the loose ends. These episodes are each told from the point of view of a different character. If you count the three framing episodes and the epilogue, that equals eleven different narrators telling different parts of what is essentially the same story.

The framing story is a real life event. On August 7th, 1974, Philippe Petit broke into the nearly complete World Trade Center (remember that?) and walked a tightrope between the twin towers. This event helps shape the characters in the story, and also serves as a metaphor within the story itself. We are all on the brink of falling, and yet we must walk on.

This is a book with adult themes (in the true sense of the word.) It also has a good bit of realistic and brutal language, and its share of violence and unpleasantness. So, definitely not for the kids, but not gratuitous by any means. It is both a desperately sad book, and yet a very hopeful book. It is realistic yet idealistic, unflinching yet optimistic. The characters are fully human (and excellently written) and, except for a few minor characters which are caricatures, decent and likeable - something that is not always the case in modern fiction. You really want the best for the characters, and mourn when catastrophe strikes them.

And catastrophe is the central story of the book. The whole thing turns on a police raid on a group of prostitutes, the subsequent arraignment, and the death of one along with the radical priest (who is the central character, even though his point of view is never seen) in a traffic accident. The lives of the characters who tell the story are irrevocably changed by these events, for good and evil - and both together.

The story opens as told by Ciarin Corrigan, the brother of the priest. The boys were born in Ireland, and Ciarin follows John “Corrie” to New York City, where the events take place. Corrie has continued his ministry which was formerly to the drunks of Dublin with the prostitutes near his apartment in the projects. He brings them coffee, and lets them use his bathroom. He supports himself by driving a van for a nursing home. Corrie is a good man, it is clear, but he is deeply conflicted. He is, truth be told, following literally in the steps of Christ, making a life with those on the margins of society. But he is full of doubts. His faith is shaky, and his purpose not as true as he would wish. And then, he falls in love with a Guatemalan nurse and thus becomes torn between the halves of his heart. Between his vows and his desire.

Ciarin tells the story up until the accident, at which time the narrative switches completely to Claire, a wealthy Southern woman married to a Jewish judge. Their only son has been killed in Vietnam, and she is deeply grieving. (He is too, in his own quiet and awkward way.) She sees an ad in the Village Voice seeking other women who have lost children in the war, and ends up joining an informal support group of five women. The book tells primarily of the event she hosts at her apartment on Park Avenue, a delightful set piece of awkwardness, trauma, stress - and also decent people behaving decently despite grief. This section of the book could have been dull as heck, but instead is simply brilliant writing.

Midway through the breakfast, the narrative switches abruptly again, this time to Lara, a young artist who has been living life in the fast lane with her husband, also an artist and cocaine aficionado. Coming back from an all night bender in their classic 1927 Pontiac, they clip the rear of Corrie’s van, setting in motion the events of the fatal accident. She sees the young woman, Jazzlyn, ejected from the van and crushed on the pavement, and she is consumed with guilt. Her husband’s less than appropriate reaction leads them to break up, and her to seek out what happened to the priest. She ends up attending Jazzlyn’s funeral, meeting Ciarin, and becoming involved in the story as a result. 

 Because of course we need a picture of a 1927 Pontiac.

After a brief interlude from the point of view of Petit, the narration is taken up by Fernando, a young teen who ends up capturing a picture of the Petit on the wire with an airplane passing overhead. (The character is fictional, the picture is real.) We then hear briefly from a young hacker who, with his friends, dials a pay phone in Manhattan and talks the bystanders who answer into describing the walk as it happens. 

The next section goes back to the main narrative, and is told by Tillie, Jazzlyn’s mother, who is also a prostitute and a drug addict. This is a heartwrenching and exceedingly gritty tale, with a dark ending.

Next, the narrative switches to Claire’s husband, Solomon, who tells of both the arraignments of Tillie and Jazzlyn and a bit of Petit’s arraignment on the same day. (One of the nice things about this book is that the courtroom scene is actually done correctly. After all the ludicrous descriptions you can find in books and movies, it is nice to read one that captures the mundane nature of the ordinary arraignment, and the frustration of judges in dealing with recalcitrant defendants. My applause, Mr. McCann.)

The next narrator to take up the story is Adelita, Corrie’s flame, who describe falling in love with (and eventually making love to) Corrie, and her response to the tragedy.

Finally, we hear from Gloria. She is one of the mothers in Claire’s support group, and the only African American member. At the end of the breakfast, Claire makes a major faux pas and Gloria walks off rightly offended. However, she is mugged, and returns to Claire’s apartment, and the two end up becoming friends. Gloria will then end up (through another stroke of fate) taking on the care of Jazzlyn’s two daughters after her death.

The epilogue is told by one of the daughters thirty years later, and the loose ends are wrapped up. (While I appreciated that the epilogue existed, it is the weakest part of the book, with some trite characters and easy ways out. It might have been better if it had just told what happened, rather than trying to insert new characters and events.)

The character of Corrie is loosely based on the real life priest, Daniel Berrigan, best known (depending on your level of nerdiness) for his participation in the Vietnam protests and part of the Catonsville Nine - or from Paul Simon’s song. The characters do not share biographical details, however, but more a philosophical connection. Both are “radical” priests who struggle with faith and who minister to the rougher city denizens without judgment.

Corrie is the central character, as I noted, even though we only know what he is thinking from the words he says to others - and from his actions. Many of these observations were quite interesting.

“Corrigan told me once that Christ was quite easy to understand. He went where He was supposed to go. He stayed where He was needed. He took little or nothing along, a pair of sandals, a bit of a shirt, a few odds and ends to stave off the loneliness. He never rejected the world. If He had rejected it, He would have been rejecting mystery. And if He rejected mystery, He would have been rejecting faith.”

“What Corrigan wanted was a fully believable God, one you could find in the grime of the everyday...he consoled himself with the fact that, in the real world, when he looked closely into the darkness he might find the presence of a light, damaged and bruised, but a little light all the same. He wanted, quite simply, for the world to be a better place, and he was in the habit of hoping for it.”

These days, I find myself thinking these thoughts as well. How difficult it is to see Christ in the American church right now, and how little relevance their treasured doctrines seem to have to the people Christ spent his time with. How precious little any of it has to do with loving our neighbor.

Perhaps the quote that intrigued me the most was Adelita’s memory of Corrie’s statement that there was “no better faith than wounded faith.” I rather hope it is true. And I feel in many ways that my own faith is more real to me now than ever, maybe even because of the the challenges and the, yes, wounding it has undergone in the last few years. Corrie wrestles with God, as do the other characters - particularly Tillie, who would like to give Him a good talking to. Fate, God, chance, or however you look at it, isn’t fair, understandable, or benign. Crap happens, and we are left, like Job or Qohelet, to try to make sense of it all or go crazy.  

On a lighter note, I should mention one quote from Tilly, when she tries to seduce Ciarin. “You won’t seen anything this good until there are lawyers in heaven.” We can’t get no respect…

And one more, describing the aging judiciary: “Few folicles on the oracles.” 

Tilly has an interesting secret, though, that bears mentioning. An early client never slept with her (although he paid her), but preferred that she sit, naked, and read him the poems of 13th Century Persian poet Rumi. I have no desire or intent to avail myself of a prostitute, but there is something kind of epic about that whole picture. I haven’t read a whole lot of Rumi, I’ll admit, although he was apparently wildly popular in the 1960s and 70s. See below for a selection. McCann threads lines from Rumi throughout the book, and his presence is a ghost in the narrative.

Poetry is connected to this book in another way.  The title itself comes from a couplet in Tennyson’s Locksley Hall:

Not in vain the distance beacons. Forward, forward let us range,
Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change.

McCann ends the book with a poetic line of his own:

“The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough.”

This could perhaps be the theme of the book itself. The characters stumble on. They are afraid of love (as Lara says), in part because they have lost so much. They all mourn something. But in the end, love is still worth it, and the characters know this, and risk for this idea. They choose to love, to be vulnerable, to accept the pain, to embrace it even, as the necessary experience which makes them alive.

This book was a good read, with outstanding and compelling writing, some of the best characters I have seen in a modern novel, and enough thoughtfulness that the book sticks in your mind afterward.


Note on the audiobook: The version I listened to is by Recorded Books, and featured eleven different readers - one for each character. Each had his or her own voice, accent or dialect, and cadence. A rather brilliant use of the audio format - definitely look for this version if you listen to it.


A little Rumi (translated by Jonathan Star):

Gone to the Unseen

At last you have departed and gone to the Unseen.
What marvelous route did you take from this world?

Beating your wings and feathers,
you broke free from this cage.
Rising up to the sky
you attained the world of the soul.
You were a prized falcon trapped by an Old Woman.
Then you heard the drummer's call
and flew beyond space and time.

As a lovesick nightingale, you flew among the owls.
Then came the scent of the rosegarden
and you flew off to meet the Rose.

The wine of this fleeting world
caused your head to ache.
Finally you joined the tavern of Eternity.
Like an arrow, you sped from the bow
and went straight for the bull's eye of bliss.

This phantom world gave you false signs
But you turned from the illusion
and journeyed to the land of truth.

You are now the Sun -
what need have you for a crown?
You have vanished from this world -
what need have you to tie your robe?

I've heard that you can barely see your soul.
But why look at all? -
yours is now the Soul of Souls!

O heart, what a wonderful bird you are.
Seeking divine heights,
Flapping your wings,
you smashed the pointed spears of your enemy.

The flowers flee from Autumn, but not you -
You are the fearless rose
that grows amidst the freezing wind.

Pouring down like the rain of heaven
you fell upon the rooftop of this world.
Then you ran in every direction
and escaped through the drain spout . . .

Now the words are over
and the pain they bring is gone.
Now you have gone to rest
in the arms of the Beloved.

So beautiful.

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