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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Let the Great World Spin

This is not the book I was promised. Colum McCann's National Book Award Winner is promoted as an evocative look at 1970s New York, through the prism of Philippe Petit's sensational tightrope walk between the Twin Towers on August 7, 1974. Instead, Petit's walk is only a minor presence in the narrative and the lives of the many protagonists in this "novel". The fictional characters of the novel can not compete with the readers interest in McCann's fictionalized version of Petit.

The novel starts strongly, with a vignette of New Yorkers discovering Petit's presence so far above their heads. The novel's first true chapter quickly moves the action away from Petit, and though that chapter's depiction of two Irish brothers living in New York is rather well-done, the book quickly flags from there.

Part of the problem is that, despite using varying narrators and narrative styles, the characters, absurdly given their surface differences, seem too much like one another. Plenty of authors have problems creating realistic dialogue, but McCann seems to have trouble even accurately expressing a person's inner thoughts. All of his characters, of high and low backgrounds, of all personality types, seem to think with impossible eloquence and in the same sort of philosophical reverie. This makes some sense for Claire, the Park Avenue judge's wife whose son dies in Vietnam, but it makes little sense for a lot of the other characters and it makes the book repetitive and wearing on the reader's sensibilities. Eventually you stop caring about whether and how the stories of these protagonists are going to intertwine.

The answer to that is that some do and some don't, which may be more realistic than the Dickensian bow which wraps everything up neatly, but is certainly a lot less fun. The connections between the characters are more frustrating because of how easily they are sniffed out by even a moderately attentive reader. There is nothing to surprise you in this book.

As for the claim that the book is richly evocative of New York? I disagree strongly. This book only sporadically attains the vibrancy and excitement that New York seems to attain on a daily basis.

New York City is exciting even when there isn't someone walking on a tightrope hundreds of feet in the air. The same can not be said for Let the Great World Spin. 5.6 out of 10

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