Review: Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann

Miscellanea: Colum McCann and Colm Toibin are the same person in my head. I now feel pleased with myself for finally reading something by Colm Toibin. Also, I find it impossible not to write Colum McCann’s name as Column.

Why I read the end: I realized halfway through the book that nothing in it had interested me enough to make me read the end. I still didn’t care enough to read the end, but I did because I didn’t want to be untrue to my byline. Also because I felt like as a new New Yorker, I should love a book about New York at least enough to read the end.

Look, I wanted to like this book. I did. I wanted to love it. It is the inaugural read of Work Book Club, which some coworkers and I have invented because we get together for drinks and book gossip anyway, and we might as well add it to our calendars and organize ourselves to have all read the same book at the same time. (We had a really hard time not talking about the book before our book club meeting. We kept going: “Where are you in Book Club Book?” “I’m about halfway through, I’m–” “NO NO NO, save it, we can’t talk about Book Club Book until Book Club happens!”)

However, in spite of my strong desire to love it, I did not love it at all. I sort of couldn’t be bothered with it. Its action, divided among a variety of point-of-view characters, anchors on an unnamed Phillipe Petit’s 1974 walk on a wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center, and the arrest of a young New York prostitute and her mother. The writing was at times smooth and elegant, at other times purposefully jerky and disjointed, which I know Colum McCann did on purpose but it just felt like a cheap way to achieve distinction between the narrative voices. This didn’t work for me. The characters felt like stage monologues, not people.

Since I mention it, this is a problem I have with a lot — a lot — of “literary” fiction. One of the definitions of literary ficton that I tend to hear is that it focuses less on plot and more on character. Fair enough, but eschewing plot also tends to mean eschewing character interaction, and that is what interests me. Characters might have interesting pasts, and they might be doing interesting things, but character interaction is where you see it matter. I love it when an author can make plausible a friendship between two utterly different characters. Plot points matter insofar as I get to see the impact they have on the characters I’ve come to love, and I come to love the characters because they don’t exist in isolation. They have friends, and family, and enemies, and acquaintances; they have stupid little inside jokes; they have facets that you don’t see until you put them next to their sister or their old academic rival. That’s how they become real people.

Work Book Club was fun though, even if I wasn’t wild about Book Club Book. We were an awesome book club. I can only recommend, once again, that you work in publishing. My coworkers are so cool, clever, and interesting. They kept saying insightful things, and asking insightful questions, and when I sat around listening to them doing that, insightful things occurred to me too! (Like that the book, which is about 9/11 really, is variations on the theme of what happens when events make it impossible to define yourself the same way you have been accustomed to define yourself.) We had free form discussion, and that worked fine, and it also worked fine to go around the circle and each answer one particular question. All were fruitful discussion-starters.

Next month we’ll be reading The Remains of the Day. I voted for it vociferously because I know I will like it, because I’ve already read it, several years ago. My plan is to read a book about appeasement (appeasement! I had the hardest time producing that word, I could only think of placate, reconcile, etc.) as well as rereading Remains of the Day, and then I will have interesting trivia to share at Book Club. And then my coworkers will think I am clever.

Other people who read it:

Are many.