This past summer, I spent three weeks writing up in the Catskills. My neighbor happened to be Philippe Petit, the infamous funambulist who walked the Twin Towers way back in 1974. We shared a couple of dinners together and he showed me his timber frame barn, which he had carefully built by hand using all of the traditional post and beam tools—adzes and chisels and flarens. Inside this barn, he performs illusions and balletic feats of gravity for an intimate audience of fifteen, and though it was a cold and rainy afternoon when he showed me around, and though it was just he and I in this tiny theater carved by hand, I could not help but be transported into the world of that space, the world of believing that everything you thought to be true might in fact not be true at all.
Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, which uses Petit’s wire walk as an ephemeral nucleus for the lives of a dozen interconnected characters, reminded me of that afternoon, and not just because of Petit’s presence in each: more than any other novel in recent memory, McCann’s kaleidoscopic narrative creates completely immersive, self-contained story spaces that you simply don’t want to leave, so that when he does turn the dial and chapters into the next character’s world—from the estranged Irish brothers living in the decomposing Bronx to the neurotic grieving mother of a Vietnam soldier on Park Ave—you are caught in the paradox of the shifting literary masterpiece: you hate the author for daring to pull you from this cockpit, even while knowing that he has created the cockpit, just as you also know that the cockpit he will plop you down into next, and the movement into that cockpit, will ultimately reward you more than the original world you were so loath to leave. Much of your trust in this operatic migration is of course due to McCann’s simply exquisite prose—at times pinpoint Nabokovian specific, at times reaching and luminous in the tradition of the most sublime Irish writers (or even Cormac McCarthy, perhaps, though the terrain here is not borderland and mud and saddlebag but rather spray paint and heroin and underpass).
I generally am suspicious of the novel composed of rotating viewpoints, partly because it is just so fucking hard to pull off, but mostly because I am a traditionalist at heart, and any sort of overly-purposeful stacking of the narrative symphony that gestures at being the next Great Social Novel usually makes me feel like the author is breathing down my neck and takes me out of the everyday meat and bones of the story—why I care about the characters in the first place and the details of that sweltering city and the last sunlight coming in through the groin of the water towers. You don’t want to feel like a novel is straining to be great. There are times when even this masterful concoction treads lightly into this dangerous territory, mostly when the text bows its head in italics, but McCann really has come as close as any mortal can to capturing a particular place/time/gestalt/graffiitied desperation by rotating the lens of humanity across a bench full of impossibly rich and imperfect players. Quite simply, this is a book to marvel amongst and then to wonder what on earth comes next.
Other hot mentions from 2009:
The Invention of Air by Stephen Johnson, which is such a sneaky, brilliant book supposedly about the renaissance electrician/evangelist Joseph Priestly but is in fact a blooming meditation on how luminous, lasting ideas are created, cultivated, and cross-pollinated across ordinary men of genius.
The Lazarus Project by Alexander Hemon. Just started this one again. Hemon’s sentences are bell-tight beautiful but also slippery and layered. I find I have to read them twice to really digest the countermelodies and glissando at work here. Such a good book that grows with age.
Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavic. Keep a notebook at your side as you read this novel disguised as a hagiographical dictionary of the mythical Khazar empire. There are so many delicate nuggets to savor here, such as: ”Every afternoon at five o’clock when the shadow of the Mincheta turret fell on the other side of the rampart, Lady Ephrosinia Lukarevich, a respected noblewoman from Lucharitse Street, would pick up her porcelain pipe, fill it with the yellowest tobacco, which had been kept in raisins over the winter, light it with a lump of myrrh or a pine splinter from the island of Lastovo, give a silver coin to a boy from the Stradun, and send the lighted pipe to Samuel Cohen in prison.”