THUNDERTOME: ROUND 7
SURVIVOR: chronic city (jonathan lethem)*
CHALLENGER: let the great world spin (colum mccann)
joe received a copy of let the great world spin for christmas; i'd hadn't heard of it, but it happens to be the new york novel i'd been waiting to read. it could be the fitzgerald novel i've been waiting to read, now that i think about it. mccann could probably write a charming novel about a potato - when he's on a roll, his prose is burnt-sugar, placid-cat-belly, flannel-pajama-pants-right-out-of-the-dryer satisfying - but he's written a novel about new york that's just, well, correct. not inevitable, like joan didion's writing about california - but right. we live in the same city.
(on new york)
Every now and then the city shook its soul out. It assailed you with an image, or a day, or a crime, or a terror, or a beauty so difficult to wrap your mind around that you had to shake your head in disbelief.
He had a theory about it. It happened, and re-happened, because it was a city uninterested in history. Strange things occurred precisely because there was no necessary regard for the past. The city lived in a sort of everyday present. It had no need to believe in itself as a London, or an Athens, or even a signifier of the New World, like a Sydney, or a Los Angeles. No, the city couldn't care less about where it stood. He had seen a T-shirt once that said: NEW YORK FUCKIN' CITY. As if it were the only place that ever existed and the only one that ever would.
(another character's memory of tightrope walking between the twin towers)
In midair again, the cable taut through his toe. Cross-weaved by the wind. A sense of sudden height. The city beneath him. He could be in any mood or any place and, unbidden, it returned. He might simply be taking a nail from his carpenter's belt in order to hammer it into a piece of wood, or leaning across to open a car's glove compartment, or turning a glass under a stream of water, or performing a card trick at a party of friends, and all of a sudden his body would be drained of everything else but the bloodrush of a single stride. It was like some photograph his body had taken, and the album had been slid out again under his eyes, then yanked away. Sometimes it was the width of the city he saw, the alleyways of light, the harpsichord of the Brooklyn Bridge, the flat gray bowl of smoke over New Jersey, the quick interruption of a pigeon making flight look easy, the taxis below.
the story begins with a fictionalization of philippe petit's 1974 walk between the south and north towers of the world trade center and spirals out into a dozen mini-histories; that dragonfly's-eye perspective reminds me a bit of infinite jest, particularly when mccann's temporary lead is a second-generation hooker (david foster wallace's poor tony sequences are a lot messier, though; mccann is more delicate when he describes dirty things). he's a researchin' demon, mccann, and his details ring true: i felt a little queasy as he described his tightrope artist's (six years of) preparations, and i felt the little sloshes of good red wine in another character (a jaded downtown judge)'s nooks and crannies when he takes the bench to arraign the artist several hours later. bearing in mind how woo-woo this will sound, his descriptors are as precise as jonathan lethem's in chronic city, but they feel more big-hearted. the thrill you get from an especially deft passage is a warm thing. mccann teaches creative writing at hunter college with peter carey and nathan englander (englander interviews him at the end of the edition i read, actually), and it makes a lot of sense to me that those authors are colleagues; there's a gentleness to his writing, like englander's, and he's got carey's knack for relationships. his characters' connections make sense.
it's not especially difficult to like a "9/11 novel" (as this one is called, though everything but the coda takes place in 1974) that ends on a gently optimistic note. mccann wrote let the great world spin "to shake 9/11 out of [his] body," as he puts it.
It’s my stab at a personal healing. I’m not here to preach. I just lay out a landscape so that people can walk into it, or walk out, hopefully with their souls shifted sideways an instant. I’m not interested in telling people what to think, but I do hope that I’m allowing them a new space in which to breathe. And so—in this respect—it doesn’t have to be a 9/11 novel at all. It could also be just a book about New York in 1974 and how we are all intimately connected.i think i love it, though, because he emphasizes that intimacy so successfully. lethem's chronic city leaves you clutching at a little square of sky in chase insteadman's apartment on the upper east side, and just a few blocks south let the great world spin concludes, at peace, on a deathbed. i should see this city the irish way all the time, maybe.
VICTOR: let the great world spin. both men have talent to burn, but the way mccann is able to sustain sophisticated optimism is awfully affecting. death by sentiment!
imaginary reading group discussion questions
01 do the novels you love tend to end tragically or hopefully? (hush, i know those aren't antonyms.)
02 if you've read let the great world spin, does it feel like a 9/11 novel to you?
03 how do you feel about philippe petit's tightrope walk? does it move, nauseate, bore you?
04 what is it about irish writers? is it something they're putting in (or leaving out of) the water up there?
*previous battle here.