In 2007, Bob Minzesheimer of USA Today wrote an article implicitly bemoaning the lack of good fiction about 9/11 (the headline of the article, “Novels about 9/11 can’t stack up to nonfiction,” did all the explicit complaining for him). Well, I hope Minzesheimer has read Let the Great World Spin (first published in 2009, as far as I can tell), which Esquire has dubbed “the first great 9/11 novel.” I don’t disagree. Minzesheimer was having to make do with Falling Man and The Good Life. LTGWS is head and shoulders above its predecessors. Reading about the Twin Towers as an actual fact, as real objects in real space that really existed is kind of surreal. The gap in contemporary life where the Twin Towers (and the innocence, etc., they symbolize) matches up somehow with the gap in the story where 9/11 should be. This novel is set in the 1970s just after the construction of the World Trade Center, but the novel is fairly haunted by their destruction a scant 30-ish years later.
That said, this novel isn’t only a 9/11 novel, and that’s why it’s so much better than other 9/11 novels. Ostensibly, this book centers around Philippe Petit’s daring highwire walk between the Twin Towers in 1974. Structurally, the plot is not so much a narrative as a kaleidoscope or different people whose lives turn out to be connected through this performance, and in other ways, as they eventually discover. What Michael Cunningham begins in The Hours, McCann expands and complicates in this text.
Of course, both Cunningham and McCann are paying homage to Whitman, America’s Bard, and McCann (and Cunningham, but this isn’t about his work) does this very successfully. Whitman’s “Song of Myself” presents YouTube quickies about New York (and America, and the galaxy, and God, and– well, what didn’t Whitman connect his work to?) in poem form, and McCann does the same in his pure prose. McCann’s artistry is as perfect as a stainless steel handrail– no spare parts, nothing superfluous, but everything working exactly as it ought to. The perfection of functionality is the secret to its beauty, speaking both of the handrail and of the novel. (Maybe you don’t think handrails are beautiful. Maybe you are wrong.)
I could wax metaphorical for hours, about how the people’s lives are woven together like the wires that make up the cable on which Petit performs, about “gaps,” about McCann and his work’s relationship to The Great Gatsby (inadvertently connected by Minzesheimer), and so forth. Here are some better reviews. In sum, this was an amazing novel. It was sad, and there were some PG-13+ scenes (for readers who like to be forewarned), but ultimately it was a hopeful novel. I love this book. If you read it, you will be a better person.
I was going to give you a short excerpt to show you how brilliant McCann’s writing is, but David has hidden all of my books behind walls of shelves to prevent J from destroying them (or pulling them off the shelf), so I can’t. If you boogie over to McCann’s website (click on his name, above), there’s one there. Cheers!