"I decided to write the great Irish novel but couldn't. I wasn't messed-up enough." That's what a disarmingly candid Colum McCann told an interviewer from the Irish Times about his happy childhood in Deansgrange (a suburban area south of Dublin) recently after receiving yet another major award for his novel "Let the Great World Spin" (Random House, 2009).
When McCann moved to America at age twenty-one in 1986, he set out to write "the great Irish-American novel" instead. He immediately embarked on a cross-country bicycle trip so closely modeled on the automobile trip of his hero Jack Kerouac that he purchased an old Remington typewriter in which he inserted a continuous roll of paper in imitation of the roll Kerouac used while writing "On the Road" (1957). At the end of the journey, he admits, he had completed "only a couple of feet of writing."
McCann, who now lives in New York City and teaches at Hunter College, last month was named the winner of the 2011 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, one of the most prestigious and lucrative book prizes in the English-speaking world, for his fifth novel, which had previously received the 2009 National Book Award for fiction in the United States.
He read from "Let the Great World Spin" several days before its official release two summers ago at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery as a featured guest of the 2009 North American James Joyce Conference sponsored by the University at Buffalo.
The IMPAC accolade, which is awarded biennially to the work of fiction judged to be the finest published in the English language over the previous two years, carries with it a 100,000 Euro (approximately $140,000) cash prize. Other finalists shortlisted for the award included three Americans--Barbara Kingsolver for "The Lacuna," Yiyun Li for "The Vagrants," and Joyce Carol Oates for "Little Bird of Heaven"--along with Irish writers Colm Tóibín for "Brooklyn" and William Trevor for "Love and Summer," Canadian novelist Michael Crummey for "Galore," and Australian writers David Malouf for "Ransom," Craig Silvey for "Jasper Jones," and Evie Wyld for"After the Fire, a Still, Small Voice."
"Let the Great World Spin" is a polyphonic narrative set in August, 1974 in Lower Manhattan as tightrope walker Philippe Petit soars above the city on a cable strung between the still unfinished World Trade Center Twin Towers while below the lives of ten New York City residents of widely disparate backgrounds and life trajectories converge and intersect. You can read Petit's account of the real-life event in "To Reach The Clouds: My High Wire Walk Between The Twin Towers" (North Point Press, 2002).
The shifting voices and narrative points-of-view of McCann's eleven protagonists range from an Irish monk with a "liberation theology" street ministry to a 38 year-old prostitute with a heroin problem and a teen-age daughter who shares her afflictions; from a wealthy Manhattan socialite and her husband--a prominent New York City judge -- who have just lost a son in the Vietnam war to a grieving African-American mother from the Bronx projects who has also lost sons to the war; from an artist whose momentary heedlessness sets a tragic subplot into motion (and whose remorse weaves its counterthread) to a teen-age photographer who captures Petit's breath-taking aerial artistry framed by a passing jet plane that is the novel's great foreshadowing.
"Let the Great World Spin" has been widely hailed as the first great "post 9/11" American novel, but unlike Jonathan Safran Foer's "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" (2005) and McCann's friend Don DeLillo's "Falling Man" (2007), it deals with America's rude awakening to the 21st century obliquely, using Philippe Petit's famous August 7, 1974 aerial tightrope walk as what some readers have described as "a "pull-through metaphor."
McCann has spoken of Petit's performance as conveying in allegorical terms the precariousness of contemporary urban life ("where there is still an invisible tight-rope wire that we all walk, with equally high stakes, only it is hidden to most, and only 1 inch off the ground"), balancing all we know about the World Trade Center's Twin Towers horrific destruction against the precise historical moment their looming symbolic presence entered into our common narrative on a human scale. The famous photo of Petit suspended in mid-air with a jet plane passing overhead is a document of the creative act that revealed in its own audacity the instrument of its negation.
The final chapter of McCann's "great Irish American" novel is set in 2006, thirty-two years after Petit's tight-rope walk and half a decade after the Twin Towers collapse, in a post-Hurricane Katrina America where deep cynicism is the order of the day and mothers still mourn their sons (and daughters) lost to wars thousands of miles away. Most of the the characters linked by their proximity to Petit's walk and to each other are dead or dying, but this coda is no postmortem.
Through a single word and gesture, a spontaneous act of redemption that bears no sign of its own consequence, a pair of children are plucked out of one destiny on that earlier day of convergence, and delivered into another fate. The narrator of the McCann's concluding chapter is one of those orphaned daughters, the one who grew up to attend Yale and work in the non-profit world on disaster relief.
Her perspective on the famous photograph taken on the day of her mother's death validates all the disparate strands of the narrative -- it's spinning, centrifugal force: " A man high in the air while a plane disappears, it seems, into the edge of the building. One small scrap of history meeting a larger one. As if the walking man were somehow anticipating what would come later. The intrusion of time and history. The collision point of stories. We wait for the explosion but it never occurs. The plane passes, the tightrope walker gets to the end of the wire. Things don't fall apart. ... It strikes her as an endearing moment, the man alone against scale, still capable of myth in the face of all other evidence."
Later, as she visits the bedside of her dying benefactor, she offers her comfort, thinking: "We stumble on, bring a little noise into the silence, find in others the ongoing of ourselves. It is almost enough. ... The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough."