Monday, 3 June 2013

Let the Great World Spin

Let the Great World Spin - Colum McCann

It is hard to avoid cliches when talking about this. It invites the automatic blurb generator to cough and splutter into action:
"a dizzying achievement"
"a high wire act"
"poise and balance"

The book circles Philippe Petit's astonishing high wire walk between the two towers of the World Trade Centre in 1974, a feat that induces vertigo even thinking about it. It was also the subject of the hugely successful documentary Man on Wire, which I have yet to see.

McCann uses the highwire to link a number of disparate stories that glance off each other, building a cumulative picture of a time and a place. He also uses it to question our human desire for drama. The scene is set with scenes of people watching the silhouette high above their heads as Petit prepares to step onto the indistinct wire: "it was the manshape that held them there, their necks craned, torn between the promise of doom and the disappointment of the ordinary." When someone leaning from an office roars "Do it, asshole!"  "a torrent of chatter was released, a call-and-response, and it seemed to ripple all the way from the windowsill down to the sidewalk and along the cracked pavement to the corner of Fulton, down the block along Broadway, where it zigzagged down John, hooked around to Nassau, and went on, a domino line of laughter, but with an edge to it, a longing, an awe, and many of the watchers realized with a shiver that no matter what they said, they really wanted to witness a great fall..."

Nothing needs to be said for us to make the link between this torrent and the later cloud of dust and ash that would rush down these same streets almost thirty years later. Nor the way it glued us to TV screens, mouths agape, baffled by the horror but also the schematic power of the images. The later moment of history is pinpointed as the major subtext of this novel. It is possible to see this photograph of Petit high on the wire and a plane above him as the seed from which the novel germinated.  "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."

A week after finishing this I went with the kids to a treetop adventure centre where you walked, fully harnessed, on ropes and rope ladders strung between the trees. There were guide ropes to hold on to but still it took a lot of overwriting my senses to be able to shuffle my way around. The photos of Petit's feat make me almost ill. What it took to do that walk is incomprehensible to me but as a metaphoric statement of the possibilities of human desire and application it has power.

In McCann's book it acts as both the focus point of that New York day but also as a thing in itself. The highwire walk seemed to act as a metaphor for life itself, lived as it is above the vertiginous depths of nothingness.

After the initial scene on the streets of New York we start anew in Dublin's Sandymount, where "Two enormous red and white towers broke the horizon." These are interlopers since Joyce's day but I couldn't help thinking that McCann was signifying a high wire act of his own, calling on the ghostly presence of the grandmaster of Irish emigrant writers without fearing the comparison.

It wasn't Joyce, however, but Iris Murdoch, or Brian Moore who seemed the presiding figures over the opening section which tells a compressed life story of two brothers who grew up in Sandymount together and who are to come together again in New York. There are many moral and philosophical questions raised in this section. One is a monk with a predilection for living amoung derelicts in Dublin and prostitutes in New York. He sees this as his mission and seems to find his God in his contact with the lost. The other, Ciaran, is less mystical and more cynical, The book is full of pairs, the towers; the brothers; mother and daughter Tillie and Jazzlyn, both hookers; husband and wife Solomon and Claire; artistic couple Blaine and Lara and others.

Ciaran's brother, known throughout mostly as Corrigan, feels that it is fear that makes good people do bad things: "They just don't know what it is they're doing. Or what's been done to them. It's about fear. You know? They're all throbbing with fear. We all are." He continues, "It's like dust. You walk about and don't see it, but it's there and it's all coming down, covering everything." The things we do in the shadow of fear may be worse than facing the fear, whether it's sending a daughter onto the streets or a son to bomb other sons in Iraq.

Solomon Soderberg is a judge and he and his wife are living in the aftermath of the death of their son in Vietnam. Solomon is a judge but his desire to make change has diminished as he has slowly realised that he is mostly just there to process cases and that if he were to sentence outside the bounds of convention he would be liable to fall from grace with the authorities. This is already far from the "deep impact" his younger self had hoped to make. As he notes, "justice is balding" and he is simply one of the ranks of balding men who preside in its courts.

I haven't even scratched all the surfaces of this multifaceted novel and its many different explorations of how people manage to walk the highwire between fear and courage. Not all are as successful as each other but the whole is greater than the elements. Each section reflects and deepens aspects of others. Corrigan, torn between his vocation and a more earthly love thinks "about how much courage it takes to live an ordinary life." There is a section focussing on a disparate group of women, including Solomon's wife Claire, who are brought together by the loss of their sons in Vietnam. It centres on how difficult it is to ask for help, or friendship, and also how difficult it can be to offer, or accept. What does fear make us look like to others and how does it effect how we see them. Like the tightrope walker we need to trust ourselves and trust others and recognise opportunity when it appears. And we must learn to count the audacity of living as well as the numbers of the dead.

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