Let the Great World Spin

by Colum McCann


I have to admit to coming to this book with prejudice.  A lot of contemporary lit seems to have more style than substance and both the cover and a brief perusal reinforced my stereotype.  Maybe it’s just my inner contrarian, an ingrained desire to backlash against popular movement per se (in this case, a movement emblemized by a shiny gold “National Book Award Winner” decal).  So take it with whatever sized grain of salt you prefer that my predominant reaction to the book was “Meh.”

What I most liked about the book was McCann’s ability to move me.  Despite not including an apparent emotional center, he was able to forge emotional connections through his characters.  The characters still feel fake (more on that later), but at least they benefited from good development.

Another strength was the outstanding beauty of some of the passages.  Not only phrases but stories, thoughts and imagery.  There was a gorgeous parable about the 36 hidden saints and the one forgotten.  In Tillie’s narrative she told about the couple celebrating their 40th anniversary in Central Park.  Adela speaks nostalgically about the crystallized image of Corrigan she will forever maintain in her mind.  Here’s a beauty that Corrigan spoke about Adela on p. 52:

. . . I wanted that sort of joy.  Make it simple again.  I was trying, really trying, to pray, get rid of my lust, return to the good, rediscover that innocence.  Circles of circles.  And when you go around in circles, brother, the world is very big, but if you plow straight ahead it’s small enough.  I wanted to fall along the spokes to the center of the circle, where there was no movement.  I can’t explain it, man.  It was like I was staring at the ceiling, waiting for the sky. . .

I love that “fall along the spokes to the center of the circle. . .”  There is an abundance of passages like this one, thought-provoking and awe-inspiring.

But the prose was at times too strong.  McCann has a knack for turning a phrase — “. . . hanging onto him like he was some bright hallelujah in the shitbox of what the world really was.” 15 — and does so often.   So often that it begins to feel affected, the thought-provoking passages so abundant that they begin to overwhelm.  No thoughts can be provoked when your mind is left reeling.

Then you begin noticing the periodic barrages of sentence fragments, and later the conspicuous one-sentence paragraphs screaming for your attention.  (296: “Her smile could’ve broken glass.”  303: “I gave them all the truth and none of the honesty.”)  They are beautifully crafted sentences, granted, but they’d fit in better with an adjacent paragraph.  They’d be more attractive in their humility.

And I could not for the life of me figure out why some of the dialogue was written in quotes (Ciaran, Fernando, Tillie, Adela, Gloria, the Walker) and other in dashes (Claire, Lara, Sam, Solomon, Jaslyn).  I look at the lists and try to figure out if there’s a thematic or perhaps chronological connection, but I can’t see anything.  It has to be purposeful, right?  If anyone can help clarify I’d appreciate it.

The overwhelming feeling I got (again, colored by my pre-existing prejudice) was that McCann was trying to hard.  The language was impressive, yes, but it wasn’t natural.  Nowhere was this more evident than in Tillie’s narrative, where we have a Bronx hooker with a love of Rumi who happens to use words like “schizoid” and “puncture” in normal discourse.  I’m not guaranteeing that cheap hookers like this don’t exist, but I’d bet money against it.  And if one does exist, it’s awfully convenient that she’s somehow wrapped up in McCann’s story.

It’s not that many of the things Tillie says aren’t profound, or well-written.  It’s just that they’re totally inauthentic; when I stop to wonder how a common whore could be talking like this I have been whiplashed right out of the narrative.  That’s one of the tricky things with 1st person (especially when you’re writing them all, as McCann does, with the same highly educated, intelligent voice).

Other issues with 1st person that arise in this book are: how exactly are the characters telling this story?  Is it a diary after the fact?  Is it just magical stream-of-consciousness?  And when is the narration taking place? (There were some jarring, contrived chronological shenanigans in Adela’s and Gloria’s narratives.)

Again: are the words and phrases pleasing to the eye and ear?  Yes.  Is it structurally sound, coherent, and believable?  Not so much.

This sense of trying to hard, or wanting to eat his cake and have it too, was my main complaint.  Other problems are offshoots, like many of the characters either ringing false or make unconvincing decisions.  After Tillie, Ciaran is probably the least believable character.  The day after his brother dies he decides it doesn’t really matter that the cute girl is responsible for his brother’s death.  And hey, why not take her home for a romp?  And why not then become a dotcom mogul?  Because, hey, evidence for that life choice was rampant in his 70 pages of narrative.

And how about the plethora of meaningful looks, glances, or exchanges between people (most notable in Gloria’s narrative)?  They rival Wallace Stegner for their epic stretching.  99% of people don’t interact with others so meaningfully.  Exchanges are casual, attention is fleeting, most people — real people — just don’t give a shit.  Inauthenticity is a killer for a novel like this.

In the end, in addition to the book’s apparent fakeness, all the stylistic flourishes seem pointless.  What is McCann trying to say here?  That many shitty things happen in life but we have to stick with it because there are some good and amazing things too?  I agree, but if that’s the only thing he’s trying to say then the book is shallow.  Is he trying to say we should care more about each other because we are all connected?  Again, I grant your point with a snore.

I think that’s about enough.  I didn’t hate the book as much as my accumulation of criticisms might indicate.  It’s just depressing that this is what passes for award-winning literature these days.  The writing is good, but not any better than that of those who have been doing it for awhile, people like Margaret Atwood, or Toni Morrison, or — if you wanna go further back — Raymond Chandler and John Fante (he’s the monarch of fiendishly good phrase-turning, check out my Ask the Dust review for some examples).

Maybe not so oddly, the book that Spin most closely reminded me of was Don DeLillo’s Underworld, another meandering, centerless anthology of various people’s lives, also taking place at least partly in NYC.  I’m happy to have enjoyed McCann more than DeLillo (see my review); Spin was both more accessible and more enjoyable.

But overall both books shared the following characteristics: witty, at-times poetic prose; an unwelcoming, disjointed structure; and an aloofness due to a lack of solid protagonists.  Also, they both left me cold at the end, wondering what in the great spinning world was the effing point.

For more info. . .


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