When my Great American Books professor told us in the first day of class that we would be reading no book more than five years old, I was a little disappointed, but hoped to discover something exciting and new. I did, but not in the way I expected.
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann is a book that is quickly gaining a reputation as a great novel. It won the Book of the Year award and is being lauded by modern English scholars as a great novel. My English professor (who I do like, by the way) seems to never run out of praise for the book. So I thought it might be interesting to check out. What I found was a grim reminder that our culture’s definition of quality is not only independent of moral compass, but seems to be defined by the absence of one.
The novel was written in 2008 but takes place in 1974 New York City. It starts with several characters in all sorts of different circumstances. It has so many characters, in fact, that by the fourth chapter or so you start to get motion sickness, and may suspect your mind is contracting MPD. Among these characters is a monk who hangs out with prostitutes, a married couple, both painters, high-strung on drugs, and a young boy who wishes he was a graffiti artist.
The novel surrounds two events that attempt to tie all of these characters together, one of them historical. The historical event is when a man, called “The Walker” by McCann, snuck into the Empire State Building and walked (and danced and skipped and ran) on a cable between the Twin Towers with nothing below him to break his fall. The second is when the very unmonkish monk Corrigan is killed in a car crash, along with one of the prostitutes he had befriended.
It would be nearly impossible, not to mention unbearably boring, to analyze every character; by the time all is said and done there are 11 or 12 protagonists. However, there are three major “sets” of characters that reveal things, particularly disturbing things, about the book’s worldview.
Let’s start with Corrigan. Corrigan is a religious man; after all, he is a monk or priest of sorts. However, he is far from traditional. The opening pages of the book describe him in his childhood being drawn to the drunks. He became involved in their drunkenness himself, but eventually stopped. He still hung out with them, however. The book explicitly states that it was “not his style” to criticize them. He did, however, talk about how Jesus went to the lowest of the low. He wants all of Jesus’ lowliness without any of his holiness. The same concept comes into play when he befriends prostitutes in The Bronx. He doesn’t criticize what they are doing. As a matter of fact, he offers their apartment as a place for them to wash up, although he draws the line when they try to shoot up in his apartment. There’s gotta be a line somewhere, right? His God is a particularly disturbing one, one that is full of tests and trials but suspiciously devoid any sort of righteousness or holiness.
At the end of the day, his religion is simply a Jesus mask on top of a typical ‘70s hippie move for Corrigan to find himself. Even that is abandoned when he falls in love with Adelita. His vows bind him to celibacy, so he has a dilemma on his hands. That concept of celibacy among God’s servants is not a Biblical one, so that wouldn’t have been as much of a problem in regards to the Christian worldview…except he has sex with her, rather than going to the more Biblical view of relationships. McCann’s portrayal of that gives only a hint of his guilt. Instead he is happy. Truly, truly happy. He may as well have had a sign that said “If you want to be happy, abandon God and have sex!”
Blaine and Lara are even more messed up. They’re a married couple, both painters, but their relationship couldn’t be more troubling. If you find one that is more so, I don’t want to know about it. Lara’s chapter gives a descriptive look at their previous lifestyle full of drugs, sex parties, and success. They have clean for nearly a year, but that changes in a jiffy around the time of the accident, the same one that killed Corrigan. It turns into a hit and run; Blaine wants to leave, Lara forces him to go back, but then says to leave herself. They go right back to the drugs and Lara tracks down the accident victims because of her conscience. Ironically, it is her conscience that then leads her to Corrigan’s brother Ciaran, who she begins cheating on her husband with. The one with a conscience is cheating on her husband. Let me say that again. The one with a conscience is cheating on her husband. How depraved can this possibly get?
Then there’s Solomon and Claire, possibly the only characters with redeeming moral values. They have a son who died in the Vietnam War and we see Claire as part of a support group to help deal with her grief. Her husband Solomon, a very good husband as a matter of fact, is a New York judge. Both of them are portrayed as good, decent people. They are wealthy, but are not snobbish as a result. As I was reading, I was finally able to come to a point that I could say “Hey, I really like these guys.” And yet, Solomon is the closest thing the book has to a villain. Corrigan shows up in his courtroom with Jazzlyn (the prostitute who died with him in the car crash) and Tillie (Jazzlyn’s mother, also a prostitute). Before this scene, there was a chapter devoted to Tillie, showing her complexity and sorrow for the path she had led her daughter down. Then we see Solomon in this chapter as a harsh and unnecessarily cruel judge, as well as jumping to conclusions and assuming Corrigan is a pimp. The moral one turns out to be the bad guy. As readers, we are set up to dislike one of the only truly moral characters in the story.
It all is leading to how one character came to be: one of Jazzlyn’s daughters, who is taken in by one of the women in Claire’s support group. The ending is not a bad one, but it is overshadowed by all of the muck and grime that led up to the ending. The end does not justify the means, especially such a lackluster one, devoid of any real redeeming qualities.
The book’s main message is not an inherently bad one. It’s trying to say that people in bad life circumstances who do bad things are complicated and not inherently evil; that good guys and bad guys are not in black and white. What was sacrificed in the process, however, was the notion that there even is a good or bad; that right and wrong are more than just social constructs. It is beautifully written but lethal in its implications. We have grown to appreciate realism in place of morality; indeed, immorality is even preferable to neutrality. How beautiful is the story that does not dare to preach or make a judgment on our lives.
God help us all.