“Let the Great World Spin” by Colum McCann, won the 2009 National Book Award. I don’t know why; no clue; I’m flabergasted.
McCann is a good writer, good sentences and images and characters. This is not a good book. He’s trying too hard, I think, to make an impression on the present by using incidents from the past. His method makes for un-credible concidences, forced dialogue, and a cast of characters chosen just precisely to get the United Colors of Benetton feel for NYC during the 1974 season in which the famous wire-walker, Philippe Petit, walks from one World Trade Center tower to its twin.
This is all supposed to, I’ve gathered from interviews with the author, strike a comparison between those days and today (or, precisely, to Sept 11, 2001 in NYC). Meaning, there is no striking difference: people still live, eat, die, shit, fuck, cry, do crimes, make mistakes, and generally “spin” around in their isolated world as the Earth spins on its axis. This could be profound, but not as McCann has done it.
Case in point: a group of early-day hackers (a word used in this 1974 book but not invented as such until 1983) sit in Palo Alto, CA, phoning up pay phones in lower Manhattan, looking for someone who can see the wire walkers. They get several people on the phone, all of whom seem to have hearing problems (What? Who? Where are you calling from?) or don’t wish to communicate (Did he fall? Who? The wire walker? The wire walker?? Yes, man, the walker? Oh, him! … No, not yet. Are you sure? Am I what? Are you SURE? Ah, yeah, I can see him.) Reading such dialogue reminds me of the printed material from Nixon’s secret tapes. Absolute boredom.
Okay, there’re ways to capture the verisimilitude of human life, but dipping your reader in mud is not the best way.
And, finally, a story such as this becomes somehow a morality play because it needs to make that past-present connection, where moralizing is more key than anything else. There’s a bit of a problem here, too: the 9/11 attacks are themselves in the past, a distant past vis-a-vis most people’s attention spans.
So, the book wins the USA’s 2nd biggest literary award. The front matter lists no less than 20 quoted reviews. I’m at a loss to see what they are looking at that I’m not seeing. Even if I weren’t a writer, I would be setting this book aside. It just doesn’t work, and for the over-riding reason that it is sentimental. The cardinal sin for any book.