Philippe Petit's mesmerizing high-ware walk across the Twin Towers has served as a source of inspiration for many modern creative works. In "Let The Great World Spin," McCann uses it as a framing device for an expansive story that follows the lives of many different characters that are only loosely related with each other. After following two brothers who have left Ireland to establish new lives for themselves in a sketchier part of 1970's New York, the narrative takes a somewhat jarring leap to a new set of characters, proceeding to hop from story to story, with the characters' reactions to Petit's stunt serving as the one obvious through line.
Now that I'm roughly two thirds of the way through this book, this is the most succinct way in which I would think to describe it: a diverse cast of characters struggling to feel free and fulfilled while living mostly terrible lives in a brutal environment. With its focus on prostitution, car crashes, robberies, drugs, and squalid living conditions, this novel does not paint a flattering portrait of New York. Even the characters that are relatively well off, like a couple living in an uptown penthouse, are traumatized by the loss of their son in the Vietnam War. If only each one of them could manage to rise above whatever it is that makes them feel trapped and effortlessly walk among the clouds... metaphorically, of course. Metaphors are great.
The overall effect of this snowballing suffering is a bit draining while not feeling particularly insightful. Despite this, I remained fairly engaged while reading the book, as McCann's ability to create so many interesting characters with distinct voices is impressive. With a priest that seems at his happiest when he's living among those that are the on the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, a woman whose life plays out as a perpetual drug bender among New York's trendy club hoppers, a young photographer who is obsessed with subway tunnel graffiti, and more, this book develops a broad perspective and prevents any particular story from overstaying its welcome. McCann also varies up his writing style depending on the subject of a given chapter. General descriptions of the city reacting to the wire-walk include breathless run-on sentences, characters with deteriorating mental states have paragraphs that erratically splice together different ideas, and so on.
I'm not sure if I would readily recommend this book to friends. That isn't to say that the book needs my recommendation, what with all them there fancy critical awards and such like. It certainly does a lot of interesting things, too. I just can't say that it was entertaining, and it didn't make me consider anything in a new light like the best works of fiction can.