Let the Great World Spin: Plato on a Highwire


If I was going to take a Platonistic view of the world and all its happenings then I would say that there exists something more grand than any one person or group of people. Some people operate in service of this, be it God or just the quest for enlightenment or happiness. Regardless, I would say there is something above and beyond us, something that we, even in our best moments, only manage to do a poor imitation of rather than directly embody. Meanwhile, when we’re not performing merely the idea of whatever is above and beyond, we’re caught – stuck – trudging through the mud of existence. The problem, the existential problem, appears when we confuse the mud with pointlessness, pretending that the trek is a means to an end rather than an end in itself (minding that the answer to whether or not that last statement is true is utterly pointless). My favorite philosophers and novelists are the ones that bring out the beauty in the mud. They don’t wipe away the mud to reveal the shine underneath; – in fact they sometimes wipe it away only to reveal there was only more mud below – they show us that the mud was beautiful and worth digging your hands into all along.

Colum McCann proves himself to be a novelist of this type with Let the Great World Spin, a novel that is more or less six degrees of separation embodied, but with more empathy and less simplistic derivation than other movies or novels takes on the subject. The novel has two portions, the first of which being Philippe Petit’s famous tightrope walk between the world trade centers in 1974. This serves as the novel’s self-contained mythical heroes journey, the thing everyone else strives for. Petit is never named, allowing him to remain a distant character despite the fact that he really looms over the novel as this incredibly inspiring figure that functions to reveal the morality of every other character. With each new character we almost need to know nothing more than the answer to this question: Do they want the tightrope walker to fall? Based upon their answer to that question, and each character does have an answer, we learn more than any of them could ever say. It is with the answer to that question that we learn the heroes and villains of the world disguised a regular people.

Thus, while Petit functions as the sort of Nietzschean Ubermensch we all strive to be, the meat of Let the Great World Spin, what makes the novel so powerful and bewilderingly enjoyable in its ability to capture the everydayness of love and sorrow and everything it means to be human are the characters that McCann has developed that feel so real and meaningful. It is in this way that the book, while easily viewed from the Platonistic standpoint above, reveals itself to be far more interested in valuing what Plato did not: People, not ideas. There is nothing simple about a single character in the novel, from the Irish Priest struggling with celibacy in a loving relationship to the prostitute who battles jail time and depression by seeing the light at the end of the tunnel in the form of her grandchildren. To write any of them off as simplistic or easily quantifiable or explainable is to have deeply misunderstood the novel. McCann does not accomplish this through long-winded descriptions of characters’ thoughts or shallow hand-me downs that explain the point of what it is that the reader is reading. It is accomplished instead through the sheer delight that is Let the Great World Spin‘s dialogue.

I cannot remember a novel in which the dialogue felt more natural, more real, more true than Let the Great World Spin. It is as if McCann was copying real conversations from audiotapes, managing to let his reader know all the pauses and general cadence that happens between every person. Whether the characters have known each other for fifty years or fifty seconds, McCann’s ability to portray the full extent of each relationship in every line of dialogue is simply astounding. It is the rarest form of writing and fully deserving of all the recognition it has gotten.

If the mission of truly great writing is not only to tell great stories, but to create characters more alive and more real than flesh and blood can allow, then Colum McCann has succeeded in a such a profound way that its difficult to imagine him ever topping it. Let the Great World Spin is not necessarily my favorite novel, but it is one I have found remarkable in nearly every aspect. I can’t say that I’ll even include it on my top ten favorite books of the year, but yet when someone asks me for a novel that understands people and paints them completely, I will be a liar if I don’t say Let the Great World Spin.

Recommended to: This novel will seem dry to many people. It has essentially no plot, but is driven fully by characters. It is not a beach read. I would call it a Winter read, the sort of novel you read while it is snowing and it seems perpetually dusk.

Avoid as if it’s Ignatius Reilly on the street: If you can’t read a book that isn’t plot heavy then this isn’t for you, nor is it for beginners of literary fiction. It’s brilliant, but in such a subtle manner that reading it too early in life may leave an unnecessary permanent bad taste in your mouth.


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