Ode to New York

Posted: February 28, 2010 in 21st century life, Book review
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What can I say about a book that has already been widely acclaimed—that, in fact, has already won the 2009 National Book Award in fiction—that hasn’t already been proclaimed from the rooftops?

The book I’m talking about is Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann. I picked it up based on its title and cover design (yes, you sometimes can judge a book by its cover)—oh, and the fact that it was included in the top-10 lists of quite a few reviewers.

In case you haven’t read it, the novel centers on an actual event: the August 7, 1974 tightrope walk by Philippe Petit, who strung a cable between the two towers of the World Trade Center and captivated New York City with his aerial skills that summer morning. That tightrope walk is the veritable pivot point of the novel (as is the World Trade Center, and the reader’s knowledge of its fate colors the story), around which revolve the lives of the 7 million or so people who inhabited the city at the time. McCann zooms in on a dozen of those lives. In what Frank McCourt rightly called “a heartbreaking symphony of a novel,” McCann renders the salient details of each life so tenderly and vividly that you end up convinced they originated with you—that there is no middleman (McCann) between you and the characters.

Like several of the characters, I am a transplant to the city, having lived here almost three decades now. And by the time I picked up the book, I must confess, I had already decided to move away to a quieter life someplace else. I was—what’s the word?—jaded. But the novel reminded me why I came to the Big Apple and why I have stayed as long as I have. In McCann’s own words: “It had never occurred to me before but everything in New York is built upon another thing, nothing is entirely by itself, each thing as strange as the last, and connected.”

Here’s a larger piece of the portrait McCann paints of the great city:

The theater began shortly after lunch. His fellow judges and court officers and reporters and even the stenographers were already talking about it as if it were another of those things that just happened in the city. One of those out-of-the-ordinary days that made sense of the slew of ordinary days. New York had a way of doing that. Every now and then the city shook its soul out. It assailed you with an image, or a day, or a crime, or a terror, or a beauty so difficult to wrap your mind around that you had to shake your head in disbelief.

He had a theory about it. It happened, and re-happened, because it was a city uninterested in history. Strange things occurred precisely because there was no necessary regard for the past. The city lived in a sort of everyday present. It had no need to believe in itself as a London, or an Athens, or even a signifier of the New World, like a Sydney, or a Los Angeles. No, the city couldn’t care less about where it stood. He had seen a T-shirt once that said: NEW YORK FUCKIN’ CITY. As if it were the only place that ever existed and the only one that ever would.

New York kept going forward precisely because it didn’t give a good goddamn about what it had left behind. It was like the city that Lot left, and it would dissolve if it ever began looking backward over its own shoulder.

Yesterday, as I shoveled my car out from under two feet of heavy snow, having just finished the novel, I experienced residual effects. Every person who drove or walked past seemed larger than life. I found myself looking directly into their gaze, as though I suddenly recognized them after a long period of amnesia, and realized I was connected to them, and they to me. Six degrees of separation, if you will. Or two or one. Even the snow seemed to shine with a special intensity. In short, I found that I was inhabiting my life again—the present, city life—rather than the future.

McCann is not just a fiction writer—he’s a poet, too. So much of the language transcends the prosaic. Some paragraphs are masterpieces in and of themselves:

Little else to distract attention from the evening, just a clock, in a time not too distant from the present time, yet a time not too distant from the past, the unaccountable unfolding of consequence into tomorrow’s time, the simple things, the grain of bedwood alive in light, the slight argument of dark still left in the old woman’s hair….

Possibly the greatest compliment I could pay this book is that it reminded me of the necessity and transformative power of literature, and made me want to work at it myself. Not that I could come close to rivaling this beautiful cacophony. Only that my life will be fuller if I try.


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