My friend Julia sent me Colum McCann’s Let The Great World Spin for my two weeks at home recovering from surgery. (Again – my friends are amazing! Have I said that lately?)
There are some books in the world where the words simply serve the story. The story is the thing to focus on and nothing else. Then, there are other books where the words themselves are an art form – as though the way they’re strung together could somehow be separated from their meanings and appreciated as high art all its own. Ian McEwan is a perfect example of this phenomenon I’ve only seen a few times.
And now – we have Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin with the same beauty.
It’s a book of slightly frayed, barely connected stories of several New Yorkers – a preacher, some prostitutes, an artist, a judge, a group of computer hackers routing calls to hear a first hand account of what’s going on, a group of mothers who have lost their sons, and the observers on the ground – in 1974, when Philippe Petit (unnamed in the book) steps out onto a wire between the World Trade Center towers and goes across eight times, a quarter mile in the air. (Have you seen Man on Wire? Go. Do it now.) The stories spin out and out and we see the world from so many varying perspectives that it’s hard to imagine they’ll all come crashing back together.
I think my favorite part of the book is how the characters don’t all suddenly look up into the sky and use it as a metaphor for how they’re living their lives. Because you know what?
People usually don’t cling to metaphor right from the start.
In that initial moment of hearing or knowing – it’s raw and real… You don’t have time to process it into anything beyond – Oh wow. This is happening right now. In a weird way, you still go on with your life, even if you’re fully aware that your life is never going to be the same.
On our first date, I was sitting across the table from Luke spinning a twirl of pasta onto my fork when I just knew.
One moment, I was on a date with a boy I very much liked. And the next moment was – I’m on my first date with the man I’m going to marry. I’m going to marry this man.
“We seldom know what we’re hearing when we hear something for the first time, but one thing is certain: we hear it as we will never hear it agin. We return to the moment to experience it, I suppose, but we can never really find it, only its memory, the faintest imprint of what it really was, what it meant.”
I just kept eating dinner with Luke, laughing and completely enjoying this moment. I knew – somewhere in the folds of my soul – that everything had just changed. That my life was somehow forever wrapped up with his. I loved it. But I didn’t understand what it meant. Not in the same way that I do now – seven years later. And I’m sure than when I’m 70 years old, I will understand that singular electric moment of – It’s him. – in a wholly different way than I do right now. But in that moment, I was at dinner. And so I took another bite. I wasn’t even old enough to drink yet. How could I possibly have understood? But there it was – inviting me to a new future.
Petit’s walk across the wire was just a thing in the moment.
Un-iconic. Beautiful. Free. Dangerous. Unknown. Unencumbered by everything we’d say about it in the future. It was fresh and alive, not wrapped up and painted over with everyone’s stories told time and time again, with the same words and inflections.
Like a first kiss before you know quite what a first kiss will mean. When you’re just kissing because today is now and I’d like very much to kiss you gets whispered and you kiss before you realize that this is the person you will remember the rest of your life, in this moment – branded on your soul forever.
Better make it a good one.
Now the man on a wire is a story. A wild, crazy, still-beautiful story. In fact – some of the most dizzyingly emotional moments of the novel are from the wire-walker himself as he’s up free in the clouds, feeling the harsh press of the wire between his toes, listening for oncoming changes in the wind as he lays on the wire, feeling utterly confident and yet fully aware that there are 110 stories between himself and the ground. If he falls, there will not be a survivor. And yet – there is no fear. Just the rush of knowing and doing exactly what you’ve been made to do. A reminder that performance art can occasionally bring people together – a whole city staring up at something beautiful and terrifying all at once.
But there were a million other stories happening in New York City at that same moment.
Stories that laid out the choice – Left or right. Life or death. Yes or no. There was joy and mourning and terror and a whole host of absolutely ordinary moments of drinking coffee or getting a sandwich. Of tying shoelaces and catching a cab or barely making it to work on time. Of flirting and kissing and taking risks with your heart that in the moment, make walking on a steel cable 110 stories in the air look like child’s play.
Because every moment is important to someone.
And those are the stories I’m always after…
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