Going to Church With the Irish, Jamming, 05/09/2016

A couple of weeks ago, I finished reading a book by Colum McCann, one of Ireland’s most critically acclaimed living writers. Quite appropriately for Let the Great World Spin, I found it accidentally. 

Around Canada Day, I saw a couple of books that had been left behind on top of a ledge in my building’s side porch. The next day, they were still there, so that was enough time to presume the original owners didn’t want them. So they’re mine now.

McCann’s seemed like the most interesting book, so I gave that a go first. It’s a touching story, told in a very engaging style. I'll describe that style using a very long, pretentious phrase, then break it down into what it actually means.

First-person polyphonic coincidental juxtaposition.

Philippe Petit about to start tightrope walking between
the World Trade Center towers.
The coincidence. Let the Great World Spin tells the story of two concurrent events – Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk between the World Trade Center towers on 7 August 1974, and a shattering tragedy involving a 19 year old prostitute and her friend Corrigan, an Irish monk experiencing a peculiarly intense period of his lifelong crisis of faith.

The juxtaposition. Petit’s walk is a remarkable and famous historical event. McCann’s book was written in 2009, and included an epilogue taking place in 2006. To a 21st century reader, even this explicit acknowledgement is more than we need to feel how the brutal destruction of the towers haunts the narrative.

Most of the actual storytelling in Let the Great World Spin describes the life of two unremarkable prostitutes – a mother and daughter – and the people involved in the fatal accident. Few lives could be as pathetic and abject as these.

First-person polyphonic. The first chapter, one of the longest, is the story of the monk, told by his older brother. In his voice, we see most of the material circumstances of his brother’s and the prostitutes’ lives, told as a fairly straightforward story. He moves to New York from Ireland, moves into his brother’s apartment in the Bronx, and gets to know everyone. 

Then we cycle through other characters’ perspectives. A wealthy WASP woman having a meeting with her support group of other mothers – from a wide range of social, racial, and economic backgrounds – who’ve lost children to the Vietnam war. Her friend in the support group Gloria, the group’s only black member. 

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Philippe Petit in The Walk.
Her husband, a Jewish circuit judge who sentences the mother prostitute on a robbery charge and delivers Petit’s comically honorific sentence of a $1 fine and a free performance in a city park. That older prostitute herself as she sits in prison regretting pretty much everything she's done in her entire life. The failing, cocaine-addicted artist who meets the monk’s brother after the day of Petit’s walk. The monk’s lover, a co-worker at a seniors’ home.

There are three short chapters from the perspective of Petit himself. Some short chapters from people who don’t interact with the prostitute’s story at all. A teenage phreaker tapping into pay phones talking to people at the site of the walk. The freelance photographer who takes one of the iconic shots of the walk.

That's probably the greatest strength of the book as far as technique goes – he’s spot on with the cadences and character of so many different voices. Irish Catholics with a complicated relationship to their faith – yeah, of course he can write one of those.

But black New Yorker street prostitutes? Hispanic teenage photographers? Silicon Valley geeks who call pay phones in Times Square for fun? I’m especially impressed that he can express such convincing voices for the interior monologues of women – that’s a task where I’ve seen so many male writers fall on their faces. 

There are limits to polyphony as well, and I’m glad McCann stays within them. I don’t think polyphony can construct a coherent narrative if voices change from frequently than chapter-by-chapter or section-by-section. Any faster than that – among paragraphs, sentence to sentence, or even within a single sentence – and the result is a maelstrom.

Let the Great World Spin author Colum McCann.
More poem than narrative. And very difficult to do well. I’d say the only one who really did – at least among those I’ve read – was Finnegans Wake

Yes, I have to be one of those people who mentions James Joyce in any discussion of Irish literature. Because he and McCann both deal with a theme that resonates quite strongly with me – an exploration of how Catholicism shapes a subjectivity.

I’m not a Christian – I consider myself more aligned to Judaism today than ever. But I grew up in a very Catholic country, Newfoundland. I count former priests and nuns among my friends and family. And there’s a wonderful idea in the Catholic philosophical and moral tradition that McCann’s book explores.

The most abject and spat-upon of people in just as holy in the eyes of God as the most historically significant and fantastic because they all contribute to building the same complex and beautiful world that is God’s unfolding creation.

That's why the remarkable and inspiring achievement of Philippe Petit is juxtaposed with the sordid and filthy lives of these prostitutes. Unfolding their narratives together shows the equivalent dignity of both.

That's a fundamentally democratic idea, profoundly democratic too, since the notion applies to ordinary life and the divine simultaneously. 

If Irish literature is going to have a popular definition, I’d prefer that its Catholicism grapple with themes that lend dignity to humanity. If only to demonstrate that we deserve it.

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