For the first volume of "Are You Seth?" for 2010, I have chosen the last book I read in 2009 - Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin, winner of the 2009 National Book Award & a book that completely surprised me in it's brilliance and simple elegance.
I honestly had not noticed Let the Great World Spin much before it won the National Book Award. It had an interesting cover - a drawing of NYC by artist Matteo Pericolli - but ended up lost in the shuffle on the hardback tables at Warwick's. After the award, it was rushed to paperback by Random House, complete with a shiny gold "award winner" label & was given prominent display space in the front of the store. But it's one of those paperbacks that annoyingly does not have any plot synopsis on it's cover, so I pretty much ignored it, since I had no idea what it was about. Then I somehow stumbled across the old New York Times book review from August and my eyes were finally opened.
Those that know me - or have heard me blathering in Warwick's or have read my reviews in various places - know that I love novels with multi-layered, labyrinthine structures that try to engage the reader by tripping them up when they think things are safe and normal. I want to be challenged when I read fiction - the books that have a playful structure are always the ones that stick with me, long after I've closed their covers. Colum McCann has created just such a novel, with just such a structure, but in such a simple, subtle way, as to not confuse or alienate the reader - hence the massive award, I suppose. Jonathan Mahler said it best in his NYT book review, that this book "will sneak up on you", beginning "slowly and quietly on the other side of the ocean".
The story drifts easily between multiple narrators & differing storylines - all set somewhere around the day in 1974 when Philippe Petit walked his tightrope between the Twin Towers - while the characters float in and out of each others sections, showing the reader how easily all of our lives can be connected.
Ciaran & John Corrigan are brothers from Dublin, making their way on the mean streets of New York. John - "Corrigan" to everyone who knows him, even his brother - is a priest who forgoes all personal pleasures & ammenities in an attempt to make the lives of his local cadre of prostitutes slightly better. Claire Soderberg is the lonely Park Avenue wife of a city judge who's mourning the loss of her son in Vietnam through a women-only support group. She finds an unusual bond with Gloria, a middle-aged black woman whose three sons were killed in the same war. Lara is a recovering addict & a trendy Greenwich Village artist struggling with her identity in the wake of several drug-fueled years. Corrigan's van is hit on the FDR by Lara & her boyfriend, killing Corrigan's passenger, Jazzlyn. Jazzlyn's prostitute mother, Tillie, is sent to prison by Claire's husband, the Honorable Judge Soderberg, whose next case happens to be that against the tightrope walker, just brought to earth. Lara, crippled by guilt, seeks out Ciaran for reasons she's unsure of. Gloria, seeking a new meaning to her life, ultimately adopts Jazzlyn's two daughters, one of which seeks answers from Ciaran later in life.
All plots within are circular, wrapping around and through each other to create a magnificent, beautifully told tale of, well, life as a human being. It's at times a love letter to the city of New York and its multitudes, a polemic on the duplicitous nature of humanity, and an ode to the fallen Towers, in their innocent prime in '74. But more than anything, it is a story about people and how you just never know how your actions, thoughts, and prejudices affect those you come in contact with every single day. So, hang up that cell phone, look one another in the eye, and remember what our common bonds really are, because you never know who you might be talking to and how integral to your own life they just might be.