Saturday, May 21, 2011
Let the Great World Spin
Words exist to communicate. They carry an idea from one brain to another. Sometimes they are not very good at their job. For example, sometimes we are left guessing just exactly what someone meant when they said, “We all know what the problem is here.”
But other times words are incredibly efficient—for example, when someone yells “Fire!” and everyone runs out of the building. In this particular instance, that one word carries a lot of information. It manages to say, “To all of you who can hear me right now, there is a fire in this structure. It is a dangerous thing. If you can hear me you should get out of this structure as quickly as you can. You should also tell others of this danger.” As a ratio of meaning to words, “Fire!” packs quite a wallop.
On the train on the way to Philadelphia today I finished reading Colum McCann’s kick-in-the-stomach collection of interconnected short stories called Let the Great World Spin. It got me thinking about words and their efficiency. Edgar Allen Poe had a theory about short stories. He believed that a short story should be about one precise feeling or effect and every word in the story should contribute to that effect. Even the most lyrical and beautiful of sentences should be cut if it got in the way of the feeling the author hoped to create in the reader’s soul.
Somehow, in his 349-page collection of eleven stories centered on the true-life walk of Philippe Petit from one of the World Trade Center towers to the other on an August morning in 1974, Colum McCann manages the literary equivalent of yelling “Fire!” Taken as a whole, the stories of the twelve characters in Let the Great World Spin manage to convey the full range of what it means to be a thinking, feeling human in the world. This book is miraculous.
It is one of the most efficient books I have ever read. The meaning-to-word ratio is huge. Some of my favorite sentences are below:
“No shame in saying that I felt a loneliness drifting through me. Funny how it was, everyone perched in their own little world, with the deep need to talk, each person with their own tale, beginning in some strange middle point, then trying so hard to tell it all, to have it all make sense, logical and final.”
“I guess this is what marriage is, or was, or could be. You drop the mask. You allow the fatigue in. You lean across and kiss the years because they’re the things that matter.”
“She likes the people with the endurance to tolerate the drudge, the ones who know that pain is a requirement, not a curse.”
“The only thing worth grieving over, she said, was that sometimes there was more beauty in this life than the world could bear.”
And sometimes more pain. And somehow Colum McCann has taken both—as well as everything in between—and put it to just the right words to say it all. And more.
“The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough.”