Let the Great World Spin is a polyphonic novel, which means that it is written from multiple different perspectives, ultimately following a large cast of characters. Unconcerned with forging a linear storyline, the book loosely centers itself around Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk between the Twin Towers on August 7, 1974, though not all of the stories directly relate to this event. Rather, they often simply overlap with it, even if just for a moment, creating something of a mosaic held together by the unifying event. At the same time, some of the stories, however disparate, actually do link up with one another. This is often brought to bear through the use of several key characters whose stories frequently stand out and resurface in the many others. Corrigan, an Irishman who becomes a Catholic monk working in the Bronx, is an example of this. He occupies a great deal of the novel, whether directly or indirectly, and the majority of the stories engage with either his life working with and befriending prostitutes in the Bronx or with his eventual death in a car crash. The other narratives—the stories that have nothing to do with Corrigan—are held together by the tightrope walk. In this way, Let the Great World Spin is a deeply thematic novel that presents a wide range of characters and stories without forcing them into chronological or situational uniformity. As a result, the book mimics one of the beautiful facts of human existence, as stated by its epigraph: “All the lives we could live, all the people we will never know, never will be, they are everywhere. That is what the world is” (Aleksander Hemon, The Lazarus Project).
Ciaran and John Andrew Corrigan are brothers from Dublin, Ireland. Ciaran tells the story of their upbringing, detailing his brother’s—whom everyone just calls “Corrigan”—early interest in religion. Raised by a single mother, the two boys share a room, where Ciaran hears his little brother reciting prayers every night until morning. The prayers are fervent and often improvised, and it becomes clear that Corrigan has established a meaningful and unique relationship with religion, one that is entirely his own despite its foundation in Catholicism. Before long, Corrigan begins offering charity to the various drunks and homeless people of Dublin. He gives away his own blankets and eventually begins visiting the dingy pubs in order to get drunk, though he is still only twelve. After a while—and after his mother catches him and makes him promise to stop—it becomes clear that Corrigan drinks for a very particular and unique reason; he is not interested so much in getting drunk, but rather preoccupied with the idea that in drinking he can suffer through the common alcoholic’s pain, thereby taking on the burdens of the people around him. He sits in the pub and listens to the long difficult stories told by drunks and unfortunate souls thrown into poverty. Even as he slowly stops drinking with them, he continues frequenting the local spots, thinking himself helpful in a spiritual way. Later, when the boys’ mother dies, their father appears in the hospital. Corrigan refuses to embrace him, angry that he abandoned the family. The night before their mother’s funeral, Corrigan gives away a closet-full of his father’s old suits to Dublin’s homeless people.
After selling the house, Corrigan begins studying the teachings of Saint Francis of Assisi, a thirteenth-century Italian friar and preacher. As he ages he becomes more and more devoted to religion, and upon turning nineteen, Corrigan attends religious school at Emo College, where he pours himself into theological study. Before finishing, however, he moves to Brussels and joins a group of monks, referred to as the Order, and vows to live a life of chastity, poverty, and obedience. This eventually leads him to the Bronx in New York City, where the Order assigns him to live as something like a missionary.
Not long thereafter, Ciaran also decides to emigrate to America after the Northern Ireland Conflict moves south and violence enters Dublin. He moves into Corrigan’s very small apartment in the heart of government housing projects in the Bronx, where prostitution, drug abuse, and violence is seemingly ever-present. Corrigan, he finds, has established close relationships with a number of prostitutes, especially a woman named Tillie and her teenage daughter Jazzlyn (a mother herself). The women stream in and out of his apartment in order to use the bathroom between clients; much to Ciaran’s dismay, Corrigan leaves the door unlocked so that the women can easily access the facilities. This lenience has not made him popular with the community’s pimps, and he is often beaten up or threatened. During the day Corrigan drives a van full of elderly people to and from their nursing home, allowing them some recreational time outside the establishment. In doing so, he meets Adelita, a nurse at the home who, to his own horror, he falls in love with. They start a tentative but close romantic relationship as Corrigan struggles with his fidelity to God and his original vows of celibacy.
One day while the prostitutes are working underneath the expressway there is a large police sting in which the women are rounded up and taken to jail. Tillie and Jazzlyn, it turns out, have a separate outstanding warrant for theft and are thus held longer than normal. Incensed, Corrigan drives his van downtown to the courthouse to advocate for them. Eventually Jazzlyn is released, but on the drive home she and Corrigan are rear-ended on FDR, the parkway leading to the Bronx. Jazzlyn is killed when she is jettisoned through the windshield; Corrigan is rushed to the hospital, where he soon dies in the company of Adelita and Ciaran.
At this point, Let the Great World Spin pivots to focus on a group of women who meet frequently as a support group, as they are all mourning the loss of their sons to the Vietnam War. Claire, a wealthy woman living on the Upper East Side, hosts them in her extravagant apartment for the first time. She is worried about the impression her wealth will have on the rest of the group; one of the previous meetings was, after all, at a woman named Gloria’s apartment in the Bronx, in the same government housing project where Corrigan lived. However, the women dwell on the markers of Claire’s wealth as they usher themselves into her apartment because one of them, Marcia, is in the middle of telling a story about seeing the tightrope walker. On the ferry into Manhattan from Staten Island she spotted him, and now the conversation overtakes the meeting, distracting everyone from the immediate particulars of their surroundings. Eventually this bothers Claire because she isn’t given the chance to tell the women about her son Joshua, which is one of the purposes of their visit. Soon enough the conversation turns toward Joshua, though, and Claire is able to show them his room.
Back on the FDR, we find ourselves inside Lara Liveman’s head as she relives riding in the passenger seat of the car that hit Corrigan’s van. She relates the crash: she and her husband, Blaine, are on their way out of the city after several days of intense partying. Smoking marijuana as he drives, Blaine clips the backside of Corrigan’s van. They remain unharmed as the van spins out of control. They drive on for a moment before stopping up ahead to survey the crash from afar. Afraid of the consequences, they flee, although Lara has major misgivings and cannot seem to banish the image of Corrigan’s facial expression during the crash from her head. Blaine, on the other hand, is confident that it was not his fault, and urges Lara to move on. This proves impossible, ultimately driving Lara back to the city several days later, where she goes to the hospital in search of information about the car crash. Thinking she is Corrigan’s relative, a hospital worker gives her his possessions, including his license. She then finds herself at his apartment in the Bronx, claiming that she’s come from the hospital to return Corrigan’s belongings. She meets Ciaran as he is about to leave to attend Jazzlyn’s funeral. She accompanies him and, afterward, Ciaran finds out that Lara was in the car that took his brother’s life. Confused and grief-stricken, they go to a bar together.
In the wake of Jazzlyn’s death, Tillie worries over her grandchildren who have been suddenly orphaned. Because she took complete blame for the robbery she and Jazzlyn committed—a plea that got Jazzlyn out of jail and, by chance, sent her on the path toward her death—Tillie is sentenced to eight months in prison. She desperately wants to know who is caring for her granddaughters, wanting them to come visit her. In self-defense she brutally injures another inmate, an action that adds eighteen months to her sentence. She stops eating, becomes increasingly depressed, and decides that she will hang herself from a pipe in the bathrooms. Some days before she does this, though, her grandchildren are brought in by their new caretaker to visit her. Tillie vaguely recognizes the caretaker as someone from the Bronx. Tillie is briefly happy, but when the visitation session comes to an abrupt end, she feels even more desperate than before. Reflecting on her wrongs and the great many injustices in her life, she says goodbye to the world, resolving once and for all to end her stay on earth.
Once again, Let the Great World Spin returns to the fateful day of August 7, 1974, the day that Corrigan and Jazzlyn died and Philippe Petit walked the tightrope between the Twin Towers. This time we are afforded the perspective of Claire’s husband, Judge Soderberg, as he sentences Tillie and then immediately after hears Petit’s case. This brings multiple narratives together, vicariously connecting Claire’s story with Tillie’s—and therefore Corrigan’s and Jazzlyn’s, too—and, of course, finally bringing these lives into close contact with Philippe Petit.
Beyond these principle events, the book is also pervaded by small set pieces in which Petit’s walk—or his preparation for it—briefly takes center stage. McCann also weaves his way through various backstories and often doubles back on the same moment in order to provide a different perspective. In the book’s last section, for example, Corrigan’s lover, Adelita, reminisces about the morning after he first spent the night at her house. Another chapter in this section takes us through Gloria’s upbringing in the South and what led her to New York City; we also return to Claire’s apartment—this time from Gloria’s perspective—to witness the tense moments in which Claire begs Gloria to stay with her after the other women leave, offering to pay her and thereby making an unfortunate implication about how she views their friendship in terms of race. In the end, Claire accompanies Gloria to the Bronx just as Tillie’s grandchildren (Jazzlyn’s children) are being taken away by social services; in a moment of clarity, Gloria declares that she will adopt the two little girls. The novel concludes by moving forward in time to when Jaslyn—one of the two little girls adopted by Gloria—is an adult visiting New York. Gloria has passed away, and Jaslyn is visiting Claire—who became Gloria’s lifelong friend—on her deathbed. She keeps a photograph of Petit on the high wire. She looks at it often, slipping it from the tissue paper it’s wrapped in and thinking about the fact that such an act of beauty happened on the same day her mother died.