The idea of simultaneity is important to the construction of Let the Great World Spin. Once again, we can look to the novel’s epigraph for guidance: “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.” Within this is the idea that the world is made up of a great many lives existing all at once, and there is a sense of disappointment at the fact that “we will never know” all of these stories or people. This is the general view that informs Let the Great World Spin’s structure: even if they don’t directly correlate to one another, the protagonists’ stories all overlap, producing a kind of narrative harmony without necessarily fully connecting. What this novel then allows us to do as readers is to experience “all the lives we could live, all the people we will never know, never will be”; as onlookers to a book with many disparate narratives, we are the only ones afforded the privilege of fully experiencing the stories that happen one on top of the other at the same time.
Of course, not all of the stories in Let the Great World Spin happen at the exact same time, though. (Jaslyn’s story as an adult, for example, takes place roughly thirty years after her mother has died.) As such, the actual passage of time takes on a certain importance. But even those stories that seem to exist outside of the book’s primary slice of life are ultimately tied into the narrative by the tightrope walk, an event that epitomizes the idea of simultaneity because of the way the characters engage with it. To illustrate this we can take Jaslyn’s relationship with the walk as an example. She is very connected to a picture of Petit on the tightrope because it links her to her mother: “The photo was taken on the same day her mother died—it was one of the reasons she was attracted to it in the first place: the sheer fact that such beauty had occurred at the same time.” Although time has put her at a remove, Jaslyn remains vicariously connected to her mother through the tightrope walk.
The passage of time in Let the Great World Spin is imbued with the idea that “the city lived in a sort of everyday present.” In this “everyday present” the characters’ lives overlap, and it is the human layering—the convergence of relationships and experiences—that forge a history that they are able to draw upon. In short, what’s held up as important is not the fact that life goes on—that time passes—but rather that relationships and experiences accumulate over time, creating a vast mosaic of humanity.
Furthermore, the passage of time is also notable in the emergence of technology in Let the Great World Spin. The 1960s and ’70s saw the advent of the ARPANET—an early computer network used for digital communications—which ushered in a new era and method of correspondence. The military made use of such methods in Vietnam (as exemplified in “Miró, Miró, on the Wall” and Joshua’s position in the war) while a computer subculture blossomed in America (exemplified by the group of hackers in “Etherwest”). Suddenly people found themselves able to communicate with one another using new technology, a fact that is in keeping with the book’s preoccupation with human connection and its interest in marking the advancement of time.
Although it is not blatantly evident, Let the Great World Spin is also in many ways a response to the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11th, 2001. Rather than examining the actual moment of catastrophe, though, McCann travels back to a different time, engaging with New York City’s history in a way that reframes the present. The Towers undoubtedly loom large in the consciousness of Americans in the early 21st-century, and just as the tightrope walk in Let the Great World Spin factors into many characters’ lives, the destruction of the Twin Towers directly or indirectly influences Americans who were alive on September 11th, 2001. This sentiment is very much present throughout the book, and the current absence of the towers is strongly felt; when reading Let the Great World Spin it seems unimaginably long ago that the Towers still stood.
Simultaneity & Time ThemeTracker
Simultaneity & Time Quotes in Let the Great World Spin
Those who saw him hushed. On Church Street. Liberty. Cortlandt. West Street. Fulton. Vesey. It was a silence that heard itself, awful and beautiful.
It was the dilemma of the watchers: they didn’t want to wait around for nothing at all, some idiot standing on the precipice of the towers, but they didn’t want to miss the moment either, if he slipped, or got arrested, or dove, arms stretched.
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 again. 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.
We have all heard of these things before. The love letter arriving as the teacup falls. The guitar striking up as the last breath sounds out. I don’t attribute it to God or to sentiment. Perhaps it’s chance. Or perhaps chance is just another way to try to convince ourselves that we are valuable.
Yet the plain fact of the matter is that it happened and there was nothing we could do to stop it…
Joshua liked the Beatles, used to listen to them in his room, you could hear the noise even through the big headphones he loved. Let it be. Silly song, really. You let it be, it returns. There’s the truth. You let it be, it drags you to the ground. You let it be, it crawls up your walls.
It was as if she could travel through the electricity to see him. She could look at any electronic thing—television, radio, Solomon’s shaver—and could find herself there, journeying along the raw voltage. Most of all it was the fridge. She would wake in the middle of the night and wander through the apartment into the kitchen and lean against the freezer. She would open the door…and she could see him, all of a sudden she was in the same room, right beside him…
All of it like a slam in the chest. So immediate. At all of their coffee mornings, it had always been distant, belonging to another day, the talk, the memory, the recall, the stories, a distant land, but this was now and real, and the worst thing was that they didn’t know the walker’s fate, didn’t know if he had jumped or had fallen or had got down safely, or if he was still up there on his little stroll, or if he was there at all, if it was just a story, or a projection, indeed, or if she had made it all up for effect—they had no idea—maybe the man wanted to kill himself, or maybe the helicopter had a hook around him to catch him if he fell, or maybe there was a clip around the wire to catch him, or maybe maybe maybe there was another maybe, maybe.
The moment he turned to check the front of the car I recall thinking that we’d never survive it, not so much the crash, or even the death of the young girl—she was so obviously dead, in a bloodied heap on the road—or the man who was slapped against the steering wheel, almost certainly ruined, his chest jammed up against the dashboard, but the fact that Blaine went around to check on the damage that was done to our car, the smashed headlight, the crumpled fender, like our years together, something broken, while behind us we could hear the sirens already on their way, and he let out a little groan of despair, and I knew it was for the car, and our unsold canvases, and what would happen to us shortly, and I said to him: Come on, let’s go, quick, get in, Blaine, quick, get a move on.
The core reason for it all was beauty. Walking was a divine delight. Everything was rewritten when he was up in the air. New things were possible with the human form. It went beyond equilibrium.
He felt for a moment uncreated. Another kind of awake.
His fellow judges and court officers and reporters and even the stenographers were already talking about it as if it were another of those things that just happened in the city. One of those out-of-the-ordinary days that made sense of the slew of ordinary days. New York had a way of doing that. Every now and then the city shook its soul out. It assailed you with an image, or a day, or a crime, or a terror, or a beauty so difficult to wrap your mind around that you had to shake your head in disbelief.
Soderberg glanced at Tillie Henderson as she was escorted out the door to his right. She walked with her head low and yet there was a learned bounce in her gait. As if she were already out and doing the track… Her face looked odd and vulnerable, and yet still held a touch of the sensual. Her eyes were dark. Her eyebrows were plucked thin. There was a shine to her, a glisten. It was as if he were seeing her for the first time: upside down, the way the eye first sees, and then must correct. Something tender and carved about the face… Her face seemed for a second almost beautiful, and then the hooker turned and shuffled and the door was closed behind her, and she vanished into her own namelessness.
I know already that I will return to this day whenever I want to. I can bid it alive. Preserve it. There is a still point where the present, the now, winds around itself, and nothing is tangled. The river is not where it begins or ends, but right in the middle point, anchored by what has happened and what is to arrive. You can close your eyes and there will be a light snow falling in New York, and seconds later you are sunning upon a rock in Zacapa, and seconds later still you are surfing through the Bronx on the strength of your own desire. There is no way to find a word to fit around this feeling. Words resist it. Words give it a pattern it does not own. Words put it in time. They freeze what cannot be stopped.
A man high in the air while a plane disappears, it seems, into the edge of the building. One small scrap of history meeting a larger one. As if the walking man were somehow anticipating what would come later. The intrusion of time and history. The collision point of stories. We wait for the explosion but it never occurs. The plane passes, the tightrope walker gets to the end of the wire. Things don’t fall apart.
We stumble on, thinks Jaslyn, bring a little noise into the silence, find in others the ongoing of ourselves. It is almost enough.
Quietly, Jaslyn perches on the edge of the bed and then extends her feet, moves her legs across slowly so as not to disturb the mattress. She fixes a pillow, leans, picks a hair out of Claire’s mouth…
The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough.