Chance encounters, serendipitous moments, and relationships that defy racial and cultural boundaries run throughout Let the Great World Spin. Above all, the book is interested in the patchwork of human life and the mysterious convergences or departures that unite people either physically or philosophically. The epigraph, taken from Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project, establishes this interest and sets the novel’s tone: “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.” Let the Great World Spin is not interested in understanding the mysterious way lives often overlap with one another. Rather, it is concerned with examining the beauty inherent in this enigmatic kind of unity. The book champions the idea that two (or more) very different life paths may cross and become intertwined with one another in a way that profoundly alters both trajectories; this is the idea that the people around us—strangers—could, in some way, meaningfully influence us.
Within this framework, the characters of Let the Great World Spin frequently deal with questions of compassion. In some cases they lack a certain amount of empathy, as is the case with Ciaran when he first meets the prostitutes his brother has been helping in the Bronx. In other cases, though, characters display an impressive inclination toward empathy, perhaps best exemplified by Corrigan’s immense selflessness in the rough environment of the government housing projects. Failure to exercise empathy seemingly closes characters off from the broader world, ultimately resulting in a grief of sorts: Blaine, for example, doesn’t take responsibility for the tragedy he has inflicted upon Corrigan and Jazzlyn by crashing into the back of their van—he’s only concerned with making a name for himself in the art world, and is blind to everything beyond his own self-motivated priorities. Eventually this costs him his marriage. Lara, on the other hand, is distraught by the fact that she was involved in Corrigan and Jazzlyn’s simultaneous death and, motivated by empathy and compassion, seeks to make amends in any small way she can. This, of course, leads her to Ciaran, whom she eventually falls in love with and marries. Empathy and compassion, then, are held up as paragons of human connection and unity.
Characters also congregate in more tangible, obvious ways in Let the Great World Spin, as circumstance and shared emotions serve as unifying forces. The Bronx prostitutes, for example, have a network that is something like a family, and they manage to connect meaningfully with one another despite—or perhaps because of—their difficult conditions. Claire and the women in “Miró, Miró, on the Wall” organize themselves around their own grief, sharing stories of their deceased sons with one another in order to lighten the burden of solitary mourning. Similarly, the computer aficionados of “Etherwest” constitute a small community of individuals with a common interest in hacking. As such, McCann is concerned with creating a mosaic of humanity that is held together by the little connections made between people who might not otherwise have very much in common.
Unity comes into play in Let the Great World Spin in a structural sense, too: the narratives are all loosely related to one another by way of Petit’s tightrope walk. The ripple effect of the event is felt throughout the book. While some characters—like Marcia in “Miró, Miró, on the Wall,”—directly witness the tightrope walk, others—like Jaslyn in “Roaring Seaward, and I Go”—have a more vicarious, removed relationship with the event. As a narrative device, the walk works to bring the multiple storylines together across space and time, ultimately illustrating how an event—current or historical—can connect people from different walks of life, even if that connection is not immediately observable.
Unity & Human Connection ThemeTracker
Unity & Human Connection 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.
He still drank with them, but only on special days. Mostly he was sober. He had this idea that the men were really looking for some type of Eden and that when they drank they returned to it, but, on getting there, they weren’t able to stay. He didn’t try to convince them to stop. That wasn’t his way.
“It’s like dust. You walk about and don’t see it, don’t notice it, but it’s there and it’s all coming down, covering everything. You’re breathing it in. You touch it. You drink it. You eat it. But it’s so fine you don’t notice it. But you’re covered in it. It’s everywhere. What I mean is, we’re afraid. Just stand still for an instant and there it is, this fear, covering our faces and tongues. If we stopped to take account of it, we’d just fall into despair. But we can’t stop. We’ve got to keep going.”
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.
Maybe she should meet other women, more of her own. But more of her own what? Death, the greatest democracy of them all. The world’s oldest complaint. Happens to us all. Rich and poor. Fat and thin. Fathers and daughters. Mothers and sons. She feels a pang, a return.
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.
A few people were gathered outside the doorway, black women, mostly, in dark mourning clothes that looked as if they didn’t belong to them, as if they’d hired the clothes for the day. Their makeup was the thing that betrayed them, loud and gaudy and one with silver sparkles around her eyes, which looked so tired and worn-down. The cops had said something about hookers: it struck me that maybe the young girl had just been a prostitute. I felt a momentary sigh of gratitude, and then the awareness stopped me cold, the walls pulsed in on me. How cheap was I?
He let the pieces of the napkin flutter to the floor and said something strange about words being good for saying what things are, but sometimes they don’t function for what things aren’t. He looked away. The neon in the window brightened as the light went down outside.
His hand brushed against mine. That old human flaw of desire.
He said to me once that most of the time people use the word love as just another way to show off they’re hungry. The way he said it went something like: Glorify their appetites.
It was like some photograph his body had taken, and the album had been slid out again under his eyes, then yanked away. Sometimes it was the width of the city he saw, the alleyways of light, the harpsichord of the Brooklyn Bridge, the flat gray bowl of smoke over New Jersey, the quick interruption of a pigeon making flight look easy, the taxis below. He never saw himself in any danger or extremity, so he didn’t return to the moment he lay down on the cable or when he hopped, or half ran across from the south to the north tower. Rather it was the ordinary steps that revisited him, the ones done without flash. They were the ones that seemed entirely true, that didn’t flinch in his memory.
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.
Then again, I was thinking that I shouldn’t be acting this way, maybe I was getting it all wrong, maybe the truth is that she was just a lonely white woman living up on Park Avenue, lost her boy the exact same way as I lost three of mine, treated me well, didn’t ask for nothing, brought me in her house, kissed me on the cheek, made sure my teacup was full, and she just flat-out made a mistake by running her mouth off, one silly little statement I was allowing to ruin everything. I had liked her when she was fussing all over us, and she didn’t mean harm, maybe she was just nervous. People are good or half good or a quarter good, and it changes it all the time—but even on the best day nobody’s perfect.
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.