I had been wandering after completing Infinite Jest for the fifth time. This statement should not be read as vanity, for all who have dared complete Infinite Jest know that it is an act of compulsion and obesession, rather than a comfortable notch in your literary belt. Although Infinite Jest and I have shared many long, and satiating romances, it raises the proverbial bar so high that reading anything else is inevitably a short, albeit sweaty and unilaterally passionate endeavor. Each time we have parted ways it has been for the best, but inevitably leaves an immense chasm in desparate need of filling. I needed something to take Infinite Jest‘s place: something as gloriously girthy, as naively sincere, and as pregnant with beautiful, meticulously parsed prose.
A dear friend concerned with my rudderless reading life, as a dear friend should be, broke his own rules and decided to play match-maker.
“Look, there’s someone I’d like you to meet.”
“Really? I’m not sure if I’m ready…”
“Come on man, you have to move on. We’ve been through this before…”
“I know, I know. I just miss Infinite Jest.”
“I’m here to help. William, I’d like you to meet, Let the Great World Spin.”
I was immediately impressed with Let the Great World Spin (LTGWS), it’s majestic page-count, its concentration on Manhattan. Then, my dear friend let the second shoe drop:
“McCann is a forefather of the modern Historical Fiction movement.”
Now, I’ve never found myself attracted to Historical Fiction. I understand the allure, hell, I even understand why it has become a newly revived phenomenon in publishing. Yet, as stunning a prospect as Historical Fiction appears to be, I always find myself wondering where the author ends up without the historical superstructure. Of course, all fiction, on some level, can be considered the recollection of past (or imagined past) events, but Historical Fiction seemed akin to a large, involved, History-related Mad Lib seasoned with a new author’s prose. I endeavored to push my proclivities aside, to open up to a new opportunity, to submit my heart to the possibility of a new love.
“You know, Historical Fiction is not my thing…”
“I know, but you have to read this guy’s prose. he’s a wordsmith; at the very minimum you’ll be whisked away by the well-crafted sentences and attention to detail.”
“Sure, I can imagine, but what I really want to ask is, how can this excite and thrill when it is, by its nature, reductionist and recycled?”
“Every story is based on another story.”
“While that may be true on some level (disclosure: I don’t really validate that sentiment to the extent most people do) I can’t help but worry that I’ll be constantly disappointed when the meat of the story turns out to be provided by reality rather than by the author.”
“Does it matter?”
“It shouldn’t. We’ll see. No promises.”
“None required. Try to have fun…” My friend handed over a first edition hardback of McCann’s novel. Its weight felt familiar and the rough, unglossed dust jacket reminded me of the old Black Sparrow releases Bukowski’s myriad publications. I was beginning to fall in lust, but only time and exposure would reveal a connection borne of love, or a rejection borne of disappointment.
LTGWS felt like the answer, a way to enjoy something other than Infinite Jest—at least for a short while. My friend’s sugestion and the book’s presentation had already won me over, and soon I was immersed in the tragi-comic lives of the Corrigan Brothers.
Corrigan, aka John Andrew, is, at heart, a struggling humanist that is growing increasingly uncomfortable with blaming his sympathy for the downtrodden and the cast-aside on fealty to god. Owing a great debt to his adolescence bringing secret nips of whiskey to transients in the Irish brothers’ home town, his young body succumbs to the surliness and distance that accompany young alcoholism. But his aim is, as ever, to offer comfort and a sense of dignity to those who may have neither. And so, he enters the priesthood.
By decree of authorities higher than his, Corrigan is thrust into the Bronx’s brutal and defiantly honest 1970s catastrophe. His friends and neighbors are the street-walkers and addicts. The pimps keep a wary eye on the Irish intruder, and on more than one occasion let their fists speak their most primal thoughts. Corrigan takes his lashings in good standing with the meekness proscribed for men of his vocation and turns the proverbial cheek for all.
Ciaran, Corrigan’s older brother, books passage to Manhattan and cuts through the humid, humorless streets choked with misery until he finds his brother’s unlocked and disheveled flat, and finally his prodigal brother. A parade of working ladies burst into the apartment; by agreement with Corrigan they have free reign to use the facilities when on the stroll.
Jazzlyn and her mother, Tillie, are introduced in a blur of hilarious banter; the ladies egg the young priest on and he replies with a low voiced modesty and humility. The opposing forces of the insistent, mourning, younger brother and the lull of the neighborhood’s character’s back-handed loyalty, build a sensuous tension in our introduction to McCann’s 1970s Manhattan. The detail and depth to which McCann delves paints a stirring canvas of pain overwhelmed by humility, and pain overwhelmed by pure vanity—both belonging to lost souls concerned only with the air in their lungs and the moment at hand.
The chapter ends in searing tragedy. Corrigan gives Jazzlyn a ride home from a court apperance during which Jazzlyn’s mother, Tillie, is imprisoned. As they cross the FDR bridge Corrigan’s van is struck by a speeding car and careens into the barrier. Corrigan and Jazzlyn lay dying as the crashing metal comes to rest and cars pile up on the bridge.
Our affair, our decadent dalliance, began as a torrent of pent-up emotions erupted between LTGWS and I. The way LTGWS lovingly caressed every carnal description of Manhattan’s byways and alleys, tenement flats, assisted-living towers, and half-way houses was a revelation in today’s post-Minimalist world. McCann’s long, luxurious sentences are words chosen for their own sake while never sacrificing their higher purpose to the words all around them. Finally, LTGWS’s ability to move me to near tears, inner shouts of exhaltation, and deep groans of that was a really bad idea became my every literary concern. I was falling in love.
LTGWS consumed my every spare moment, sweating out the humid southern months on the porch and in the wee, spare moments at work permitted for such breaks in concentration. My obsession set root and though I was dreading a short break in the story of the Irish Brothers, I anticipated much from the following chapter and was ready, as all ignorant lovers are, to move to the next level with all due haste.
The rushing metal train of my lust came to a slow, impeding, crawl. We meet Claire as she prepares her home for a gathering of mothers who have lost their sons to the war. Our Claire, a broken woman lamenting her son, lost to the Vietnam War, cooled my affections. Rather than sympathize with Claire, I wanted to wrap and send her a parcel of common sense—a missive carrying the message: the desperation of need repulses those we are desperate to reach. Claire’s morose self-pity repeatedly blinds her to the in-roads offered by her guests and ultimately She comes off as victimized by the situation and by her guests’ defenses. Beautifully written, but wilted by an underlying whisper who cares?
Every relationship has moments where the awesome dips just below full; I held onto hope that Claire was an anamoly; preferably, one that would not be repeated. But extracating the undesirable parts of a personality is a lesson in futility. As the roots of the undesired press into the earth, they spread and multiply. I would ineveitably feel this way again, the question remained: would I be happy enough for it to not matter?
I kept reading…
…and LTGWS opened up to me again.
Lara and Blaine are a succint portrait of drug- and privilege-addled narcicissm. From their brief moment in New York’s artistic spotlight, to Blaine’s Ismael-esque quest to re-enter the fawning graces of Manhattan’s art world, LGTWS describes a drug and sex fueled destruction bookended by exile. Blaine and Lara flee the City and hide behind lines of cocaine and delusion in a quaint cabin near a rural New York town.
A break in the clouds takes them back into the City where their hip status has been revoked, or in some cases has simply expired from inactivity. They trudge through a humilating night of lost causes and painful snubs. They gather their artwork and their remaining cocaine and flee. As they cross the FDR bridge in a 1927 Pontiac Landua, Blaine is distracted and clips a large, beaten-up van. Lara watches as the van smashes into the rail. Blaine stops – but not for long.
Lara returns to their fortress of solitude a changed person. Blaine is quick to move on after the details of their agreement to remain silent have been ironed out. After all, he is bursting with ideas, ways to re-ingratiate themselves with Manhattan. Lara descends deeper and deeper until she gives in to compulsion and re-enters the city to attend Jazzlyn’s funeral. Lara meets and eventually confesses to Corrigan that she is responsible for his brother’s death.
LTGWS had more than redeemed itself. The gut-wrenching depths Lara takes us through had me begging at LTGWS’s feet, desperate again for its fickle affections. My notebook at the time was frequently peppered with lines of admiration and at times, several pages of praise for my new love. We were skipping along in Elysian fields, kicking dandelion heads and serving as autonomous engines for reproductive pollenation.
My grip around LTGWS’s succulent waist in those days was the fluff and fecundity of young humid love. Misplaced hands are welcome. A moment of pause to look up at the brooding north Georgia stormclouds is answered with a soft attention-seeking nuzzle. Once the pin pricks the bubble, the occasional misinterpreted silent treatment is seen as an act of betrayal—and eventually, of war.
I was deeply invested in LTGWS now, every curvature of her spine, each parting of her warm pages—spreading indelicately—was a moment of rapture. Even as we met Fernando and delved head first into the life of Philippe Petit the famed performer who traversed the immense chasm between World Trade Center towers One and Two in 1974, I could feel the air around our chrysalis cooling. My desire for LTGWS never waned, but the ferocity with which I sought her caress began to disintegrate. By the time LTGWS excitedly recounted the story of the California computer hackers prank-witnesing Philippe Petit’s performance I was only half-listening. Using hackers calling a payphone in Manhattan as Philippe Petit walked across the sky to jack into a sort of meta-reporting person on the street point of view fell flat. It was neither clever, nor interesting. I was beginning to become sullen when LTGWS was anything less than luxuriant and dense.
I admit it; I looked around for something else to read. To my dismay, I was not involved in any substantial editing projects, so I could not use the old excuse that all of my reading time needed to be devoted to someone else’s work. LTGWS and I were in this until the bitter end.
And bitter it became.
The descent into the mind of the tight-rope walker, and the—albeit colorful and at times hilarious—tale of Tillie both toed a fine line bordering cliché. Perhaps cliché is the seedbed of reality, but it reads like a cop-out on the printed page. Every emerging character and plotline had to live up to the standards of the first few chapters; I stopped comparing LTGWS to Infinite Jest and began to set each chapter at war with the next and preceding – a deep and lethal kiss.
I read on with a binary mind: like/dislike, and read each page as it passed with no more passion than a vegetable sifting through earth with blind roots. I read on because another page appeared each time I turned; I read on because I had not finished.
Philippe Petit’s tale became far more interesting when it focused on the details of his amazing feat and less on his zen of performance. Judge Soderberg and Adelita make a poor splash. Occuring far too late, Gloria, momentarily, saves our Claire from spiralling into irrelavance and McCann is again at his heart-breaking best when he speaks from within Gloria. She also joins the ranks of the characters who are stunningly real; her compassion and fear are redemptive in their tangibility.
But it was too late.
You know what I mean.
Too late: for me to feel that beauty as anything but a low-five. Hey, that paragraph didn’t suck, way to go. I was damaged and I let the rest of LTGWS slip through my open grasp.
Sometimes love is ugly.
Sometimes love is messy.
Sometimes, we want the one we can’t have.
And sometimes we want only to feel it again—or for the first time.
So that we can move on.
I loved LTGWS but I was never in love.
I discarded her, ran through our experience with the finish line in mind. I hold out hope that I’ll one day experience her again, but if it is not to be, I will always remember the good times.