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Round and Round: Closing the Gaps in Let the Great World Spin
Ciaran’s narrative in book one of Let The Great World Spin, “All Respects to Heaven, I like it Here,” contains vital information for the understanding of the events that take place within the novel, and for the significance of those events to its principle protagonist, Corrigan. It is highly important that this particular narration comes before those of the other characters (except for that of Philippe Petit) because of the structure of the novel which essentially contains 11 separate narrators all united by the Petit’s skywalk between the pair of towers of the world trade center — and their interactions and reverberating actions with Corrigan. To many of the other narrator’s of Let the Great World Spin, Corrigan’s behavior is inexplicable. He chooses to attempt to restore the worldly souls of prostitutes and street rabble, the very essence of offensiveness to most ordained clergymen. With so many different narrators telling variations of separate stories that collide around Petit’s crossing of the towers in 1974, there are inevitably gaps that need explaining. Ciaran’s narrative is responsible for filling many of those gaps by explicating the characterization, behavior, and motives of Corrigan, whose actions in turn link many of the characters in the story.
In many ways, Ciaran’s narrative — which primarily chronicles the affairs of his brother Corrigan — reveals that purported gaps in the story, and in particular those found in class and pecuniary matters between his brother and his “congregation” of street peddlers, are not quite as immense as they might appear to many of the prostitutes in which Corrigan comes into contact with. Moreover, for all of Corrigan’s moralizing and attempts to redeem people through the language and teaching of Christianity, he is not altogether different from these people. His proclivity for the street life, for intoxication and the worldly pleasures and fulfillment of that pleasure that unites him with many of the other narrators, begins early in his life as the following quotation from Ciara’s book demonstrates.
Corrigan started getting drunk young — twelve or thirteen years old — once a week, on Friday afternoons after schoolCorrigan liked those places where light was drained He often sat with the drunks in Frenchman’s Lane and Spencer Row. He brought a bottle with him, handed it around (McCann).
This quotation proves that even in Corrigan’s youth, he had an affinity for affiliating with street people. His habits were similar to theirs; he drank with them, he sat with them, he frequented the same places. Therefore, his knack for doing the same once he left his native Ireland and moved to New York is not quite so strange, and is actually fully accounted for. Despite the fact that he sees himself helping these people in New York both physically and spiritually, it is important to know — early on in the novel, before the reader is exposed to any other narrator’s — that associating with and engaging in similar behavior as street people is an intrinsic part of Corrigan’s nature. Consequently, what other characters may regard as odd about Corrigan’s tendencies is fully explained within Ciaran’s narrative.
The key difference between Corrigan and the commoners he works with and, to a certain point, socializes with in New York is the fact that he does so from a perspective where he sees himself fulfilling his Christian duty. It is this perspective that sets him apart from the others, and which is a considerable source of the gaps between Ciaran and Corrigan’s perspective and that of the others they encounter in the city. Yet Ciaran’s narrative explains the fact that even during his earliest stages of experiencing the street life, Corrigan always perceived his influence over others as benign and as part of his Christian duty. Whether he was giving away his own blankets to the homeless on frigid nights, or sneaking out of the house to drink and give away his socks and his shirt, he always fancied himself performing what he termed as “God’s work” (McCann). In that sense he was actually quite different from all of the rabble that he interacted with both in his native land and in New York. Most of those people viewed him as a resource — someone who they could take advantage of, which the following quotation underscores. “They were using him, of course they sent him to the off-license for bottles, or to the corner shop for loose cigarettes” (McCann). But Corrigan’s perceptions of those same acts, and other in New York when he was an adult, was that he was essentially needing and capitalizing off of those people, their pain, and their flaws in order to perform “God’s work.”
More significantly, the gaps in Let the Great World Spin are actually closed between the points-of-view of the characters due to their relationship with pain. All of the narrators, the street walkers and hustlers, have a substantial amount of pain in their lives that joins them together in New York City. This structuring of the underworld of the city is rooted in loss and agony, which exists for Corrigan, despite the fact that he attempts to aid most of the others who consider him different because of this fact. The source of Corrigan’s pain, part of the reason he takes to drinking and smoking so young and so recklessly, is his father, who has left his family while Ciaran and Corrigan are quite young (although he regularly sends their mother money).Still, the suffering that the youths (and Corrigan in particular) endure because of this fact is evinced within the subsequent quotation. “He never mentioned our father, not to me or to anyone else. But he was there, our gone father: I could tell. Corrigan would either drown him in sherry or spit him away like a fleck of tobacco on his tongue” (McCann). This quotation suggests that Corrigan is attempting to forget about the sorrow and suffering he feels about the loss of his father by engaging in mind altering substances such as alcohol, tobacco, and any other foreign substances that are smoked. Many people turn to substance abuse to help them cope with some pain; many of the narrators demonstrate this tendency. Therefore, the burdening of pain, and the need to alleviate it, is another point of connection between the different narrators in this novel. Corrigan’s method of coping is highly akin to that of the others, which is another point of similarity between him and the street people he helps.
Another structure that helps to bridge the gaps between the characters in McCann’s novel that is alluded to within Ciaran’s initial narrative about his brother is the city itself. The city is a silent character, the backdrop and literal setting that facilitates much of the pain and the aspirations that are shared by all of the narrators. All of the people, things, and occurrences in the city — including, most eminently, Petit’s sojourn across the twin towers — can take on a life of its own. Most of the characters are affected negatively by it, which explains the subversive behavior they engage in. The author demonstrates this point of connection in Ciaran’s narrative (that the city is a character that serves to unite the other characters) while referring to this same concept when the two brothers are still in Dublin. When Corrigan is drunk on his fourteenth birthday and his brother is sent by their mother to find him, the author personifies the despair and pain of such a moment via the city, as the following quotation indicates. “An evening drizzle fell over Dublin. A horse cart went past, the light from its dynamo shining. I watched it clop away down the street, the pinpoint of light spreading. I hated the city at times like that — it had no desire to get out from under its grayness” (McCann). The author’s usage of personification in this quotation is indicated by the fact that Ciaran is upset over the city’s lack of “desire” — to get away from the dinginess and shabbiness of its negativity which, at the moment, has swallowed young Corrigan in a fit of drunken stupor. People have desires; cities do not. Furthermore, the pallor of the city that reflects the pallor of Corrigan’s state of inebriation — on his birthday of all days — is contrasted against the mundane light of a horse carriage. Despite the fact that this particular city is New York, the author introduces the concept of personifying cities and having them play a substantial role in the lives of most of denizens early on in this novel to acclimate the reader to this notion. In New York, the city is a structure that serves to connect the gaps between the characters. They all experience its pallor and dreariness, which inevitably affects all of their lives.
Organized religion (and Christianity in particular) is another structural point that serves to connect the disparate narrators and characters within this work of literature. In this respect Corrigan is the principle point of connection; the author makes it quite clear early on that his characterization resembles that of Jesus. The reader is initially exposed to this concept in Ciaran’s narration by a variety of factors — his brother’s benevolence, his selfless attitude, the altruism he regularly practices amongst the downtrodden. The imagery from the following quotation, in which Ciaran finally finds his besotted brother on the evening of his 14th birthday, reinforces this notion. “When I found him, he was so drunk that he couldn’t stand. I grabbed his arm. “Hi,” he said, smiling. He fell against the wall and cut his hand. He stood staring at his palm. The blood ran down his wrist” (McCann).
In this quotation, the author likens Corrigan to Christ by employing carefully selected imagery to denote such a comparison. When Christ was crucified, both of his palms were pierced. Although Corrigan is bleeding from a laceration on his wrist, it is his “palm” that he fixates his attention on — which is emblematic of Christ’ pierced palms. What is most significant about this allusion to Christ is that it alludes to Jesus’ crucifixion and death. Jesus was the world’s ultimate martyr. By invoking imagery of Christ’s sacrifice for the world, McCann is subtly implying that Corrigan is also a martyr, and that his benevolent actions are sacrificial in the same way that Christ’s were. Therefore, when Corrigan makes a point of helping the rabble and those who others have turned their backs on, he is placing himself in a central point of connection between many of those characters and the others they in turn influence. In such a way Corrigan’s representation as a Christ figure helps to close many of the gaps between the narrators in McCann’s work, since Christ was the central figure in the lives he came in contact with.
The author reinforces this notion later on in Ciaran’s narrative in a passage in which Corrigan explains his interpretation of Christ’s life and work. The similarities between the work of Jesus and the work of Corrigan are strikingly similar, as the following quotation proves.
Corrigan told me once that Christ was quite easy to understand. He went where he was supposed to go. He stayed where he was needed. He took little or nothing along He never rejected the world. If He had rejected it, He would have been rejecting mystery. And if He rejected mystery, He would have been rejecting faith.
Corrigan truly believed that his work in New York City, spent helping hustlers and prostitutes, was what he was “supposed” to be doing and that it was where he was “needed” most. He believed that by intervening in worldly affairs, by trying to help people with problems arising from their interaction with the city and from themselves and their individual lives, that he was keeping some sort of “faith” in his divinity, Christ.
It is this need for faith, for help in a cold, torrential city such as New York, which ultimately closes the gaps between the narrators and all of the characters. Corrigan demonstrates this fact most prominently for the simple fact that he is likened to Christ and makes a point of actively engaging in endeavors that are altruistic and selfless like Jesus. But the need for help, the need to believe in something in a city this is as unforgiving and demanding in New York, is the ultimate structure that links the characters. This notion is demonstrated poignantly in the description of Petit’s morning stroll across the air. When people see his shirt falling and that he has thrown himself down from the heights he has attained, there are shouts of “God, oh God” and instances of people who “blessed themselves” (McCann). These people need something to believe in. Corrigan is no different. Often, that thing to believe in is a divinity, in God or in Jesus, or in an emulation of the latter’s deeds in an updated capacity. Yet the need for a belief, and for the relief provided by some sort of help, is what ultimately serves to connect the varying narrators and characters in this novel.
Ciaran’s narrative explicates the characterization of Corrigan, It demonstrates that the latter is not so different from those he attempts to help — he revels in their liquor and smoke, is assailed by similar pain, and feels the need for (and attempts to provide) belief in a higher power. It is that need to believe in something, through the overarching connection of the city, which joins the character and closes the gap between their narrations.
Adams, Tim. “Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann.” The Guardian. 2009. Web. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/aug/30/let-great-world-spin-mccann
Mahler, Jonathan. “The Soul of a City.” The New York Times. 2009. Web. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/02/books/review/Mahler-t.html?pagewanted=all
McCann, Colum. Let the Great World Spin. New York: Random House. 2009. Print.
Peed, Mike. “Book Review: Colum McCann’s ‘Let the Great World Spin’.” The Washington Post. 2009. Web. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/14/AR2009071403121.html
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