Andres O'Hara-Plotnik


Walking the Line: A Short Review of Let the Great World Spin

Tightrope Walker in India (Premshree Pillai, Flickr)

I own a sixty foot piece of webbing, one-inch wide, that I use for slacklining. On warm days I go with a friend, and we will tie the line around one tree, knot it, and loop it between two carabiners. A second, ten foot line is attached to webbing wound around a second tree. We clip the first line to the second, pull it taut, kick away any pine cones or branches, and then walk: first forwards, then backwards, bobbing the line to turn around. If we are feeling arrogant, we both get on the line at opposite sides and try to stay on, walking towards each other.

The line sways and your foot does not always land straight, but the idea is to resist the urge to look down. You will stay on the line longer if you feel calm and confident in your steps, but learning to walk the line takes measures that betray your instincts. Stare at a point straight ahead. Do not look at your feet. I usually pick a formation in the tree, a notch of bark that will transform itself into a face the longer I stare.

Once we were approached by a runner in Riverside park, a shirtless man with a boxy chest and a shiny bald head. He wanted to try. He planted his hand on my shoulder and then stepped on the line. His leg shook from side to side uncontrollably, and he clenched his jaw, trying to get it to stop. It happens to everyone on the first attempt, as the foot tries to find a solid space to balance. Walking the line requires the body learning how to use your arms, knees, legs, and chest to stay balanced. The mind learns how to walk with uncertainty.

I thought about slacklining when writing a short review of a profoundly touching book, Let the Great World Spin. The book ties together stories of people in New York during the week that Philippe Petit tightroped across the World Trade Center towers, on August 7, 1974. In the review, I compared the tightrope walk to the act of writing the book. I wondered if, having written a few short stories, I was any closer to understanding the process of writing a book like that. Slacklining in the park, am I any closer to understanding Petit’s walk?

The review was part of a contest with the Los Angeles Review of Books, and since it didn’t get picked up, I’ve decided to post it here:

Colum McCann prologues Let the Great World Spin by drawing out the groups forming at the sight of a man tightroping across the World Trade Center towers. While commuters, cabs and trash swirl around them, people stare and whisper and shout: hoping that he falls or retreats or hangs on. While the tightroper’s walk strings together this novel, the focus is the stories on the ground, leaving you in as much awe as the tightroper’s audience on that Manhattan morning.

An Irish man finds his brother in the Bronx, mothers grieve for sons killed in Vietnam, a prostitute watched her daughter follow in her footsteps. Each story anchored in overlapping time and space. Space is important for McCann, lists spring up: streets, deaths, tags, drugs, refuse. A place becomes the things piled into it, enclosing and even suffocating each character, whether in a Park Avenue penthouse, projects in the Bronx, or an upstate cabin.

I marveled at this novel: so clear and compelling as well as infused with such poetry and lyricality. I rushed through passages, then flipped back and puzzled over them: how did he do it?

The tightrope walk is the perfect metaphor for this book: the mundane sights – buildings, a wire, a walk- rearranged to present beauty, surprise, and the threat of mortal danger. It looks simple, almost casual. But examine the sentences, the words. There lies the study, training, setup, and false starts, daunting to anyone who would attempt to follow in his footsteps.


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This entry was posted on June 21, 2012 by in Books and tagged , , , , , , , .
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