If the push and pull of this conflict, story vs. method, is the heart of my life, then my love and hatred of New York City is the brain and central nervous system. It is mysterious, complex, ethereal, and altogether too large to take on in one sitting. The allegorical has always been my fallback for trying to describe the many things that chain me to, and free me from the filth and press, the mélange and patois, the verdant parks and lifeless concrete monoliths, which glow like undersea colonies of biolumnescent particles in the overlit stillness of the 4am hour, when the parks and wild places look like black pools from above.
I love to hate it here, I hate to love it here. I’m not an untraveled Manhattanite, living a serf’s life eight centuries late. I’ve seen other places, other time zones, other countries, other cultures. I would not live anywhere else, despite the attractiveness of many of the places I’ve seen. Part of this is sheer stubbornness and opportunism, despite the fact that many of the things I yearn for lie well beyond the far reaches of the crayon-colors and Sesame-street letters and numbers of the subway lines. The fear of still water is cloying – Manahattan, even at its quietist, is still at a low bubble which is a roaring boil most other places in the world.
I have no skill for self-portraiture. I leave that to other people. I lack the facility, or perhaps the vanity, to attempt anything that would not come out as hollow bravado, or ghoulish caricature – even if I used only the paint and brushes of words and sentences.
I’ve often bemoaned the “new” New York, knowing that the litany of things “old” New York, whose loss I bemoan were built on the bones of structures, traditions, and memories, which were slowly fossilizing in the mud and shit of structures, traditions, and memories nobody alive even remembers anymore. London is an old city, Paris is an old city, Rome is an old city. New York is a city with progeria. The offspring of a generation are always knocking down the things the last generation built, assuming, as we always do , that the now holds far more power than the “then” or the “tomorrow”. There has been much ink spilled recently about the collapse of New York’s preeminence, in no small part thanks to the financial situation, and how Wall Street (on which I live) figures into the picture. This rings hollow to me – New York is the undying inoperable tumor of the New World – it goes into remission, but it will be back, and next time, stronger than the last.
It amuses me, writing this, how far my day-to-day has come from that once-romantic vocational course of writing about reading I describe above. I can almost conjure the feeling of stock-surety that a young writer feels in the face of the looming unknown. Before the rejection letters, English department academic politics, and the ever-present yawning pit that only stops sucking when you throw a fistful of currency at it, which lives in the hollow center of all our civilized existences. I fell like I once may have been able to make words into a life. Now, all the words are is padding that keeps the life from flaying to the bone too often. Clearly, I can still write about writing, despite how far my life has gone from its starting port-o-call. In this circumstance, I find it hard to do so analytically – I’m still to raw from the experience of the read of this book. With that in mind, please pardon my perhaps overwordy preamble.
Colum McCann’s ability to encapsulate the Spiritus of New York City far exceeds my wildest dreams of possibility. The way he does it, in his upcoming Random House release, Let the Great World Spin, gives me hope that perhaps the truth of what I feel is not a solitary thing, but just a thing too nimbus for most people to delve into conversationally. Spin splits the shells encasing every New Yorker’s secret loves and hates about the place they call home, and shucks pearl and meat onto the plate together, leaving you to marvel in the revolting beauty of this horrible, wondrous city, and how it is so much a part of who you are.
McCann does so with a deft literary style – he connects the voices, lives, and contexts of a fistful of characters, whose roots go back to places far from New York City, but whose entwining all happens here. The “when” of this whorl of life and story is the early 1970’s, a world into whose echoes I was born, and have always felt was truer to the essence of what New York is about than the whore-cum-madam on a shopping spree she is today. Now that her credit card balances are starting to overtake her income, perhaps a bit of reality will work its way back into the picture - the realistic possibilities of which, after reading this book, both enchant me, and galvanize me with dread.
The framing device for Spin is the antics of Phillipe Petit, who, in 1974, walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers. I have read a lot about New York, the Towers, and Petit. Despite my knowledge, the way McCann uses this event suprised me, and the way he describd its effects were nothing short of brilliant. If the collapse of the Twin Towers was the end of what could only be called an “era” of New York, then Spin is a eulogy that era, and everything they represented, as spoken by the stories of the characters who populate his book. This eulogy is not broadside, or direct, which is how everyone who is not from this city around that time want to deal with it. McCann's sense of summary appreciation it is a work of negative space. Fill in what the Towers represented, in connectivity between so many people from so many walks of life, and how they rooted people in their places across an entire city, thirty-odd years before they fell, in a very different circumstance, and you can get a rough sketch which approaches an estimate of what was lost.
This feeling is echoed in the calling of one of the characters, an early programmer, whose philosophical meanderings on the retrospective view of the future of technology are far more apt than anything I'm reading in contemporary ideological writings. Make a program that makes sense of death. This is just one of the many issues jumping to the forefront of my mind as I sit here and try to answer the question a book review is supposed to: "What is the book about?". Race, gender, religion, classism, racism, sex, drugs, music, alcohol, family, sickness, fortune, misfortune, possibility – everything which we, as New Yorkers are hip-deep in, often taking every step for granted, come flying at you from so many different angles, it is nearly impossible to not be hit broadside by a few of the introspections. I can say surely, the book is not about providing a portrait of lives, but rather, to make sense of living one, by showing how a group of lives are interlinked in New York.
New Yorkers don’t like getting caught off guard, or letting something beyond their shells. This book did both. To say I could not put it down is to understate the matter. To say I feel humbled by having read it is far more apt. I am the emptied oyster, after three-hundred odd pages of other people’s Odyssey, whose journeys there and back again fell across touchstones of my thoughts, feelings, and experiences, which keep me delightfully trapped in New York. If you have nothing else marked off in your calendar for late in the month of June, set aside time for this book – it has the power to change. The words and stories of Spinencapsulate New York more vividly than you thought words could, until the words are wet on the canvas of your mind’s eye, and your perspective forever altered by the exposure artistry.
Jean Louis Bondeau / Polaris