Commentary on Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann (e-book edition, New York: Random House, c2009)
“[I]magination is the power that enables us to perceive the normal in the abnormal, the opposite of chaos in chaos.” (Wallace Stevens)
A look back over the past months: Though I have been participating, like a fly on the wall, eavesdropping through Skype or FaceTime, I want to say that the new visual-audio interfacing technologies do help to include individuals of the club who would otherwise never be conversant with the common readership and thinking of the group.
One of my thoughts, thinking back only several months, is: What a terrific library we have started in 2013! I don’t think we are deliberately choosing the oddest books in the English language, but the Retired Men’s Book Club of Tacoma has been reading much this year that is rich in obscenity and obscurity. I think of Sterling’s work on “Power” (The Global Political Economy of Israel by Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler, April 2013) as the most obscure (even obtuse) and Jim’s Dominican Republican historical fiction (The Wondrous, Brief Life of Oscar Wao by Juno Díaz, May 2013) as the most obscene—obscene in the ordinary sense for its violence and scandalous exploitation of the innocent and powerless. In my choice, Kokoro by Natsume Soseki (February 2013), a curious work nowadays, a hundred-year-old Japanese novel, my hope was that readers would find in it a strange mystery of psychological violence, narrated in an exotic style, because it is mimetic of Western literature and yet steeped in Japanese manners. Soseki’s novel intrigued me because Japan’s late 19th-century and early 20th-century cultural and psychic world are still quite unknown, an age of enormous cultural change we Westerners still have to awaken to if we want to understand Japanese manners in literature and film. Watching Japanese films has become a much more interesting experience for me since reading Kokoro and related works about the problems of Japan’s policies of westernization during the Meiji period. A century is a short period for grand cultural change.
In the lives of Sensei and his disciple, as with the hybrid career of Oscar Wao, we were delving into little-known psychic and fictional territory. With Ron Boothe’s September choice, Peter Dimocks’ George Anderson: Notes for a Love Song in Imperial Time –and it does get the prize as the oddest novel ever–we are venturing into another psychic realm of existential angst. Just so Søren Kiekegaard’s Fear and Trembling allows us a glimpse into a near-mad interiority, considering matters of faith, pathos and tragedy. Dimock’s work is most peculiar in style, that of the documentational or notational novel (verbal, lexical, and musical) of recognition and atonement, personally and nationally. Dimock’s composition will test most people’s fictional fancy, and I doubt he will find a readership, but tragic political and bureaucratic history is fiction for the most part. If sanitized and bowdlerized in school texts, it stands as the minority power’s myth they wish the nation to swallow. The facts of history get obscured or classified; the hypocrisy and obscenity of our national policies sometimes come to the fore in fiction, for they are policies that often become frozen in myths.
As I am comparing and contrasting a few of the year’s works, some of you might have supposed I’d mention Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (Bill Hagen’s selection, May 2013) as a work obscener than Díaz’s Oscar Wao, because of the overt sensuality, the sheer nakedness of Miller’s writing. However, there are more culos and totos in Oscar Wao than cocks and vulvas in Tropic. Oscar Wao is horrifying, Tropic of Cancer merely terrifying or “terrible” in the sense of offending polite tastes of those whom Miller lambastes as the comfortable, complacent living-dead (namely, us). Then adding the torture, both psychological and physical, ruthless visceral violence in the brutal beatings, no doubt Díaz beats Miller for obscenity. Miller, though he cadged from, leeched upon, and exploited people, he did not intend or do harm to anyone. Henry Miller was indeed one of the few original 20th-century artists who broke censorship barriers, giving Díaz license to use his twats and pricks, although perhaps Utrillo was Díaz’s main provocateur, making chingar the main verb of the dictator’s hideous power and subjugation, the descriptor of his malicious governance and enslavement. The assertions of scatological verbiage in diction of film and fiction are probably a naturally corollary of the corruption, violence, and stupidity of a people’s cultural poverty. What is realism without the truly ugly and unseemly in life? Eventually most novelists will come around to represent human beings as they are, how they speak and how they behave. Even so, for many readers, the author’s sense of realistic representation will be eschewed because it doesn’t offer a clear picture of an age the reader remembers. We need less propaganda and obscurity in all kinds of verbal arts, more of the believable banality, skillfully and artistically expressed, in the ways our culture and society naturally grow. Are we getting better as a society in the confused and complicated 21st Century? Probably not. Let me leave it there. We can always dream.
Spinning the Tale
Contrasted with those works mentioned, Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin is probably quite traditional–dare I say “realistic”?– fiction as a story, depicting a world of people we are familiar with today in their outward behavior, even though it is set in an era nearly forty years ago. Many novels of past centuries have ranged over a spectrum of society, telling mini-stories of various characters. Slices of lives. Written by a spin-doctor of style, the Great World Spin’s story (or stories) runs through group-types in society—technologists: budding computer hackers; radical artists: Philippe Petit, high-wire daredevil, and paint taggers of the graffito art, who scale buildings and bridges and dive into the underground catacombs of subway systems—as well as dwells on individuals’ crises in regular walk-about life. Through their delineation, an undercurrent of ethical and unethical existential philosophy pervades the work, for the characters are mostly particular (even peculiar) in their haphazard efforts to cope with difficult crises. Just as there is no single human protagonist, as one often expects in a traditional story, there is no universal paradigm for life; each person or group proposes a different value to living. Furthermore, the character’s lives are told in changing points of view, so that the reader wonders when reading a new page or paragraph after a major section division, “Who is this?” or “Who’s speaking this narrative?” No doubt this variable storytelling has been a crowd pleaser. At times, it is sentimental, but I found it very enjoyable storytelling. There’s nothing wrong with sentiments. But what are yours? Sentiments we all have. What appears as realistic representation is also based on what each reader thinks of as believably real.
Otherwise in style and design, therefore, McCann’s novel is not traditional, although several works in recent decades do indicate the establishing of non-linear storytelling. (Another contemporary novel of similar fragmented, time-warped design is A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2010).) The problem is that the author’s omniscience as creator allows an Orwellian protagonist—the world or some overseer of the earth’s movement and social organization—to be the arbiter of focal or distanced angles of perception. If I had tried this multiple-points of view in writing workshops or seminars in the 1990s, I would have been laughed at or told “This wishy-washy changey-wangey form just won’t do! Can’t you decide on POV?” Criticism had assaulted me many times when I chose to compose passages of rich fragmented description. “It’s all right once in a while, David, but come on–a whole page of fragments!” We’ll leave aside the use of neologisms.
Thus, stylistically, Great World Spin is a mix: 21st-century modernism is there in the general pessimism about how people live and suffer with stress, enduring inequalities in the great chain of being. Fragmented, Great World Spin’s plot-twist is a type of postmodernism in the fragmentation of the social scene. Fractured lives. Compositionally an elaborate display of fragment sequences, a greater use of syntactic fragments I have not encountered in any other novel. At times, the choppy fragmented syntax is effective to show the disoriented, frantic mind of Claire—no time to think the full thought, questioning her every gesture and action. At other times the fragment-style is confused, as when Ciaran lives his present moments, step by step, coming home to his apartment from the tavern where he worked. Intermixed are the panicked scenes of his brother Corrigan, quite elsewhere, crashed and treated in the hospital as a bleeding heap. Fragments whirling in a blender; notice the toggling back and forth in this paragraph:
“My brother’s heart machine at a slow canter. In and out. She held a tube of lipstick. That I recall. Not a girl I knew. Maybe her friend. Not a hooker. With half a shrug. The lipstick going across her mouth. A vivid red slash. My brother’s heart machine blipping. The line like water. Not returning to any original place. I burst out through the door. Through the graffiti. The city wore it now, the swirls, the whorls. Fumes of the fresh.” (p.72)
How to Go Onward Surmounting Life’s Obstacles
The theme is emphasized throughout Great World Spin: to live, one must strive onward. Onward, never-ending spins the world, the world of people move about and spin on it. Like Philippe Petit, risking life, we go off the ledge, and beyond the edge, we go forward. No going back. Can we possibly go back to 1974, when the aerial climate of America was still growing warm and kind? In living the ongoing life, how do we do it well, how well do we do it? Risk is always part of living well. Above all, people circle around others, need other people, for loneliness can spin a person into despair. It is no wonder McCann’s novel caught the attention of some teachers at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut (see: “The World, Still Spinning” in The New York Times Magazine, June 2, 2013, p.36-39; http://nyti.ms/19oRSOm). Because of his work about dealing with loss as it arises in characters’ lives in Great World Spin, the teachers felt the author might speak to Newtown families to help the people traumatized by the school massacre and the loss of their children. How do people go on with life after suffering catastrophic loss? It’s step by step, a necessary slide into the beyond, beyond the cynicism and despair.
Colum McCann is Irish. Sentimentality is in the blood of Irishmen (and the Scots), crusty hard-men, as they think themselves. Obviously borrowing on his own native experience, McCann conjures two Irish brothers, Corrigan (nicknamed “Corrie”) and Ciaran. Corrigan’s back-story is elaborated, but both have significant three-dimensional roles in the “mosaic” of characters arranged and rearranged in the New York scenes. Corrigan and Ciaran, they are not protagonist and antagonist, just two of many significant characters. Others are Claire Soderberg, and her husband Judge Solomon, of Park Avenue; Tillie Henderson, the incorrigible, irascible prostitute of the Deegan freeway; and Lara and her husband Blaine, the hedonistic dilettante artists, living cocaine-high in faddist retro-Gatsbyesque style. Nurse Adelita from Guatemala is briefly sketched out as Corrigan’s friend and lover. African-American Gloria, a minor or flat character at first, is later fully delineated. Magnanimous, like crazy Corrigan who is represented as an authentic avatar of or a romantic impersonator of St. Francis of Assisi, she brings about by her generous nature and by her good judgment healthful solutions in various lives of the troubled actors. The daring Gloria is the positive activist, a heroine of our age, who skillfully adjusts to others’ lives and brings about long-lasting effects. She knows how to adjust and go onward. Though taken stereotypically as a stocky, church-going, choir-singing black lady, she has a realistic approach to life that has given up on the promise of “All this heaven stuff.” When the story resolves in the distant future age (2006) from the main period setting (mid-1970s), there is budding romance and prospects of productive careers. The modern couple are people who have come through the fog of the past; they help to dispel the pessimism and despair of the past generation.
Among much pathos and tragedy, certainly one has to admit several romances are a-swirl in Great World Spin, but it is hard to term the genre of the novel as romance or tragedy. The finale is a happy consequence, this flash-forward resolution of grown-up American Jaslyn, offspring of Jazzlyn and adopted daughter of Gloria, and the stranger on the plane, Spanish Pino, A Doctor Without Borders, especially coming after a sequence of strange, muddled relationships and rather bizarre meetings in the past era. Jaslyn and Pino are borderless in their own minds, having surmounted racial barriers through education and accepted differences in humanity; it’s the sort of ending that characterizes romantic drama. Nice, in the world’s turmoil of our modern times to have a hopeful conclusion for this 21st-century story. New Yorkers should eat it up. After the cataclysmic Sandy storms of 2013, they know they are not in 1974. Where is Fire Island now? Towers of WTC; now there’s Ground Zero’s Memorial Plaza? We still have to dream that things will get better. We can always dream.
Without the fractured design of the story, this novel would have appeared less extraordinary if narrated in a chronologically linear structure. In consideration of the mixed-up, cubistic, dislocations of the episodes, “mosaic” is my choice of plastic terms. Some do call the interwoven vignettes of a repertoire of characters a “tapestry” because of the intertwining of figures. Text after all is something woven. Various episodes with characters appearing in a cameo in one vignette and then reappearing in a lesser role in a later one (or vice-versa) remind me of a mosaic: variegated parts conjoined but with slight disjunctions. Threads are thin; these chunks are cubistic. In film styles, several directors have chosen this kind of “jigsaw-puzzle” arrangement, which is a post-modernist technique that is, in my opinion, best used sparingly and good when kept to a chronological linearity. For example, Paul Haggis’s Crash (2004) had the intermingling of a small coterie of characters; also Robert Altman early on worked with large numbers of characters encircling one another, engaging and disengaging, in Nashville (1975) but especially in Short Cuts (1993); also, see Lawrence Kasdan’s experiment with the same style in Grand Canyon (1991). The vignette styles of these films are similar to the patchwork quilt that McCann fits together in Let the Great World Spin. It’s an omniscient social world’s-eye view—camera’s everywhere, mics always on—even inside brains.
This meshing of characters is quite appealing in our time, for each section, which focuses on a common subject from different angles of perception, suits I think the modern tendency to read in bits and pieces, not feeling bound to read lengthy chapters and deeply digest the whole chapter or section en masse. It’s like a TV episodic drama, a mini-series, in which the sequel episodes remind one, as if in review, of the nature of characters once met and faded. Then a new episode builds on the past and brings to mind gradually the bigger picture of incidents, but most importantly it enhances our understanding of characters as they develop through (slightly altered) time frames and through a variety of perspectives. Variety keeps the mind stimulated. The mosaic pieces are variously colored in tone and mood by the different angles of perception. This variegated novel must certainly appeal to our age of partial or short-termed readers. We Retired Men’s Club readers are certainly getting a workout in different styles of presentation. I’m happy our club is open to many different categories, genres, and ages of literature.
Reading Great World Spin as an e-Book
Having read Great World Spin in e-book format, I did not concern myself where I paused once I got the drift. Written in major sections, called in a rather old-fashioned sense, Book 1, 2, 3, the chopped-up mini-sections allowed one large dividing spots to pause. Capitalization adds to mark the sections, and then later one begins reading a “refreshed” page, catching up with some of yesterday’s lost moments of consciousness. The odd jigsaw-puzzle pieces left over from reading the night before, by noticeable breaks or segmentation, become quite easy to fit together on the next day’s reading. Many points of view were presented and so I made notes of whose voice was narrating when I closed the page. In tapestry-weaving terms, the vignette fragmentation and technological “refreshment” made it convenient to pick up the loose threads.
One afternoon I introduced my 89 year old mother, rehabilitating from a knee implant, to the e-book version of McCann’s story. She read in 18 pt. type-style (because of macular degenerative eyesight) the first chapter of Great World Spin, read it out loud to both of us. Half way through the chapter on Philippe Petit’s intense first step off the ledge onto the cable strung between the still unfinished Twin Towers back in 1974, she stopped and asked, “I thought you said this was a novel.” “Sure, it is a novel,” I responded, “but it happens to include this account of a particular historical feat by a well-known artist” (see Man on Wire, dir. James Marsh, 2008) “And,” I added, “it takes place during the Viet Nam War, or at the tail end of that historical war.” Fiction can represent history most palatably, as we discovered in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (Neil’s choice, January, 2013). McCann admits to making up much of the Petit action and the reasons for the act; it’s history from the author’s view or understanding and spun through his personal imaginative description.
Fictionally McCann imagines the New York scene of 1974. He lists scores of workers from many occupations and professions in downtown New York, detailing crowds standing, detained from their work destinations, pointing upward transfixed, in awful and wonderful trances, spell-bound by the spectacle of a dark figure crossing at the top of the World Trade Organization’s towers on a high-wire cable. McCann further describes the many modes of transportation stalled or stalling, releasing their passengers to the street where they will join other watchers, arrested with craned-necks and shaded eyes. God knows what the lost work hours cost the city! The emphasis is both down on the street level looking up and then up high with Petit braced on the ledge for his slide from the edge. Above him flies a flummoxed weather reporting helicopter—what the hell could that accomplish?–menacing his concentration. Later, in a reprise of the scene, another police copter arrives. What could the police helicopter accomplish? Below, from a window, some idiot inflaming the crowd, yelling, “Do it, Asshole!” And Petit does it. He ventures forth, the immense height indicated by the shedding of his sweatshirt that floats and wafts downward, not unlike the uncertain hover of the alien helicopter and the flapping pigeon that signaled the immense space, the airy void, between the height, the buildings and the ground, the space through which Petit might fall should he fail in his artistic crime.
Art Attacks New York
Petit’s art was an attack. Crime it was for several reasons: 1) Uniforms were faked. No legal permit or passage was allowed for non-employed persons on the Towers’ structures. 2) Petit and his assistants trespassed by stealth to get their equipment stored at the summit storey before the day designated for their performance. 3) It required penetration into and trespass upon both of the Twin Towers for the anchoring of the cable, drawn across by wire shot by archery from one tower to the other. Ingenious planning and much expense went into the materials and construction of the apparatus for Petit’s daring action, his magnificent, dangerous performance art. 4) Should he have failed in the execution of his tightrope walk, should he have slipped, or the cable dislodged from its anchors, as he slid forward, gripping the wire painfully through his slippers from one tower to the other, no telling what damage could have resulted from his body’s impact below. The police were ready, ludicrously over-anxious to take him in. They hollered he was under arrest while he committed his criminal feat, as though they wanted him to be disoriented, afraid, knowing he had not thwarted the authorities completely. But he had thwarted their imperfect oversight, police being so stupid when their bureaucratic power is in question.
Philippe “the Tiny” had confidence in his skill and expertly performed, balancing and clowning at the top of the world, at top form, defying fear, defying death, defying gravity, executing his awesome crime, lost in his own world, an original, an outsider of unimaginable deeds, like no other human being at that time, an extraordinary artist. [For Nik Wallenda’s recent high-wire act over Grand Canyon, see http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/06/24/us-usa-highwire-grandcanyon-idUSBRE95K15Z20130624. ] Petit’s assault upon the Twin Towers was an art attack that could not fail in its daring, lest it become a dreadful horror, a criminal failure endangering others’ lives. There is madness in great art.
The Pain of Return: Nostalgia
Thinking of Petit’s potential fall, perhaps one might have reflected upon the falling bodies of some years ago, of other crowds of watchers aware of the descending forms, watching and imagining the decent of fenestrated jumpers after the planes on 9/11/2001 penetrated and burned the WTC’s upper storeys, the frightful long falls in conscious recognition of the end, the plummetings and finally fatal thuds. This was not Petit’s fate. It can hardly be called a nostalgic longing, but the mention of Twin Towers and the WTC must have caused a twinge in the hearts and minds of most readers. It was not a sentimental twinge for me.
All right, McCann knew what he was doing with symbols, but this is not everyone’s distraction, in spite of the iconographic, archetypal emblems two inhabited giant pillars might be as triggers of image and emotion. For me, it’s more about Petit’s success and his going forward, ever onward, to the completion of his artistic dream walk. This is the image, the symbol that drives McCann’s story. The great high-wire daredevil, “Phillip the Tiny,” is the central image of artistic living, his ordinary life, moving in narrow straits, moving onward, forward, not backward, living fully conscious of the pitfalls and dangers of his onward progress. Mr. Tiny was fearless, fully engaged in what he did best.
Able to be a sentimentalist about some things, especially after cocktails and a late night-cap, I tend generally to shrug off squishy feelings. The Twin Towers and 9/11 are reminders to me about the ineptness of American authority, about faulty electronic oversight and the slackness of our government and its top-heavy bureaucracy. More than that, the Towers remind me of the terrible rush to vengeful war in Afghanistan, still in limping, degenerative progress through the second decade of this century. And of course, what became a worse disaster to turn the world hateful against America, the US-Iraq War, trumped up by false pretexts, but presented as a necessity before our gullible, traumatized nation and its scared shit-less congress by a power-mongering gang of super-patriot neo-conservatives, led by Bush the Impotent. I knew enough beforehand how they were craving to enact an experimental pre-emptive war policy, composed a decade earlier by the same gang who later conducted our nation’s business at the highest echelons of power—Powell, Wolfewitz, Kristol, Cheney, Perle, Rumsfeld, etc. Some of you may remember them. (One or two of them are coming back to haunt your memory in Peter Dimock’s George Anderson.) The fundamentalist Arabs from several nations, “Al-Qaida” (whoever-the hell-they-were) true-believers of Islam, spawned the madness of the so-called “clash of cultures” that has become our world’s hot-war culture to replace the 20th-century’s Cold War enmity. The bigger picture is more important than planes stuck in skyscrapers.
Pollution of War
So, the other historical event, the Viet Nam War, another debacle of bungled American foreign policy, is what also triggers emotions in me—but no sentimental nostalgia in the least. The gross statistics of American and Vietnamese deaths in a losing war, first under the French, then taken over by America and enlarged by pretexts and false information to coincide with other feckless strategies of the US anti-Communist vendettas–this is what angers me still.
As one who might have been inducted under the Draft, I, like many, lived in fear of being called up, and in my pacifist conviction I would have left for Vancouver, B.C. Since 1966, I moved first to Eugene, a strong anti-war town, and then to Seattle, where I demonstrated and protested on campus and in the streets over several years of graduate school at the University of Washington. I was a mere hour-and-a-half drive to Canada. Having a wife and children to support, I did finally receive a deferment that placed me beyond the reach of the Draft Lottery, but it did not stop us graduate students from endangering our stipends by closing down the UW on a couple of occasions, appealing to the faculty to show their true colors about the war. The parental characters in Great World had many reasons to regret the loss of their offspring—Gloria most of all, having given three sons away to the damned war. But they in those times, ignorant of the facts, did not know the half of their regrets, save their loved ones were gone for good, fallen “heroes” as the irrational patriotic mythology deems them to save itself from the pathetic truth: the duped dead, the wasted, unnecessary sacrifices. The poor devils. No going backward.
“Time doesn’t cure everything,” she said, looking away along the strand, “but it cures a lot. I live here now. This is my place. I won’t go back. If that’s what you’re asking me, I won’t go back.” (p.68) These are the words of Corrie’s friend, Adelita, to Ciaran, from which he acknowledged: “There could indeed be no going back.” (p.68)
Thus it is that McCann’s book raises troubling ideas in me about the folly of American politics and wars and the way the world spins out of control. On the other hand, I see his story as an attempt to inspire hope and the need to act bravely, alone and in concert with our fellow beings, while the Great World spins perhaps into a new state of precarious tilt or balance. The emphasis is on going onward, in concert with unknown others in societies who suffer the vicissitudes of mortal existence.
Before I conclude, I do wish to make a point about the contiguity of reading Great World Spin and Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. Considering the hierarchy of heroism (the aesthetic, ethical, and spiritual) in Kierkegaard’s system, I could imagine the 19th-century philosopher viewing Corrigan as a “knight of faith,” the unintelligible, crazy one who acts without normative reasoning, performing at the command of a silent voice, and which self-less charity had been inculcated as epiphany or syncope in him by his Catholic catechism. Gloria, beset by poverty conditions and robbed of her purse and identity, acts as a spiritual hero in taking the children of Jazzlyn, by epiphanic coincidence, as her own, an act of Great Mother madness. Otherwise she behaves as an ethical hero, quite within the bounds of decent rational behaviors. Ciaran and Lara are struggling ethical heroes, she coming to grips with conscience and consciousness of meaningful living after the accident that pathetically touched several lives beyond her own. Giving up Blaine, she gave up the inauthentic life. Philippe Petit is the aesthetic hero; he does what he does for beauty’s sake, for the swoon, the escape from everyday pain:
“So much of it was about the old cure of forgetting. To become anonymous to himself, have his own body absorb him. … It was much like having sex with the wind. … The wire was about pain too; it would always be there, jutting into his feet, the weight of the bar, the dryness at his throat, but the joy was losing the pain so that it no longer mattered.” (p.222-224)
“He never saw himself in any danger or extremity, so he didn’t return to the moment he lay 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.” (p.224-225)
Rooted like Poems
No doubt the references to poets in McCann’s novel inspired many of you to post poetic works in response to Ron Powers’ presentation (Richard’s Robert Frost poem and Ron Boothe’s “Apricot” poem). Then poetry flooded in as choices for our August Short Selections. Why we seldom bring up poetic allusions in the prose works we read and discuss bothers me somewhat, for they are very important references that illuminate a character’s thoughts or enhance a situation or scene. I would hope that poems can be considered as worthwhile points of discussion whenever we encounter them in novels.
How universal, eternal and ubiquitous Rumi seems to be as a poetic icon. Once again, as before in Adiga’s The White Tiger, which pushed this reader to consider the Persian poets, (see 2012 postings: “The Muslim Persian Poets in Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger”) Rumi crops up in the “education” of Tillie the whore. Whenever one opens a collection of Rumi’s verse, the first encounter is usually poetry of “The Tavern,” to which an allusion is made by Tillie. Stunned by her recitation, Ciaran knew the line: “Whosoever brought me here is going to have to take me home.” (p.60) Questioned, Tillie passed over her knowledge of Rumi as nothing special: “Big fucking deal.” Her former husband, she lyingly explained, had been a student of Persian poetry. At once, Ciaran’s disgust of Tillie and her vulgar nature turned to awe and he wished to kiss her. She had a husband! Studied Rumi! Who is this magical being named Tillie the whore? Has Ciaran met his Shams of Tabriz? Wowed for the moment, true to the sort of ecstatic realization Rumi became expert in observing and expressing, Ciaran felt a “wild-eyed, yea-saying overburst of American joy.” (p. 61) In light of this high moment of a key allusion that dust may be diamonds, water wine, I will, therefore now post, belatedly, my August poem from Rumi’s collected works, such as it is in translation, but, I think, quite appropriate to McCann’s theme: Call it ‘Ciaran’s Shame in the Aura of Tillie’: “A Community of the Spirit”
There is a community of the spirit.
Join it, and feel the delight
of walking in the noisy street,
and being the noise.
Drink all your passion,
and be a disgrace.
Close both eyes
to see with the other eye.
Open your hands,
if you want to be held.
Sit down in this circle. Quit acting like a wolf, and feel
the shepherd’s love filling you.
At night your beloved wanders.
Don’t accept consolations.
Close your mouth against food.
Taste the lover’s mouth in yours.
You moan, “She left me,” “He left me.”
Twenty more will come.
Be empty of worrying.
Think of who created thought!
Why do you stay in prison
when the door is so wide open?
Move outside the tangle of fear-thinking.
Live in silence.
Flow down and down in always
widening rings of being.
There’s a strange frenzy in my head
of birds flying,
each particle circulating on its own.
Is the one I love everywhere?
(from The Essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks (New York: QPBC, c1998) p. 3-4.) [I have bolded the first words of each couplet or four-verse stanza because WordPress spacing would not allow me to space as I wished.]
More than practicing a poetical lark, popular novelists who use allusions of great poets intend to enhance the artistic depth of their style and the content. Many, I’m sure, wish for readers who can grasp immediately the literary references. Knowing the sense of poetic words and the passage of implied meaningful content will make small ideas explode amazingly in the mind’s eye. I feel sure, also, such authors would admit a serious intent to enhance the worth of poetics in their artistic practice of allusion, to lead the unknowing reader into curious investigation of past traditions, still vital—vitalizing of style—in the most modern fiction.
Reference to Philip Larkin, “rooted like Larkin poems” (p.34) I have detailed in regards to “The Whitsun Weddings” posted by David Smith in the August, 2013 Short Selections. So I’ll refer the reader to that posting. Likewise in regards to the T.S. Eliot allusions of Prufrock’s “pair of ragged claws,” I have responded to Peter Farnum’s August selection and its aptness in describing Claire’s character.
One other allusion I will remark on, however. Wallace Steven’s unusual poem “Anecdote of the Jar” is referred to by Claire in her story of dating her husband, sober Judge Solomon Soderberg. The judge, when attending Yale, had actually walked the narrow paths of Hartford with Wallace Stevens, “both men in sleeveless shirts. It did not give of bird or bush. Like nothing else in Tennessee.” (p. 127) This is a reference to the final lines of Wallace’s strange, seemingly simply-worded poem “Anecdote of the Jar”:
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.
OK. It’s easy to place Walt Whitman, who was part of all of America, in McCann’s story, but this poem by the mysterious Stevens, I’m not sure of. That’s it. And it’s OK. What is intended by this allusion is hard to fathom, just as the poem’s phrase “did not give of.” I would suppose McCann is aware of the difficulty in these concluding verses. The expressions “give of” and “like nothing else in Tennessee” are mighty peculiar, and so I leave it at that. Perhaps there is some analogy to Claire’s Park Avenue apartment, “tall and of a port in air,” with a slovenly wild New York environment that sprawled around. Obvious aesthetic contrasts are there in the jar’s geometry, “round” and “grey and bare,” and like a magical icon (“tall and of a port in air”) it has a taming affect upon chaotic nature, “no longer wild.” Then, there is a fierce irony if one considers those Twin Towers, tall ports in air, which did not tame the wild and the chaotic lurking about them. But what is gained by the reference to Tennessee. Who is from Tennessee? Oh, it’s great fun to set the imagination afire and ponder such enigmatic language! Stevens did say, “The poem must resist the intelligence Almost successfully.” Many would agree, in the “Jar” poem he was totally successful in that. It’s a wonder for wondering about. He also explained poetry thus: “It’s the way of making one’s experience, almost wholly inexplicable, acceptable.” Also, in conclusion: “My final point, then, is that imagination is the power that enables us to perceive the normal in the abnormal, the opposite of chaos in chaos.” McCann, I feel, is helping the reader in the Great World Spin towards that enabling power of the imagination, in another paradox: to perceive the connections among the disconnected.