Posts Tagged ‘Multi-Culturalism’

A novelist for a multi-cultural age

October 26, 2018

I recently read two novels, Let the Great World Spin (2009) and TransAtlantic (2013), by the Irish-born writer Colum McCann that astonished me by his ability to imaginatively get inside the minds of people of different races, different social classes, different cultures and different historical eras, and give the reader an idea of what it was like to be them.

Thomas Wolfe wrote great novels by processing his own life experience.  I would take nothing away from respect for his achievement.  I think McCann’s achievement, in processing the life experiences of people very different from himself and from each other, is of a different order.  Reading his novels helps me feel more at home in a multi-cultural age, in which I rub shoulders with people whose backgrounds and assumptions are different from my own.

I don’t, however, recommend his novels because they are multi-cultural.  I recommend them because McCann is a good storyteller and literary stylist.

∞∞∞

Let the Great World Spin is about the destinies of a diverse gallery of characters in New York City, linked by two events of August 7, 1974—one real, one fictional.

The real event was a tightrope walker performing on a cable slung between the newly built Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.  The fictional event, which occurs in the first chapter, is the death in a highway accident of John Corrigan, an Irish priest who is trying to live according to the precepts of Jesus among prostitutes and outcasts in the Bronx.

McCann had the ability to imagine himself inside the heads of people different from each other and different from himself—men and women, black, white and Hispanic, rich, poor and middle class, and, repeatedly, the mind of a death-defying tightrope walker.

He was a marvelous descriptive writer, both in his ability to portray human thoughts and feelings and his ability to depict life in New York in the 1970s.  His prose is a pleasure and an inspiration for anyone who cares about writing.

Corrigan is at the center of the novel, but is never presented in his own voice, but only through the eyes of others—his older brother from Ireland, a drug-addicted artist who attends his funeral, a prostitute whom he befriends, a nurse who is in love with him, and a judge who mistakes him for a pimp.

He is repeatedly beaten by pimps for showing kindness to prostitutes, such as letting them use the toilet in his apartment. He never fights back, but tries to return good for evil.  We get glimpses of how hard it must be to try to live by such a commitment, not to mention how hard it is to keep his vow of chastity.

I won’t try to summarize the book or list all its characters, but one of the most memorable consists of the reflections of Tillie Henderson, a 38-year-old grandmother and career prostitute, looking back on her life prior to hanging herself in a prison cell.

In her whole life, literally no-one has ever been kind to her except Corrigan and a Middle Eastern man who once paid her to spend a weekend with him so he could appreciate her beauty.   Her idea of love is the abusive relationships she has had with pimps.  She thinks that when she dies, she will confront God and demand to know why He treated her as He did.

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