the circular runner

Let the Great World Spin (a mini-book review)

In teaching & education, writers & books, writing on July 1, 2011 at 6:16 pm

I should start this off by saying that I like the book.  It’s good.  It’s fine.  It’s literary fiction by the numbers.

This may sound like I’m damning the book with faint praise, and in a sense, this is true enough.  However, the fault may lie with me.  Here’s what I mean:

Let the Great World Spin reads like one of those small Indie movies (often set in New York) in which a group of characters are intertwined by chance.  The characters are interesting and well-written (maybe too well-written, which I will explain below.)  That said, there’s a budding romance at the end of the book that is especially fun to read, and it’s a credit to Mr. McCann that this is so.  In fact, Mr. McCann is one of those writers whose best writing comes out in his characters.  I know this.  As I know that creating and sustaining characters throughout a novel.

But reading this book, I also got the feeling that there was a certain box this book was made to fit in.  I was conscious of the box the way one might be conscious of any genre when the writing upholds its rules just a little too well.  And that’s what’s going on here.

Literary fiction, or at least the way the term often gets defined, is all about characters and their inner lives.  There are great novels, literary “serious” novels that give you this in new and interesting ways, and then there are novels like this one that adhere to “The New Yorker style of fiction” a little too closely.  By which I mean that nothing much happens unless you think following the rapid-fire synapses of a character is action.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not looking to fiction to get guts and gore and explosions, but there’s something a little too literary about reading pages and pages of a character’s decisions, observations, and other thoughts about whatever.  In other words, if the character is someone whose personality and way of being in the world is cerebral, then it makes sense that you spend time in his/her brain.  But I’m not sure that everyone pays attention to the small things the way writers are supposed to, and so what you get is this strange overlay of the concerns/observations of a writer coming out in the mouth of ordinary people trying to survive.  I just don’t buy it, and I find it annoying.

I guess to put it simply, Let the Great World Spin feels like it’s a by-the-numbers-novel.  Mr. McCann knows his craft, no doubt.  But the craft got in the way of a story too many times to make me love this book as much as I wanted to.

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