I was surprised to discover a photograph reproduced in Colum McCann’s award-winning Let the Great World Spin (2009), which I recently picked up in this second-hand Random House edition dating from 2010. The novel takes places on and around 7 August 1974, the day on which the French tightrope walker Philippe Petit crossed back and forth on a wire stretched between the twin towers of the newly built World Trade Center. This event is given marginal yet focused attention in three short sections, and serves as the backbone, as it were, to the entire novel: without it, the whole narrative would collapse in a flash.
The nine other sections set in 1974 focus on a range of characters: from a couple of working girls, as they’re called, in the Bronx to a couple of artists shuttling between the city and upstate New York, from a monk-like Irishman helping those girls in the Bronx to a Jewish/Waspish Upper East Side couple, and from the African-American mother of three boys killed in Vietnam to a young Hispanic photographer riding the subways photographing graffiti. All of these characters coexist too comfortably for my liking, to the extent that it all feels terribly unreal: this really is feel-good fiction.
But to get back to the photograph, which is reproduced approximately two-thirds into the novel. Taken from the ground, apparently, it shows the microscopic tightrope walker on the wire stretched between the towers, while a plane is seen in the top-left corner, its nose close to the edge of one of the towers. It is, surprisingly, copyrighted to the young Hispanic photographer, Fernando Yunqué Marcano, whose name is given in the caption under the photograph. Although photographs in novels are sometimes said to have been taken by one or other character, this is the only case I know of where the fiction is pushed to include the copyright – a somewhat futile exercise, perhaps, since in his author’s note McCann tells us the photograph is by Vic DeLuca, Rex Images (copyright Rex USA).
No mention of the photograph is made in any of the sections set in 1974, nor is Marcano even shown taking the photograph: the last we see of him is when he leaves the subway station, following some policemen who are rushing to the scene of the crime.
The photograph is mentioned, however, at the start of the last section, set in October 2006. Although the reproduction shows no signs of being torn, it was discovered, we are told, “yellowing and torn” in a garage sale in San Francisco in 2002 by one of the prostitutes’ daughters, who is drawn to it, she says, because it was “taken on the same day her mother died” (she was killed with the Irishman in a car crash), and because of “the sheer fact that such beauty had occurred at the same time”, while the narrator adds: “A man high in the air while a plane disappears, it seems, into the edge of the building. One small scrap of history meeting a larger one. As if the walking man were somehow anticipating what would come later. The intrusion of time and history. The plane passes, the tightrope walker gets to the end of the wire. Things don’t fall apart”.
But for a novel set essentially in 1974, all this strikes me as unnecessary and unconvincing and forced: it shifts the focus from Petit (who is here literally too small to be seen in any way clearly) to the plane and hence to the 9/11 attacks, trivializing Petit’s action and hence trivializing the very backbone of the novel. It forces a connection that readers could hardly not be aware of: any mention of Philippe Petit or the World Trade Center before 9/11 will, for some years yet presumably, inevitably call up the 9/11 attacks, so why force the connection? It seems to me to be a cheap use of photography in this novel.