Let the Great World Spin: Important quotes with page numbers
“Corrigan liked those places where the light was drained. The docklands. The flophouses. The corners where the cobbles were broken. He often sat with the drunks in Frenchman’s Lane and Spencer Row. . . . He got laughed at by the more vicious drunks but he didn’t care. They were using him of course. He was just another snotnose trying on the poor man’s shoes. ”(Chapter 1, pp. 15-16)
Corrigan starts “serving” the poor at an early age, foreshadowing his future missionary work with prostitutes and the elderly in New York.
He is attracted to the dark side of human behavior and believes he can make a difference for the less fortunate. Later, he intensifies his relationship with the poor and the troubled through religious training and vows. He believes he is following the example of Jesus and doing God’s will by loving his neighbors, no matter how dysfunctional or unattractive they may be.
“Corrigan told me once that Christ was quite easy to understand. He went where He was supposed to go. He stayed where He was needed. . . . He never rejected the world. If He had rejected it, He would have been rejecting mystery. And if He rejected mystery, He would have been rejecting faith. ” (Chapter 1, p. 20)
Corrigan is an avid follower of Christ.
His description of Jesus’ life applies equally well to his own. “Mystery” is not clearly defined in this passage. One possibility is that human beings have very limited understanding of reality and even less knowledge of God’s plan for us. So, life is always a mystery, impossible to figure out completely. Corrigan is suggesting that Jesus understood that as long as he was in human form he could experience life, but not fully comprehend it.
What Corrigan wanted was a fully believable God, one you could find in the grime of the everyday. . . . He wasn’t interested in the glorious tales of the afterlife or the notions of a honey-soaked heaven. . . .He wanted, quite simply, for the world to be a better place, and he was in the habit of hoping for it. Out of that came some sort of triumph that went beyond theological proof, a cause for optimism against all the evidence. ” (Chapter 1, p. 20)
Ciaran interprets Corrigan’s faith that God will somehow make everything better. Corrigan aligns himself with this hope, as he does with the other primary virtues of charity and faith. It is Corrigan’s mission to do what he can to make God’s plan for a better world a reality.
“‘It’s about fear. You know? They’re all throbbing with fear. We all are. ’ He drank the tea without cleaning the lipstick off the rim. ‘Bits of it floating in the air,’ he said. ‘It’s like dust. You walk about and don’t see it, don’t notice it, but it’s there and it’s all coming down, covering everything. You’re breathing it in. You touch it. You drink it. You eat it. But it’s so fine you don’t notice it.
But you’re covered in it. It’s everywhere. ’” (Chapter 1, pp. 29-30)
Corrigan describes the feelings of the local prostitutes to whom he ministers. He says they are good people who do self-destructive and crazy things out of fear. Some of their behavior is designed to help them temporarily escape this fear through drugs and sex.
“Love thy neighbor as thy self. It’s rubbish. You listening? Why don’t you take all those hookers of yours and have them go sing in the choir? The Church of the High Vision. Why don’t you have them sit in the front pews?. . . Why don’t they do something? Because they want nothing but to suck you dry, that’s why. ” (Chapter 1, p. 40)
Ciaran critiques his brother’s extreme sacrifices to help those who do not appear to benefit from his efforts at all. None of his flock have given up prostitution and found regular jobs.
None of them have recovered from alcoholism or drug addiction. Ciaran believes Corrigan is just wasting his time. He thinks Corrigan is merely acting out of guilt for his privileged position as a middle-class, white male.
“’You’re kidding me, right? ’ he reared back and laughed. ‘Me? ’ he said. ‘Shooting smack? ’ We reached the fence. ‘I wouldn’t touch that stuff with a barge pole,’ he said. His hands tightened around the wire, the tip of his knuckles white. ‘With all respects to heaven, I like it here. ’” (Chapter 1, p. 47)
Ciaran sees bruises on Corrigan’s arms and assumes he is using heroin. Corrigan actually has a medical condition called TTP. Corrigan knows full well how dangerous intravenous drug use can be. Given where he lives, it is highly likely that he has seen people die from heroin and other drugs.
“He was at the origin of things and now I had a meaning for my brother—he was a crack of light under the door, and yet the door was shut to him. Only bits and pieces of him would leak out and he would end up barricaded behind that which he had penetrated. . . .why shouldn’t they fall in love, even if just for a short while? . . .why shouldn’t he have a moment of release from this God of his? ” (Chapter 1, p. 67)
Ciaran has discovered that his brother has fallen in love with Adelita, the nurse. Corrigan has taken vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, so he is forbidden to marry and consummate his love for Adelita. It is a terrible dilemma for Corrigan, and Ciaran thinks his brother should just allow himself to find love and happiness. Later, the reader learns that Corrigan and Adelita do sleep together. However, Corrigan dies and never makes a final choice between religion and domestic life.
“What’s he saying? Nonsense, she said, he’s talking nonsense. He’s hallucinating. Her ear to his mouth now. Does he want a priest? Is that what he wants? She turned to me. He says he saw something beautiful. Does he want a priest? I shouted. Corrigan was lifting his head slightly again. Adelita leaned down to him. Her reigning calmness. She was softly crying. Oh, she said, his forehead’s cold. His forehead’s very cold. ” (Chapter 1, p. 72)
The interesting question here is what “beautiful” thing Corrigan saw in his dying moments. Did he see Jesus welcoming him to heaven? Did he have a vision of himself and Adelita in love? Did he see the world change to a more peaceful, loving place as he always hoped it would?
“The simple things come back to us. They rest for a moment by our ribcages and then suddenly reach in and twist our hearts a notch backward. No newspapers big enough to paste him back together in Saigon. She takes another long haul, lets the smoke settle in her lungs—she has heard somewhere that cigarettes are good for grief. One long drag and you forget how to cry. The body too busy dealing with the poison. ” (Chapter 2, p. 81)
Claire has been warmly remembering the first time her son shaved. This leads to the experience of heartbreak she describes. At that moment, nicotine is her drug of choice, distracting her from her painful feelings of sadness and loss.
“–Man in the air. –Imagine. –Very brave. –Exactly. That’s why I thought of Mike Junior. –Of course. –And did he fall? says Jacqueline. –Shh, shh, says Janet. Let her speak. –I’m just asking. –So the captain swings the ferry out so we can get a better look and then brings the boat into the dock. . . . I was the very first person off. I wanted to run and see my boy. ” (Chapter 2, p. 97)
Marcia narrates her response to the tightrope walker. The sight triggers memories of her son Mike Junior, who died in a helicopter crash in Vietnam. She imagines that the tightrope walker high in the air is like her son come back.
“She wanted to tell him so much, on the tarmac, the day he left. The world is run by brutal men and the surest proof is their armies. If they ask you to stand still, you should dance. If they ask you to burn the flag, wave it. If they ask you to murder, re-create. Theorem, anti-theorem, corollary, anti-corollary. Underline it twice. It’s there in the numbers. Listen to your mother. Listen to me, Joshua, look me in the eyes. I have something to tell you. ” (Chapter2, p. 84)
Claire remembers vividly the separation she felt when her son went off to war. She knew s that he might never come back, and that she might well never see him again. She wanted him to understand his role as a pawn in the war games played by powerful men who didn’t care about him or any of his comrades. She hoped he might rebel or resist the war machine and sosurvive the experience.
“Death by tightrope. Death by performance? That’s what it amounted to. So flagrant with his body. Making it cheap. The puppetry of it all. His little Charlie Chaplin walk, coming in like a hack in her morning.
How dare he do that with his own body? Throwing his life in everyone’s face? Making her own son’s life so cheap? Yes, he has intruded on her coffee morning like a hack on her code. ” (Chapter2, p. 113)
Claire compares the tightrope walker to her dead son Joshua.
The aerial artist is risking his life for fame, fortune, or, perhaps, the rush of the experience. Her son died a hero’s death serving his country, risking his life out of patriotism and duty. The contrast disturbs Claire, and probably makes her reconsider her thoughts and feelings about her son’s death. Did Joshua die for a good cause? The Vietnam War was not popular, and many people questioned why America fought there for so long and ultimately lost.
“Come, ladies. Come. Let us while away our morning now. Let it slide. Let us forget walking men. Let us leave them high in the air. Let us sip our coffee and be thankful. Simple as that. Let’s pull back the curtains and allow the light through. Let this be the first of many more. No one else will intrude. We have our boys. They are brought together. Even here. On Park Avenue. We hurt, and have one another for healing. ” (Chapter2, p. 114)
This is Claire’s short aria on grief and solidarity.
She realizes how important it is to have friends with whom she can share her feelings. That, as she says, is a key part of healing their broken hearts.
“Being inside the car, when it clipped the back of the van, was like being in a body we didn’t know. The picture we refuse to see of ourselves. That is not me, that must be somebody else. ” (Chapter3, p. 115)
Lara experiences deeply disturbing emotions because of the fatal car crash caused by her husband hitting Corrigan’s van. It is a profound version of “This can’t be happening. ” Lara feels guilty immediately. Later, her remorse leads her to connect with the surviving brother of the fatally injured driver and to visit Tillie, the second victim’s mother in jail.
“Within fifteen minutes I found myself standing with a box of the late John A. Corrigan’s possessions. They consisted of a pair of black trousers that had been slit up the side with hospital scissors, a black shirt, a stained white undershirt, underwear and socks in a plastic bag, a religious medal, a pair of dark sneakers with the soles worn through, his driver’s license, a ticket for parking illegally on John St. at 7:44 A. M. on Wednesday, August 7, a packet of rolling tobacco, some papers, a few dollars, and, oddly, a key chain with a picture of two young black children on it.
There was also a baby-pink lighter, which seemed at odds with all the other things. I didn’t want the box. I had taken it out of embarrassment, out of a sense of duty to my lie, an obligation to save face, and perhaps even to save my hide. I had begun to think that perhaps leaving the scene of crime was manslaughter, or at least some kind of felony, and now there was a second crime, hardly momentous, but it sickened me. ” (Chapter3, p. 136)
Lara describes what is physically left of Corrigan.
The clothing and objects fit Corrigan’s simple lifestyle and his vow of poverty. The irony is in Jazzlyn’s keychain with the picture of her two children. Lara assumes that Corrigan is their father. The reader knows Corrigan never had children, in keeping with his vow of chastity. This passage also reinforces Lara’s feelings of guilt over Corrigan’s death.
“Quickly I turned away. There are rocks deep enough in this earth that no matter what rupture, they never see the surface. There is, I think, a fear of love. There is a fear of love. ”(Chapter3, p. 156)
Lara thinks about her first encounter with Ciaran after his brother’s tragic death. She is attracted to him but afraid to show it. Later, the reader discovers that Ciaran and Lara get married. This is one of the proverbial silver linings of the car crash: it brought one loving couple together even as it separated another couple (Corrigan and Adelita)[/trx_quote].
“Within seconds he was pureness moving, and he could do anything he liked. . . The core reason for it all was beauty. Walking was a divine delight. Everything was rewritten when he was up in the air. New things were possible with the human form. It went beyond equilibrium. He felt for a moment uncreated. Another kind of awake. ” (Interlude “Let the Great World Spin Forever Down,” p. 164)
The author lets the reader see inside the mind of the tightrope walker during his performance. He is high on the experience. McCann uses the word “awake. ” This is telling since it is the term that the Buddha used to describe his experience of enlightenment. Has the tightrope walker then found another way to achieve enlightenment?
“There was a guy he saw once on television who made his money knocking bricks out of buildings. It was funny, but he understood it in a way. The way the buildings looked different afterward.
The way the light came through. Making people see differently. Making them think twice. You have to look on the world with a shine that no one else has. ’ (Chapter 4, pp. 172-73)
This passage employs of one of McCann’s key images: light. As a writer, he shines light into dark places such as the grieving human heart. And, as suggested here, all people are trying to do the same, trying to find a spark of hope—of light—in the midst of human suffering.
“It was Compton who got the message on the ARPANET this morning—it came over the AP service on the twenty-four hour message board.
We didn’t believe it at first, some guy walking the wires high above New York, but then Compton got on the line with an operator, pretended he was a switchman, testing out some verification trunks on the pay phones, said he needed some numbers down close to the World Trade buildings, part of an emergency line analysis, he said, and then we programmed the numbers in, skipped them through the system, and we each took bets on whether he’d fall or not. Simple as that. The signals bounce through the computer, multi-frequency bips, like something on a flute, and we catch the guy on the ninth ring. ” (Chapter 5, pp. 177-78)
The author explores the disconnect between the virtual reality of the computer and real events. The hackers in this sequence are detached by both distance and technology. This distance enables them to sit in a room and take bets on whether the tightrope walker will fall without caring that falling means certain death.
“In New York you work for your man. Your man’s your daddy, even if he’s just a chili pimp. It’s easy to find a daddy. I got lucky early on and found TuKwik. He took me on and I worked the best stroll, Forty-ninth and Lexington. That’s where Marilyn’s skirt blew high. Up by the subway vent. ” (Chapter6, p. 201)
This passage directly refers to the sexism and patriarchy inherent in prostitution. Tillie puts her body and her safety on the line, but it is the male pimp who reaps most of the rewards for her work. The reference to Marilyn Monroe is significant. As a figure, she symbolized the epitome of female sexuality. Tillie herself is very sexy. However, her sexuality has been totally distorted by her circumstances. Tellingly, both Monroe and Tillie committed suicide.
“I don’t know who God is but if I meet Him anytime soon I’m going to get Him in the corner until He tells me the truth. I’m going to slap Him stupid and push Him around until He can’t run away. Until He’s looking up at me and then I’ll get Him to tell me why He done what He done to me and what He done to Corrie and why do all the good ones die and where is Jazzlyn now and why she ended up there and how he allowed me to do what I done to her. ” (Chapter6, p. 230)
This diatribe against God is Tillie’s expression of the big “Why? ” that everyone experiences, especially when bad things happen to good and innocent people like children. In Tillie’s mind, there is no divine justice in the Corrigan and Jazzlyn’s early deaths.
“And, so this is how I will leave him as much, and as often, as I can. It was—it is—a Thursday morning a week before the crash, and it fits in the space of every morning I wake into. He sits between Eliana and Jacobo, on the couch, his arms spread wide, the buttons of his black shirt open, his gaze fixed forward. Nothing will ever really take him from the couch. . . and I will take it with me now wherever I go, to Zacapa, or the nursing home, or any other place I happen to find. ” (Chapter8, p. 284)
This is Adelita’s picture of Corrigan as she wished him to be in her life: at home with her and her children after a night of lovemaking.
Her description is vividly detailed. She has chosen these details carefully and hangs on to them, as she will preserve the couch where he sat.
“It was Vietnam that brought me to my knees. In she came and took all three of my boys from right under my nose. She picked them up out of their beds, shook the sheets, and said These ones are mine. I asked Clarence one day why he was going and he said one or two things about liberty, but mostly he was doing it because he was bored. Brandon and Jason said about the same thing too when their draft cards were dropped in the mailbox. It was the only mail that didn’t get stolen in the houses. ” (Chapter9, p. 313)
Gloria imagines the Vietnam War as a goddess who can grab young men and take them out of their homes. It is a strong image, reflecting the helplessness that young men and their families felt in the face of a powerful war machine and the ubiquity of the draft.
“‘Hold on,’ I shouted. I used to think it had all ended sometime long ago, that everything was wrapped up and gone. But nothing ends. If I live to be a hundred I’ll still be on that street. ‘Hold On. ’ Janice—she was the younger one of the two—let her fingers uncurl and reached out to me.
Nothing felt better than that, not in a long time. ” (Chapter9, p. 322)
This is the moment when Gloria sees Jazzlyn’s children being led away by social workers and intervenes. She thought she was done with motherhood and family life when all three of her boys were killed. However, she still has the drive and courage to start again with the orphan girls who badly need a mother. For McCann, this is a notable act of heroism and shows how one person’s choices can change lives for the better.
“We stumble on, thinks Jaslyn, bring a little noise into the silence, find in others the ongoing of ourselves. It is almost enough. . . . The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough. She lies on the bed beside Claire, above the sheets. The faint tang of the old woman’s breath on the air.
The clock. The fan. The breeze. The world spinning. ” (Chapter10, p. 349)
. Jaslyn, with the perspective of many decades, understands how human lives come and go and the indifferent world keeps spinning. Yet there are still legacies of how human lives are lived. And it is “enough” to simply stumble on, to move forward even with the burden of bearing life’s trials. By nature, human beings are by nature survivors.