During the past couple of weeks, I've abandoned two excellent books: Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann and The Lake Shore Limited by Sue Miller. Miller I've read in the past and really enjoyed; her 2008 release The Senator's Wife was one of my favorites from that year. McCann I had never heard of, but with the publication of and subsequent praise for Let the Great World Spin -- not to mention his winning the National Book Award -- he's practically become a household name. Well, in the book world, anyway.
Let the Great World Spin is the story of the man who high-wire walked between the twin towers of the World Trade Center buildings on August 7, 1974, an act also captured in the award-winning documentary Man on Wire.
The Lake Shore Limited relates the lives of four people involved in a play about a terrorist attack on the train the Lake Shore Limited, an actual Amtrak route which runs daily between Chicago and Albany, New York. Although technically the play focuses on this fictional attack, the novel's characters harbor strong ties to the World Trade Center attack on September 11, 2001.
Both stories are related through various narrative voices, with The Lake Shore Limited divided into distinct and labeled sections (i.e., "Leslie," and "Rafe"). Let the Great World Spin takes a decidedly different approach, with sections focused on characters who remain unnamed until well into each section. Both are beautifully written pieces of fiction drawn from American history. Miller and McCann execute characters and relate tales with the utmost ease. Why, then, could I not finish these books?
I think the answer is simple: I couldn't find any joy in either book, or in reading them. The prose was pitch-perfect, characters finely drawn on the page. But their lives were so miserable, with no joy to follow such misery. Even the small pieces of almost-joy (Rafe and Billy's night together in The Lake Shore Limited, or the good works done by priest John Corrigan in the ghettos of New York in Let the Great World Spin), pale in comparison to the overriding themes of loss and despair. I want to believe that both novels eventually come to be much more about hope than about loss, but I simply couldn't find it within myself to continue reading either one in order to find out.
Even more true, probably, is that I can't believe that almost a decade has passed since 9/11. Perhaps because I was still in college and in a formative place in my life, or perhaps because until that point my world had been an America free from war and with little loss of life, but whatever the reason, the terrorist attacks of that day continue to remain part of me in a way little else in the world is, or has been. I knew no one involved personally in those attacks, and I have never lived within several hundreds of miles of the places where they occurred. But I still can't bring myself to watch or read anything relating to that day. To me, it's just a bit too soon and too close -- even nine years later. Maybe one day I will be able to pick up The Lake Shore Limited and Let the Great World Spin and appreciate them for what I'm sure they are -- exemplary pieces of literature that document and provide insight into important events. For now, I need more distance.