25 October, 2021

LitStaff Pick: Our Favorite Opening Lines

Let the Great World Spin
Colum McCann

Those who saw him hushed. On Church Street. Liberty. Cortlandt. West Street. Fulton. Vesey. It was a silence that heard itself, awful and beautiful. Some thought at first that it must have been a trick of the light, something to do with the weather, an accident of shadowfall. Others figured it might be the perfect city joke—stand around and point upwards, until people gathered, tilted their heads, nodded, affirmed, until all were staring upwards at nothing at all, like waiting for the end of a Lenny Bruce gag. But the longer they watched, the surer they were. He stood at the very edge of the building, shaped dark against the gray of the morning. A window washer maybe. Or a construction worker. Or a jumper.

Up there, at the height of a hundred and ten stories, utterly still, a dark toy against the cloudy sky.

McCann uses Philippe Petit’s 1974 high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center as both a guiding metaphor and a narrative focal point throughout his brilliant novel. And it’s effective not just because it paints a vivid picture, but also because it gives readers such a perfect taste of the grandness of scale soon to be found within Let the Great World Spin. As with Petit’s walk, it’s not just about the act itself; it’s about the flourish.

-Sam Spokony

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