On August 7th, 1974, in the early thick morning air of New York City, nearly a quarter of a mile up in the air, a man danced on a wire. The wire, strung between the newly constructed twin towers of the World Trade Center, supported Philippe Petit’s six-year-long dream of walking between the world’s tallest structures. In the immediate aftermath of the performance, the world then wanted to know why. The police arrested him and gave him psychological test to determine his sanity. The media speculated and the public stared up in the sky, wondering what might follow such an extraterrestrial feat. It was an event that ruptured the routine of the New York rush hour, an event that would surely be remembered forever for its shear brazenness, it’s remarkable brilliance. But the event receded into dark canyons of the limitless collective ‘unconscience’ that is New York City. The city that never sleeps has a very short memory.
Two recent works of art, a film and a novel, recollect Petit’s early morning walk among the clouds, and both helpfully refocus our memories on the significance of the event and the significance of thinking about such events. In 2008, James Marsh directed the documentary “Man on Wire” and Colum McCann wrote the novel, “Let the Great World Spin.” Both works received critical and popular acclaim; McCann’s won the National Book Award and Marsh’s won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. While Marsh’s film approaches the subject in a more direct way through interviews, dramatic recreations and original footage, McCann chooses to anchor the events of his novel in that August morning, letting the characters and stories “spin” out from the central moment between the two towers.
McCann peoples his novel with characters who are, in a sense, falling and unravelling as they make their way through their own set of momentous events. While none are as attention getting as Petit’s performance, they are all very significant and life changing for each of the characters: a mother struggles with the death of her son, a man with the death of his brother, a woman wants to make sense and meaning after a terrible accident, a male religious fights to maintain a relationship with God. All of these are set against the backdrop of Petit’s ability to keep from falling, trusting, as he does, that the wire beneath him won’t come unraveled.
The film does a great job of conveying the intensity of Petit’s resolve. The look on his face–transfixed is putting it mildly–as he crosses the wire could inspire a novel in and of itself. He is the very picture of stability, fortitude, courage, genius, etc. Of course, we say to ourselves as we watch him, he must be crazy. He must be unstable. Yet the filmmakers implicitly confronts us with another question–could anyone who is unstable accomplish such acts of physical and emotional courage. The film does not easily resolve this tension. The unresolved tension leaves us with a good sense for what artistic genius must be like–wild stability, well-balanced chaos.
In some respects, this is the conclusion McCann settles for as well, except he’s not trying to define artistic genius. McCann chooses to highlight a few of the stories from August 7th, 1974 that didn’t make the headlines–a traffic accident, a hooker’s court appearance, a lover’s quarrel, an act of generosity, a mother’s tears for her dead son. McCann weaves together several stories featuring many characters. One might be concerned that the seemingly unrelated narratives will be tied together too neatly, too sweetly. McCann does manage to weave them together, and the effect is quite powerful. As a piece of fiction, it’s quite a balancing act, in and of itself.