Colum McCann’s lingering appeal to the senses

When you’re reading a book or trying to write creatively yourself, it can be difficult to put a finger on the why.

Why is a particular book is good? Why are some great, remaining locked in the consciousness years after you’ve finished reading them?

Why do others, despite well-constructed sentences and characters and plots, just not work?

It’s impossible to know why any of this is. Why very occasionally magic happens. I once read an interview with Ian McEwan (which I can’t for the life of me find now) where he said real inspiration strikes about once a year, and that sustains him through all the rest of his workaday struggles.

colum-mccann-let-the-great-world-spin

So I don’t know, but I suspect that appealing to the non-visual senses is vital to any piece of creative writing. You can describe something in minute and perfect detail, but if it doesn’t come to life it will fail on the page. Descriptive passages often focus on how something looks, but if how that something feels or sounds or smells isn’t conveyed then it’s liable to fall flat.

This thought hit me with force on the first page of Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, which I’ve picked up this week, three years after everyone else.

Take the paragraph below as an example of expert scene-setting. We already know from the first paragraphs, from “Lenny Bruce gag”, “construction worker” and “up there, at the height of one hundred and ten stories”, that we’re almost certainly in New York. (The place-names in the opening line meant nothing to me, but they would similarly have established location for many readers.)

And then comes the headrush of how stuff sounds:

Around the watchers, the city still made its everyday noises. Car horns. Garbage trucks. Ferry whistles. The thrum of the subway. The M22 bus pulled in against the sidewalk, braked, sighed down into a pothole. A flying chocolate wrapper touched against a fire hydrant. Taxi doors slammed. Bits of trash sparred in the darkest reaches of the alleyways. Sneakers found their sweetspots. The leather of briefcases rubbed against trouserlegs. A few umbrella tips clinked against the pavement. Revolving doors pushed quarters of conversation out into the street.

The inventive verbs and nouns – a bus sighs, rubbish spars, you hear quarters of conversation – bring newness to the sounds. It’s transportingly brilliant.

I’m only on page 30 now. Don’t tell me how it spins.

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