Thursday, December 31, 2009

Spinning the World

Two years ago October I wrote a post in which I gave some examples of one of the stylistic devices which often creates a certain kind of rhetorical intensity: the list in parallel. This other night as I was reading  Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin, I was arrested by two passages. Sol Soderburg, a trial judge in the New York City court system, is thinking back, somewhat ruefully, to his first days on the job, his naive aspirations:

He was a man who believed in the absolute of the law. He would be able to weigh and dissect and ponder and make a change, give something back to the city where he'd been born He always felt that he had skirted the city's edges and now he would take a pay cut and be at its core. The law was fundamental to how it was imparted and to what degree it could contain the excesses of human folly. He believed in the notion that even when laws were written down they ought not to remain unaltered. The law was work. It was there to be sifted. He was interested not just in the meaning of what could be, but what ought to be. He would be the coal face. One of the important miners of the morality of the city. The Honorable Solomon Soderberg...

He had walked in, his very first day, with his heart on fire. Through the front entrance. He wanted to savor it. He'd brought a brand-new suit from a swanky tailor on Madison Avenue. A Gucci tie. Tassels on his shoes. He approached the building in a great swell of anticipation. Etched on the wide, gold-colored doors were the words THE PEOPLE ARE THE FOUNDATION OF POWER. He stood a moment and breathed it all in. Inside, in the lobby, there was a blur of movement. Pimps and reporters and ambulance chasers. Men in purple platform shoes. Womean dragging their children behind them. Bums sleeping in the window alcoves. He could feel his heart sink with each step. It seemed for just a moment that the building could still have the aura—the high ceilings, the old wooden balustrades, the marble floor—but the more he walked around, the more his spirits sank. The courtrooms were even worse than he remembered. He shuffled around, dazed and disheartened. The corridor walls were graffitied. Men sat smoking in the back of the courtrooms. Deals were going down int the bathrooms. Prosecutors had holes in their suits. Crooked cops roamed about, looking for kickbacks. Kids were doing complicated handshakes. Fathers sat with smacked-out daughters. Mothers wept over their long-haired sons. On the courtroom doors, the fancy red leather pouching was slit. Attorneys went by with with battered attaché cases. He ghosted past them all, took the elevator upstairs, then pulled up a chair at his new desk. There was a piece of dried chewing gum underneath the desk drawer. (254-5)

Soderberg's early initiation into disillusionment eventually leads him to a diminished but more realistic sense of his own role within the context of a system whose dysfunctionality threatens at every moment to overwhelm him:

At the words of times he thought, I'm a maintenance guy. I'm a gatekeeper, a two-bit security man. He watched the parade come in and out of his courtroom, which Part he was in that day, and he wondered how the city had become such a disgusting thing on his watch. How it lifted babies by the hair, and how it raped seventy-year-old women, and how it set fires where lovers slept, and how it pocketed candy bars, and how it shattered ribcages, and how it allowed its war protesters to spit in the faces of cops, and how the union men ran roughshod over their bosses, and how the Mafia took hold of the boardwalks, and how fathers used their daughters as ashtrays, and how bar fights spun out of control, and how perfectly good businessmen ended up urinating in front of the Woolworth Building, and how guns were drawn in pizza joints, and how whole families got blown away, and how paramedics ended up with crushed skulls, and how addicts shot heroin into their tongues, and how shopkeepers gave back the wrong change, and how the mayor wheezed and wheedled and lied while the city burned down the the ground, got itself ready for its own little funeral of ashes, crime, crime, crime. (256-7)

One thing that interests me here how McCann has resisted the temptation to make this list more poetic or verbally flamboyant than it is. This is not McCann's inventory, not a writerly list, but Soderberg's. Such force as it develops along the way is by way of calling attention not to the the writer, nor even to the criminal justice system, but to to frame of mind of Sol Soderberg. It's an efficient means of characterization. And it turns out that all of this description of the discouraging tedium of daily life at court is by way of setting up a special event, a special day, a case that comes his way that in allows him for at least one moment to step see and experience himself differently.

That contrast is mirrored in the book as a whole, which is itself an accumulation of very precisely rendered if not always heartwarming details, all of which turn out to be by way of accounting for the circumstances and identity of a new character, introduced in the last chapter, whose story is product, the momentary culmination, of everything that has gone before. It's a remarkable story, and a very satisfying book.

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