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McCann has said that Let the Great World Spin seeks to address the "invisible tight-rope wire that we all walk, with equally high stakes, only it is hidden to most, and only 1 inch off the ground." The cultural events in the novel are ones where individuals are situated in the midst of degradation and restoration. The characters are seemingly like Petit himself, who walks between both towers as positioning points for his feat. Individuals in the novel seem to struggle in the "tightropes" in their own lives.
These cultural elements are set amidst the backdrop of the decay of New York City. The city has become a cesspool of nihilism and cynicism. It was once a haven for optimism and transformation. The characters in the novel struggle with a similar chasm between what might have been and what is in their own lives. Corrigan is one such example. He struggles between his temporal love and the transcendent love of his faith, reflective of the polarities he must walk: "...he was a crack of light under the door, and yet that door was shut to him." This reality is reflective of the conflict between polarities that define his own existence, similar to the issue of the grief and hope embodied within the city. Tillie is positioned in a similar light. She is poised between the hope for her children and the restoration that exists in a world outside of the life she leads as a prostitute. In these situations, the cultural elements of how individuals see themselves as positioned between polarities of hope and despair is reflective of the conflict within New York, itself. McCann creates this cultural reality within his characters and in doing so, reflects the actual history of the conflict raging within New York of the 1970s and in a post- September 11 world.
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