Thirteen Ways of Looking (2015)
Colum McCann (1965)
In the novella and three short stories that make up Thirteen Ways of Looking, Colum McCann reprises the captivating style of his 2013 novel TransAtlantic. Just as in that earlier novel, the true wonders of these stories lie in the depth McCann brings to the main characters, his exploration of their hopes and fears, dreams and delusions. With a penetrating but empathetic eye, he reveals his characters’ humanity through moments of courage and frailty exposed by a world both movingly beautiful and shockingly cruel.
In the opening novella, which shares the book’s title, a retired judge goes through his morning routine with the help of his live-in nurse, neither of them aware that he has but a few hours to live. As the day begins, the challenges presented by his gradually failing body preoccupy his mind: “The years don’t so much arrive, they gatecrash, they breeze through the door and leave their devastation.” (9) Memories though, provide moments of consolation; some clear and crisp, others hazy and elusive, they deflect his focus off his physical struggles, and on to past times both joyful and bittersweet.
Divided into thirteen chapters, the novella alternates between the judge's perspective and that of the detectives investigating his death. The title and number of chapters come from a poem by Wallace Stevens named Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird; the poem’s thirteen stanzas appear as epigraphs for the chapters.
The investigation into the judge’s death focuses on video evidence obtained in and around his apartment, and in the vicinity of the place he was killed. For the detectives, the videotape images are often as enigmatic as the blackbirds of Stevens’ poem. Of inconsistent quality and with important action sometimes just beyond the frame, their mute, purely visual testimony counterposes brilliantly with the chapters that reveal the judge’s thoughts as he goes through his last morning. On the one hand McCann gives the reader a window into the intimate, meandering thoughts of the judge as he deals with the twilight of a good life, while on the other we see his body language and actions, which only cryptically bespeak his thoughts.
In the short story What Time Is It Now, Where You Are, McCann imagines a writer who has “agreed in spring to write a short story for the New Year’s Eve edition of a newspaper magazine.” (147) Though his October deadline initially seems far off and easily met, the writer struggles for months to discover a satisfactory storyline. Then suddenly, as summer turns into fall, an image comes to him --- a character caught in a very specific time and place --- that seems to hold the promise of a story.
Starting from this scene that resembles a painting more than a plot, the writer gradually, fitfully, fleshes out a story of the character and moment he has imagined; from simple, vague beginnings, he builds an increasingly complex story. Wildly far from the notion of an author typing out a preconceived plot, McCann’s short story demonstrates a process of writing in which the author discovers the background and present situation of characters much as one might slowly, over time, learn about new acquaintances and friends.
In Sh’khol, a mother raises an adopted son who cannot speak and who suffers from learning disabilities; her challenges in communicating with the boy are compounded by her uncertainties about how much he truly understands of what she tells him. The two live alone on the Atlantic coast of Ireland, where the mother, an accomplished swimmer in her youth, has been teaching the thirteen year old to swim in a cove near their isolated home. When she gives him a wet suit of his own for Christmas, she suddenly finds herself confronting the frightening limits of her ability to control and keep safe a boy feeling his way tentatively toward manhood.
In the final short story, Treaty, horrific memories re-emerge for an aging nun, when she catches a glimpse on the TV news of a man she recognizes as having kidnapped her years before in the jungles of Columbia and repeatedly raped her over a period of more than a month. The man, now apparently reformed, appears in the news report as a member of a delegation at a peace conference in London. The sudden emergence of the painful memories she has tried a lifetime to escape, and the shock of seeing her assailant presented as an apparent peacemaker, spur the woman into action. Hoping to finally lay to rest the profound and long-lasting effects he has had on her life, and also to understand if and how this man could have shed his past crimes to now appear as a respected leader, she travels to London with a vague plan to find and confront him.
Together these stories demonstrate again McCann’s remarkable ability to reveal the complexity of the human experience in ways both heart-rending and hopeful. We discover characters who feel real and true to what we know about ourselves: that our words and actions do not always reveal the complicated mix of hopes and fears that fill our thoughts; that our inner world is an unruly place in which memories flare up unexpectedly, carrying our thoughts off in new directions so suddenly and completely that moments later we can barely, if at all, remember what we had been thinking and feeling just seconds before.
Other reviews / information:
Wallace Stevens’ poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird can be found at the Poetry Foundation website, here.
Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf