Colum McCann was physically assaulted in 2014 during the writing of this stunning collection of stories. In an Author’s Note he advises that readers have a look at the Victim Impact Statement that he gave to the courts at the sentencing of his assailant. In the Author’s Note he says,
Sometimes it seems to me that we are writing our lives in advance but at other times we can only ever look back. In the end, though, every word we write is autobiographical, perhaps most especially when we attempt to avoid the autobiographical.
For all its imagined moments, literature works in unimaginable ways.
So while Thirteen Ways of Looking is not autobiographical as such, this novella and three short stories is certainly informed by what happened to McCann and each explores what he terms ‘as series of punches behind the punch’. The stories are incredibly different, but all explore in a subtle and beautiful way, times of tension and lingering threat and explore the notion that if both the reader and the characters just try hard enough, we can make the indecipherable meaningful. That possibly we can find some understanding of the unfathomable mystery of what it is to be human.
The fabulous title story takes its name from Wallace Stevens’s poem ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ and is itself a striking exploration of perspective and memory. 82 year old Peter Mendelssohn, a retired Supreme Court judge leaves his Upper East Side apartment to walk through the snow and meet his son, Elliot, for lunch at a local restaurant. As he prepares for his day, he ruminates on his life, his failing body or what he calls ‘this foul little wreckhouse’, his errant children and his late wife. His third person narrative is expertly captured – vivid, lively and heartbreaking as he remembers his beloved wife
She used to read it aloud to me at night. The roof over our love has been torn off and is open now to the endless sky
Through his inner monologues we sense a man trying to make sense of his life and what has brought him to where he is now. This is when McCann trips us up with the line
Later, the homicide detectives will be surprised by the presence of the cameras
Following his lunch with his son, Peter will be punched to the ground by an unknown assailant and die. As he has been looking back over his life to try and make sense of it, detectives will be looking back over all the CCTV footage they can find to try and make sense of his death. Their job will be made difficult by the snowstorm obscuring the images, bad camera angles and those small unknowable moments of life that can never be recaptured.
Even with so many ways of seeing, so many possible perspectives, the truth is illusive. In a lovely touch, McCann introduces a prolonged metaphor comparing the detectives to poets,
They go forward metrically, and then break time again. They return, judge, reconfigure. They weigh it up and take stock, sift through over and over. The breakthrough is there somewhere in the rhythmic disjunctions, in the small resuscitations of language, in the fractured framework.
The juxtaposition of these two narratives, the ‘what happened’ and the exploration of what happened, is almost unbearably poignant and like the CCTV camera footage, we move forward and back from Peter’s past and on into his future, with no sense of closure in sight. We can go over the past as much as we want, both in our minds and in our surveillance obsessed society, but that does not mean we will ever get to the truth.
Getting to the truth is at the core of ‘What time is it now, where you are?’ which plays with the narrative form itself. An author has been commissioned to write a short story on the theme of New Year’s Eve and after much struggle comes up with the image of a young woman, Sandi, a Marine who is on a lookout in Afghanistan about to call home. Again, the narrative pulls forward then back as the writer tries to get to grips with the story he is telling
How is it that Joel feels a pang of desire for Tracey? (What exactly will those bleachers look like at midnight?) (And who, by the way, is Joel’s father?) (And what is it that Kimberlee teaches in university) (Did she meet Sandi on a college campus?) (What might Sandi have been studying?) (When did Sandi move from Ohio?) (Did she join the Marines after a breakup?) (Was she married before she met Kimberlee?) (What is the initial tattooed on her hand?) (Does she want a child of her own?) How is it that a voice travels halfway round the world?
The questioning of the writer echoes the questioning of life and as well as being an interesting insight into the writing process, the story may be the most important in the collection, exploring as it does the sifting of possibilities and the stories and plot points we focus on to make up the ongoing narrative of our lives.
The stand out story in the collection is ‘Sh’khol’, which recently won the Pushcart Prize. Rebecca is a single mother, living with her mute 13 year old son on the west coast of Ireland where
The weather was made from cinema. A squall could blow in at any time and moments later the gray would be hunted open with blue.
It is Christmas and Rebecca buys Tomas a wet suit. On Boxing Day, Tomas and the wet suit are gone.
It is not the suspense that makes Sh’khol such a moving read, although it is a very tense tale. It is McCann’s ability to bring us right inside the mind of Rebecca as she struggle to come to terms with the literal and metaphorical loss of a child. How can we not as readers be moved by this expression of motherhood?
She wanted to clasp herself over him, shroud him, absorb whatever came his way. Most of all she wanted to discover what sort of man might emerge from underneath that very pale skin
As the search for her missing son continues, Rebecca questions how much of her own self is tied up in her role as ‘mother’ and ponders what the loss of that will do to her. She thinks back to a text that she is translating and to the Hebrew word ‘sh’khol’, for which she can find no English or Irish equivalent
There were words, of course, for widow, widower and orphan, but no noun, no adjective, for a parent who had lost a child. . . . She wanted to be true to the text, to identify the invisible, torn open, ripped apart, stolen.
Words are the expression of our lives and when words are lost, what do we have? This is a masterpiece of a story about the ultimate mysteries of love and loss with an ending that will pull the emotional rug from under you.
The final story ‘Treaty’ is the story of an aging nun who has spent many years trying to come to terms with having been kidnapped and raped in the South American jungle. When she spots her captor on the evening news, now a respectable diplomat and peace envoy, she resolves to travel to London and confront him for what he has done to her. Of all the stories, it is clear to see that this one was written after the attack on Colum McCann. In his Victim Statement he says,
There is no such thing as a first-time victim. To be a victim is permanent. To be a victim is absolute.
Sister Beverley feels like a permanent victim. She cannot let what happened to her go and she feels that by finding the right words to say to her attacker she will be exorcised of his memory,
The odd little magpie of the mind. Nothing is finally finished, then? The past emerges and re-emerges. It builds its random nest in the oddest places.
All the stories in Thirteen Ways of Looking examine how we are all searching for what we cannot find. The detectives in Thirteen Ways of Looking; the writer in What Time is it Now, Where You Are?; the grieving mother in Sh’khol and the damaged nun of Treaty are all trying to get to the truth, the ‘original notion’ that will possibly illuminate a fragile understanding of what life means and why things happen the way they do. We are trying to put the words in order so the story makes sense. In the title story, Peter Mendelssohn asks
So many things are unexplainable, and how is it that we know a life, except that we know our own?
Isn’t this what great literature is for? To allow us to explore other lives so we may better understand our own? Throughout all these stories there is a sense that Colum McCann is, like all of us, ‘trying to mine for light in the darkness’.
Thirteen Ways of Looking is a book of melancholic grace and beauty and McCann’s best work to date.
I was given a copy of Thirteen Ways of Looking from the publishers Random House through Net Galley in return for an honest review.