Thirteen Ways of Looking, by Colum McCann, Penguin Random House, October 2015, hardback, 256 pages
This, the first of Mr. McCann’s work I have read, has prompted me to add his earlier writing to my ever-growing TBR pile.
This collection — a novella and three short stories — is suffused with a sense of looming doom, lurking just beneath the surface, around the next corner, right outside the door, in a dangerous world where keeping personal track has become increasingly difficult even as one’s every move might be recorded — by surveillance camera, computer-cookies, spy-drones — and one’s every impulse reported — on social media or from the collection of clicks and images and conversations one has committed on modern technology.
But here, listen what the Penguin Random House website has to say:
About Thirteen Ways of Looking
In such acclaimed novels as Let the Great World Spin and TransAtlantic, National Book Award–winning author Colum McCann has transfixed readers with his precision, tenderness, and authority. Now, in his first collection of short fiction in more than a decade, McCann charts the territory of chance, and the profound and intimate consequences of even our smallest moments.“As it was, it was like being set down in the best of poems, carried into a cold landscape, blindfolded, turned around, unblindfolded, forced, then, to invent new ways of seeing.”
In the exuberant title novella, a retired judge reflects on his life’s work, unaware as he goes about his daily routines that this particular morning will be his last. In “Sh’khol,” a mother spending Christmas alone with her son confronts the unthinkable when he disappears while swimming off the coast near their home in Ireland. In “Treaty,” an elderly nun catches a snippet of a news report in which it is revealed that the man who once kidnapped and brutalized her is alive, masquerading as an agent of peace. And in “What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?” a writer constructs a story about a Marine in Afghanistan calling home on New Year’s Eve.
Deeply personal, subtly subversive, at times harrowing, and indeed funny, yet also full of comfort, Thirteen Ways of Looking is a striking achievement. With unsurpassed empathy for his characters and their inner lives, Colum McCann forges from their stories a profound tribute to our search for meaning and grace. The collection is a rumination on the power of storytelling in a world where language and memory can sometimes falter, but in the end do not fail us, and a contemplation of the healing power of literature.
This book is a marvelous example of the artistry and emotional heft unique to literature. The rhythms of Mr. McCann’s prose limn the layered and leveled experience of being alive, a sentient, contemplative, empathetic and empathic soul, reaching to find meaning in a world gone slightly mad. I say “unique to literature” because the slow build, the circling, the digression of the writing, the recurrence of themes throughout the four offerings within, the look of the words on the page, the seeing of the letters of certain of the language, these offer sensations and engender emotional responses unlike those brought about by music or visual arts or films or theatre — this is the kind of writing that makes Literary Fiction a Fine Art.
But Thirteen Ways of Looking is not some pretentious, impenetrable, too-long tome of twaddle celebrated by those who would have fiction be an invitation-only mess of difficult, tortured phrases, code and trickery clubbily shared by MFA-collecting/selling ogres of elitism, those few thousand insiders whose balderdash and poppycock can only be parsed among them, but who manage to Emperors-New-Clothes the gullible reading-public into going along with their dicta.
No, this is a book you can read. This is a book you can feel. This is a beautifully written book which does not require an “Insider’s Guide To” anything — MFA-speak, trendy-tropes, or the like — in order to understand.
The opening title novella and the final story, Treaty, feature aging protagonists of weakening memory and physical capacity whose stories are propelled by details captured on camera, whose lives are altered by villains hiding hideous secrets of sins they’ve committed, whose late lives are exercises in the self-torments of wondering the whys of the horrifying behaviors of those devils and miscreants of memory: Does evil exist full-blown, created by itself, or did we invite it in? What is our responsibility for these moments of terror?
As someone who has reached an age where often I lose track of names and details, where rights and wrongs — my own, and others — have edges that have become so elided I no longer quite believe anything is ever either/or, Mr. McCann’s meditation on relationships, loss, and the ways in which our own thoughts shape and re-shape reality had intense resonance for me.
Other than to say these stories often flow like poetry, each word feeling completely required, every sentence singing fully composed, many a phrase offering a surprise or an “ahh” or a shock of recognition, I leave the deep exegesis of Mr. McCann’s mastery of language, syntax, and his technical acumen to the Mr. Woods of the world (and The New Yorker) and stick to my specialty, my business as a Constant Reader, or Gentle Reader, who cherishes books and words and the discovery of a brilliant writer new to me with a backlist and oeuvre I am now free to explore.
If you’ve not read Mr. McCann’s work, I suggest you do; especially if you are of a certain age, have parents of a certain age, have children, or have ever wondered to yourself, “Did I make this world or is it making me? Did this happen as I remember it or is my memory making it happen in retrospect in that way?”
The answers are never simple, never — at least in my case — achieved; but how lovely a book like this, Thirteen Ways of Looking, in which the questions are asked with such elegance and beauty.