Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann
My first encounter with McCann, this volume contains some of his shorter fiction: a full novella and three short stories of varying lengths.
The titular novella has thirteen short chapters, each prefaced by lines from a poem about a blackbird that inspired the title (Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird by Wallace Stevens). The text begins in New York, the Upper East Side home of J.Mendelssohn, an old, long-retired judge who is waking up…
I was born in the middle of my first argument. He should rise, find a notebook, scribble the phrase down, but it’s frigid in the room and the heating hasn’t yet kicked on, so he’d rather not move. … Strange to rethink the memoirs at this age, but what else is there to do? (p5)
He continues mulling his opening line over, waiting for his carer, Sally, to come and help him get up.
She has a peculiar smell to her, a good smell, like furniture polish, dear Sally from Tobago, or is it Trinidad? And how, anyway, do they differ? And who, quite honestly, gives a flying fig? Does it matter if she’s north, south, up or down, east or west, when the simple fact of the matter is that he is wearing a diaper and it most be removed, hastily, quietly, now. (p16/17)
The indignities of old age. Mr J, as Sally calls him, has a lunch date with his son Elliott and as she gets him up and ready, Mr J. muses about his life, his early years in Lithuania, then moving to Ireland where he met his late beloved wife Eileen. becoming a father and a judge in New York. Mr J. has had a long and fulfilled life, which only grandchildren and Eileen still living would have made better.
He meets Elliott at the restaurant, but Elliott is distracted – always nipping off to answer his phone. Eventually Elliott has to go early, so Mr J arranges for the busboy, Dandinho, to parcel up the leftovers, food they’ve hardly touched, for Sally. It is while Mr J is exiting the restaurant, having gingerly shuffled down the few steps that he is knocked off his feet, deliberately it seems – ‘brutally attacked’ with dire consequences. Events take on a different way of looking…
Mr J. is a lovely old man. When he is narrating the story, it rambles along, he tries to see the good in everyone (even Elliott!), but is often interrupted by his annoyance at his infirmities. However, during the other parts, we see things through different, more factual lenses: through the forensic eye of the video cameras the suspicious Elliott has installed to try to catch Sally out, and the CCTV in and outside the restaurant, also through the eyes of all those who were nearby when it happened as told to the detectives. This was a very effective and surprising story that I enjoyed very much.
In Sh’khol, a child with a new wetsuit goes missing at the beach in Galway. In Treaty, a nun comes face to face with the man who tortured her as a young woman. However, the standout story in this collection for me was the shortest, at just 12 pages. In What Time Is It Now, Where You Are? a writer is working on a short story. It will be set on New Year’s Eve in Afghanistan and feature a Marine, a young woman soldier who volunteers to take the guard duty so her colleagues can party. She will be able to briefly use a satellite phone around midnight to talk to her lover and her young stepson who calls her his ‘second mother’. This story was so touching, but shocking too – I can’t tell you what happens though. It is also told in 13 chapters – vignettes this time. I loved it.
All of these stories have a shocking element to them, indeed some were written by McCann as a reaction to being assaulted himself when he went to help a woman being attacked. There is anger in them, but they are full of humanity, looking for absolution but forgiving too in McCann’s powerful but understated prose. (9/10)
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Source: Own copy
Colum McCann, Thirteen Ways of Looking (Bloomsbury, 2015), paperback, 256 pages.