Colum McCann – “Thirteen Ways of Looking”

13 Ways of LookingI’ll take my Colum McCann on audio, thank you very much. I listened to the opening section of Transatlantic, “Cloudhsadow,” many times and read it in hardcopy, too. Opening line: “It was a modified bomber, a Vickers Vimy, all wood and linen and wire.”  Reading those words, I can hear McCann’s lilt. I want more.

I played that section once for a friend driving across barren Wyoming and we didn’t utter a word for the hour (or however long it took ). We weren’t in the car, we were flying with Alcock and Brown. I have a friend who says fiction writers just make sh*t up. Nope. Not McCann. McCann’s stories happened. These things are real, these people are alive, these people matter. He’s a storyteller first and one hell of a poetic prose master. Every word is laid in place with precision.

Thirteen Ways of Looking (of course, I listened to the audio CD at first) is right up there with Let the Great World Spin and Transatlantic. It’s smaller. It doesn’t have that big sweep. It inhabits moments, exhilarates in tidbits. Thirteen Ways of Looking is the title story (a novella) and three short stories, “What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?,” “Sh’kol,” and “Treaty.”

In the title story, McCann fractures a fairly straightforward detective yarn—the murder of a prominent judge on a New York City street—into pieces. We don’t know this will be a crime story; not at the outset. First, we meet the victim and realize a bit about what he’s been through, though there is much more to come. McCann slows the moment down. He freezes it, lets it thaw, freezes it again. We are introduced to the judge and his routines, his past and his accomplishments. We get to know the judge and then we learn he’s, in fact, dead and that this is a crime fiction of a sort. And while we learn more about him, he reflects on the many times he was “born” and thinks about the many times his life started or started over.

We follow detectives as they review, peruse, study, rewind through video from various camera angles—webcams, security cameras, etc.—that captured the murder and McCann comes right out and says the detective work is like the work of a poetry. “The detectives scrub through the footage from the previous days too, in case they can find something in the pattern of time that will propel them toward a critical epiphany, a mid-verse logic. A meter. An emjambment. Or a rhyme.”

The detectives watch the world at fast speed and slow speed, McCann zooms in and out. The effect is kaleidoscopic, powerful. The detectives are looking for the smallest detail, the bit that will crack the case. “They play it again in their minds, in light of everything they already know. It is their hope that each moment, when ground down and sifted through, examined and prodded, read and re-read, will yield a little more of the killer and the world he, or she, has created. 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.”

As Wallace Stevens did with his poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Blackbird,” McCann wants us to see what we don’t ordinarily see. We need to stop. We need to look. We need to listen. (And maybe realize we’re being watched? All the time?) McCann narration is ultra-omniscient, telling us the story from 30,000 feet up at first and then swooping down to the street view, inside restaurants and back halls where we don’t always go. The narration is the camera. It captures various angles and attacks on the story. It’s cold and indifferent, matter of fact. There is truth here somewhere, in the amalgamation of all the information. If only somebody will stop and take a look, take time to piece it together. There is truth, that is, but maybe no firm answers. I’ve never quite read a story that stayed in one place for so long, dwelled on one moment and yet managed to keep you wondering. And I’m not even touching on the themes or randomness, immigration, family and class.

In “What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?” McCann writes a short story while thinking about writing a short story. Well, we watch it come together. (This reminded me of Ron Carlson’s Ron Carlson Writes A Short Story. Highly recommended if you want to “watch” a short story come together.)  The themes here echo the title story—loss, family, distance, time.

“Sh’kol” is my favorite among these, an increasingly tense and harrowing story of a translator, a single mother named Rebecca, who is raising her son in a remote Irish village. The son was adopted from Russia when he was six and is now 13. He’s deaf. The story opens on a Christmas morning. She has given her son his first wetsuit and the next day, he goes out for a swim alone.  “Sh’kol” has already won a Pushcart Prize and has been included in the just-released collection of short stories edited by T.C. Boyle. Pure terror on the page, but McCann never stoops to cheap sentiment or cliché.

“Treaty” rounds out this collection and it’s another gem, a nun contemplating revenge over her torture and rape 37 years ago when she suddenly realizes, thanks to a news report, that her tormentor is alive—and masquerading as somebody else.

McCann’s prose is seductive, smooth and supple. The stories inter-relate in a host of ways, including leaps of time and distance and underlying issues with family. In “What Time Is It Now…” he makes it clear he’s making this up as he goes along. In his author note in the book and in interviews about Thirteen Ways he has described out how this volume was inspired by an incident when he was attacked as he tried to help the victim of an assault in New Haven, Connecticut. At the time, he was writing a novella about a man who gets randomly punched in the chest.

Art and life, closely intertwined. For a guide to these connections, it doesn’t get much better.


Previously reviewed: Transatlantic

Previously reviewed: Let the Great World Spin


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