‘Thirteen Ways of Looking’ by Colum McCann

mccann

2016, 256 p

Written by the author of one of my favourite books (This Side of Brightness) this is a really strong collection, comprising a novella and three short stories.  Each one of them is memorable in its own way.

The heart of the book is the eponymous novella with which it opens ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking’.  It is told in thirteen chapters, each of which is headed by a stanza from Wallace Stevens’ poem ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’. It was not clear to me that the stanzas had a direct connection with the chapter: they seemed to act more as an organizing device.  The octogenarian Manhattan judge Peter Mendelssohn is murdered after lunching at a nearby restaurant with his boorish, self-centred son. The thirteen chapters follow Mendelssohn through this last day as he wakes and is tended by his live-in nurse, dresses, shuffles to the restaurant, eats, then leaves.  Some chapters are his lengthy, wordy inner monologues which flesh him out as a character; others are more detached descriptions of the vision captured by the CC cameras with which wealthy Americans, in particular, surround themselves as a way of insulating themselves from danger.  We see, and yet do not see the one thing we need to know: who killed him?  We have multiple perspectives, and have been given knowledge things that the judge and jury in the ensuing murder trial do not know- but the ending of the story is abrupt and frustrating. The question is not answered definitively, but in many ways it doesn’t matter.

I was perhaps less taken with the second story, “What Time Is It Where You Are” which is a rather postmodern story of the construction of a story- in this case, about a female soldier in Afghanistan on New Years Eve. Just as in ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking’, there are choices in how a story can be told.  ‘Thirteen Ways’ utilized CC cameras as its way of creating a narrative, and in this story it is the unnamed author who is weighing up which facts to include or omit, and which twists of plot to introduce or not.

The third story, ‘Sh’khol’, riven through with a raw, keening anguish, counterbalanced the archness and self-consciousness of the second story.   An Irish mother, separated from her partner, is holed up in a cottage beside a raging ocean, with her thirteen year old deaf son who was adopted from Russia.  She has given him a wetsuit as a present. The next morning she wakes and he is gone.  Sick with dread, she searches for him on the windswept beaches and in the swirling waves.

I thought that the final story was as good as the one with which the collection opened.  In ‘Treaty’, an elderly nun has been enfolded back into her Irish convent when she is confronted with the sight of the  right-wing guerilla fighter who had kidnapped and raped her in the South American jungle many decades earlier. She’s not sure whether this re-fashioned ‘peace negotiator’ really is the man she thinks he is, and like Peter Mendelssohn in the opening story, her grasp of past and present is slippery.

I often find myself thinking about the editorial decision to select one short story over another in a compilation like this, and whether and how the individual stories contribute to the overarching unity of the collection.  These stories, very different though they are, are linked by their exploration of multiple perspectives, the elision of past and present and the contingency of fate. I enjoyed each of them, most particularly the first and final stories. Perhaps it’s because there were only four of them, but each of them is clearly defined in my mind in its own right – something that doesn’t always happen when reading a book of short stories. Or perhaps, as I suspect, it’s because Colum McCann is a very, very good writer.

Source: E-book from Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 9/10 (high praise for short stories from me!)

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