I just finished Colum McCann’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking” and it is simply the antithesis of the last two books I reviewed (Purity and City on Fire). And that’s a good thing–in case you were wondering. None of the clutter or pretension. Simply beautiful writing, moving story telling and believable, recognizable and sympathetic characters.
Thirteen Ways of Looking is a novella and three short stories. Each is beautifully written, touching, thoughtful and subtle.
The title work and the longest of the four delves into the life, mind, heart and death of an aging retired lawyer and judge, Peter Mendelssohn. The story consists of thirteen chapters, which may be one way of interpreting the title, although the looking goes much deeper than that. Each chapter begins with a stanza of Wallace Steven’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”. When we first meet Mr. Mendelssohn, he is lying in bed in his expansive Manhattan apartment, thinking about his previously deceased wife, his live-in health care helper (who calls him Mr. J), his son and daughter, his career and his blackberry. He is trying to figure out how to get out of bed on his own and attend to his daily functions so as to maintain some semblance of self sufficiency in old age.
As Mendelssohn looks back on his life, he muses over the impact place and circumstances of birth can have on a life. “Curious thing, the blood we inherit. Slapping around inside, making us who we are: the landscape itself gets a say in the outcome of the mind.” And he observes just how fleeting success and career truly are in the great expanse of time. “You work your whole life to become a pillar of the community and then it all disappears in front of your eyes.”
But the story is not just about Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn is the vehicle around which we learn about the hearts of others living in very different circumstances, likely as a result of the blood each has inherited. The story is filled with wisdom and thoughtfulness mostly from the perspective of a life well lived, with a reminder that regardless of who you are, no life is without its loss and challenges and that ultimately, although circumstances vary, each life ends the same way.
“What Time is it Now, Where You Are”, is a very short story about writing a short story. The male writer is composing a short story for the New Year’s Eve edition of a newspaper magazine. He is focused on the fictional life of a woman marine stationed in Afghanistan on New Year’s Eve. The author’s anticipation of the soldier’s telephone call home tells the reader a great deal about the soldier’s life. The 11 page story evidences McCann’s amazing skill at evoking feeling with minimal language and without telling the reader how to feel, and reminding us how every story can change with every possibility.
“Sh’Khol”, Hebrew for losing a child, is the story of a divorced woman living in Galway and raising an adopted, deaf, disabled child born with fetal alcohol syndrome in Vladivostok. After she gives her son a wet suit for Christmas he disappears and the circumstances of his disappearance will never be clear. The story is about divorce, parenting challenges, guilt, disability, fear and compassion.
Finally, “Treaty” is an incredible story about a nun, Beverly, who, while in New York, sees a television news story that appears to include a man who kidnapped and abused her 27 years earlier in South America. When we first meet her, Beverly is living with a group of nuns on Long Island, where she has been sent for rest. She is becoming forgetful and chain smoking. She sees the television story and begins remembering the past, her role with the Church and her periodic questioning of faith. Ultimately, “Treaty” is a story of great strength amidst inflexibility and cruelty.
McCann concludes this collection with a very short Author’s Note, where he says, among other things, “Sometimes it seems to me that we are writing our lives in advance, but at other times we can only ever look back. …For all its imagined moments, literature works in unimaginable ways.”
For me, McCann’s comments sum up literature at its best. And the best is what you will find in this collection. Take it out from the library, read it and cherish it!
This book can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library after its release on October 13 by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11163986__Sthirteen%20ways%20of%20looking.