Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann: A novella and three stories

Cover imageI’ve been a fan of Colum McCann’s novels since way back in the late ‘90s when I read This Side of Brightness. His fiction ranges far and wide – from Dancer’s Rudolf Nureyev to the Roma of Zoli – and his writing is often strikingly poetic. Unsurprisingly, then, I’ve been looking forward to his new book despite my self-confessed short story prejudice. It opens with the titular ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking’ – a novella, rather than a short story – followed by one very short piece then two others. All of them are powerful in their own way but you won’t be surprised to hear that ‘Thirteen Ways’ is my favourite.

Widower J. Mendelssohn is eighty-two years old. He lives in an Upper East Side apartment with Sally, his Caribbean carer. Almost every day he gets himself out of bed and makes his way, with Sally’s help, to the Italian restaurant not two hundred yards from his apartment. Every day he has the same conversation with Tony the doorman, and every day the restaurant staff greet him warmly. On this particular occasion he’s meeting his son, a hedge fund manager and a disappointment to his father. There’s one other difference in today’s routine: we know very early on that this day will be his last. Mendelssohn’s narrative is interwoven with the efforts of detectives to solve his murder as they scrutinise the footage from the multitude of cameras that line his route, two of them covertly installed in the apartment by his son to keep and eye on the blameless Sally.

Mendelssohn’s narrative takes the form of an internal monologue composed of memories and reflections – the challenges of ageing; his son Elliot and his shortcomings; his daughter Katya, a rebel turned diplomat; philosophical observations; memories of his legal career and speculations as to what Sally’s up to – his darling wife never far from his thoughts. The intimacy of these musings makes his death all the more shocking despite our prior knowledge of it. Punctuating Mendelssohn’s narrative are the detectives’ intricate reconstructions of the day’s events, slowly revealing the culprit. It’s a compelling piece of writing, making its readers think about the nature of guilt which may not be attributed quite as fairly as we think.

As for the other three stories: ‘What Time is it Where You Are?’ is a short playful riff on the process of writing, desultory then increasingly frenetic notes hinting at the panic of a fast approaching deadline. ‘Sh’khol’ examines a very particular loss for which a translator can find no word in English but which she comes to understand all too well when her adopted thirteen-year-old son disappears, the urgency of the search evoked in plain short sentences. In ‘Treaty’ an elderly nun sees her South American torturer on television, apparently involved in peace negotiations and decides to seek her own kind of settlement thirty-seven years after her ordeal. An impressive, thought-provoking collection, then, but I’m hoping for a novel next time.

16 thoughts on “Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann: A novella and three stories”

  1. I haven’t read any McCann but I do own a copy of Let the Great World Spin. It’s the combination of acrobatic feat and NYC that attracted me.

    As for short stories, I seem to think I have an aversion to them but every time I read a collection, I really enjoy it. Must remember this!

    1. Oh, that’s a good one to start with. Looking back over this year’s posts I’ve been surprised at how many short story collections I’ve reviewed. Not a convert, yet, but I may be gettting there!

  2. I enjoyed your review, Susan. I wasn’t crazy about Let the Great World Spin when my old book group chose it at the time of its release, but these short stories do sound very good. A friend loves his writing so I’ll pass your recommendation along.

    1. Thanks, Jacqui. Sorry to hear you didn’t get on with Let the Great World Spin. The only one I’ve had trouble with is Transatlantic but everything else he’s written has hit the spot for me. I hope your friend likes this one.

        1. Interesting, indeed! It’s the only one of his that I haven’t finished, and that includes the other short story collections. Cross fingers that we both get what we want with his next publication

  3. This is the second view of this book that I’ve read in as many days and I’m reminded yet again that McCann is a writer on my ‘must read’ list who I have yet to get round to. I am not going to be starting with short stories, they are simply not my thing. Is there a novel you would recommend as a good starting point?

    1. I think I’d say Let the Great World Spin, Alex. I was captivated by This Side of Brightness but that was so long ago that I may think differently now. Transatlantic is the only one I’d recommend avoiding. I hope you enjoy his wriiting as much as I do.

  4. I think you need to face up to the fact that you now like short stories! Apart from Raymond Carver I have always thought I did not like them – over too soon – why bother you just get going and it is finished sort of feeling. Too many novels on my bedside pile to change at the moment.

    1. It’s beginning to look that way but I have to say that if you like Raymond Carver there’s a good chance you’ll like Lucia Berlin, too.

    1. Thanks, Cathy. Actually, I think yours is better! It’s such a powerful piece isn’t it? The narrative voice is so strong and intimate.

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