I’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.