Tag Archives: Thirteen Ways of Looking

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.

Books to Look Out For in October 2015

Golden AgeBit of a lean month for those of us who tend towards the more literary end of fiction. The novel that stands out above all others for me is Golden Age, the final part of Jane Smiley’s The Last Hundred Years Trilogy. Some Luck followed the Langdon family from just after the First World War, when Walter established the family farm, to the beginning of the ‘50s where the appropriately named Early Warning picked it up, beginning with the Cold War years and ending in 1986 with a new twist in the family story. Golden Age takes the Langdons into the twentieth-first century and I can’t wait to catch up with them. Smiley’s microcosm of an American century reflected through the fortunes of one family has been a triumph so far. Highly recommended.

A volume of short stories seems the antithesis of Smiley’s hefty endeavour. I’m a reader that likes to get my teeth into something hence the Smiley fandom but Colm McCann is one of my favourite writers and we’re promised a novella as well as three short stories in his new book. In the eponymous work an elderly man is attacked after meeting his son for lunch. Detectives must piece together what has happened based on any information they can glean. ‘Told from a multitude of perspectives, in lyrical, hypnotic prose, Thirteen Ways of Looking is a ground-breaking novella of true resonance, exploring the varied consequences that can derive from a simple act’ say the publishers. I can vouch for that ‘lyrical’ prose based on my reading of McCann’s novels.

Amélie Nothcomb’s Pétronille might be a handy counterbalance to what sounds like a somewhat serious read, even if it is distinctly post-modern with its friendship between Pétronille Fanto, a woman who refuses to drink alone, and a writer called Amélie Nothcomb. According to the publishers it’s a ‘literary Thelma & Louise, with a little bit of French panacheCover image and a whole lot of champagne thrown into the mix’ which makes it sound well worth a read. This is Nothcomb’s twenty-third novel, and she has quite a following.

Naomi J. Williams’ Landfalls is a debut set on board two ships which set sail from France in 1785, on a voyage of scientific and geographical discovery, returning four years later. It’s told from the perspective of different characters, all of whom have their own agenda, taking its readers from a remote Alaskan bay where tragedy hits to St Petersburg. The structure sounds an ambitious but very attractive one and if it comes off I think this could be a very absorbing novel.

Finally, Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire is here partly because at a stonking nine hundred and sixty pages it can’t be ignored. Set in New York, it explores the interconnections between a multitude of people surrounding the shooting of a young girl in Central Park on New Year’s Eve, 1976. It sounds immensely complicated so I’ll let the publisher’s blurb speak for itself: Cover imageFrom the reluctant heirs to one of New York’s greatest fortunes, to a couple of Long Island kids drawn to the nascent punk scene downtown. From the newly arrived and enchanted, to those so sick of the city they want to burn it to the ground. All these lives are connected to one another – and to the life that still clings to that body in the park. Whether they know it or not, they are bound up in the same story – a story where history and revolution, love and art, crime and conspiracy are all packed into a single shell, ready to explode. Then, on July 13th, 1977, the lights go out in New York City.’ A similar theme to Colm McCann’s book, then, but with considerably more pages. This is the kind of novel I get all excited about when I see it in a catalogue then watch its progress up my reading pile with a sinking heart. I have a copy and so I will be sampling it but whether a review will materialise or not remains to be seen.

That’s it for October. As usual a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis, although in the case of the Hallberg there’s not much more to say. If you’ve not yet caught up with my September previews, here are the paperbacks and here are the hardbacks, parts one and two.