Intensely Intimate With “Thirteen Ways of Looking”, by Colum McCann - Book Review

Colum McCann is truly a master of his craft. This is my first read of McCann’s library of work, but his evocative nature begs further discovery. In the midst of writing Thirteen Ways of Looking, McCann himself was attacked while trying to help a woman who had been assaulted, after which he suffered a broken cheekbone and teeth. He writes in the book’s Author’s Note, “Sometimes it seems to me that we are writing our lives in advance, but at other times we can only look back. In the end, though, every word we write is autobiographical, perhaps most especially when we attempt to avoid the autobiographical”. When you read the book, you’ll understand how poignant this statement is.

Thirteen Ways of Looking includes a novella and three short stories. The title is based upon the poem, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, by Wallace Stevens, of which McCann includes a stanza of the poem at the beginning of each section of the novella. The stories are quite different from one another, but the unifying theme is a strong sense of yearning and loneliness, vividly told.

In the title novella, 82-year old retired judge, Peter Mendelssohn lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, is rather frail physically, but quite sharp mentally. Our view into his psyche is of intense loss and loneliness. He lost his wife years earlier and has a distant relationship with his garish son. He shares with us the small daily humiliations of the elderly that he suffers.  When he ventures out on a cold, snowy New York day to meet his son for lunch, he’s disregarded as an old man, accosted by the weather, rude drivers, his callous son, then physically on the street outside the restaurant. There are several knots woven into the story in addition to his emotional isolation and attack. While the police investigate the assault, these threads begin to unfold in parallel.

The second story, “What Time Is It Now, Where Are You?” is about Joel, a writer with writer’s block, working on deadline, and creates a tale of a female soldier, Sandi, in Afghanistan on New Year’s Eve. She is to call home, and we writhe with feelings along with her, but more so with the writer, who’s fate seems intertwined with his subject’s.

The third story, “Sh’khol” is of Rebecca, a divorced woman with her autistic son on the coast of Ireland. She has bought for him a Christmas gift he covets - a wet suit - which he, of course, wants to test out immediately. She gives him some instruction, but the next morning awakes to an empty house. He’s disappeared along with the wet suit. Her despair is palpable, as the search moves into full swing, and again, the emotions are tangible.

The fourth and last tale, “Treaty” is of an aging nun, Beverly, who is confronted by her past - a violent rapist and jailer of 37 years earlier while in she was working in the poor in Columbia. He is now a diplomat working for peace and economic prosperity, a man of respect. But she knows the truth and must let him know that she knows who he really is. Beverly’s past remains a raw and bitter, constant memory; traits that make for a different kind of nun, but full of compassion, nonetheless. 

While each of the stories may sound rather dismal, the joy is in the writing itself and McCann’s ability to authentically articulate what’s deep inside of us, and to convey that with such intensity is a gift. These are not at all contrived, and I somehow feel connected to the emotions whether I have experienced them or not.

Published: 2015
Publisher: Random House

Vickie’s rating: 4.5 stars