‘Thirteen Ways of Looking’ by Colum McCann (2015) – 242 pages
Colum McCann’s writing style in the novella ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking’ is close to poetry, but most poetry isn’t this much fun. This novella is probably the finest piece of writing I have read this year. The other stories in this collection are good solid moving stories, but it is ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking’ that hits it out of the park for a grand slam home run.
So many of the lines in this novella are not complete sentences but are nonetheless evocative. The prose here is lyrical and hypnotic, like nothing I have ever seen before. We are inside a man’s mind, and his thoughts are not usually in full sentences.
“Car horns blaring everywhere. A terrible sound, really. Isn’t the snow supposed to deaden the sound? How is it that my hearing gets worse but the awful sounds get louder day after day? A cacophony. That’s the word. The pianist playing the contrabass. The saxman on the violin. The flautist on the horn so to speak.”
In the above excerpt there are only three complete sentences and six sentence fragments, yet the language totally evokes the effect of all the car horns to this old man’s mind.
The chapters in the novella alternate between the reflections of a retired judge and the notes of a police procedural. Thus the judge’s impressions may wax poetic, but the police statements keep us tied down to earth. The actual story here winds up to be an intriguing murder mystery. It says a lot about the ubiquitous cameras which are in our lives today.
The other three stories in this collection do not have this exceptional lyrical aspect, but they are well-written stories nonetheless. In one story, “Sh’khol” a mother adopts a boy with fetal alcohol syndrome and gives him for his birthday a wetsuit to use swimming in the ocean off the coast of Ireland near their home. In another story, ‘Treaty’, a nun confronts the man who raped her many years ago.
At the end of the collection there is a note from the author stating that the novella and these stories were “completed in 2014 on either side of an incident that occurred in New Haven, Connecticut, on June 27 where I was punched from behind and knocked unconscious, then hospitalized, after trying to help a woman who had also been assaulted on the street.” McCann then gives us the following line:
“In the end, though, every word we write is autobiographical, perhaps most especially when we try to avoid the autobiographical.”
The novella ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking’ is a particular delight. It will cast a spell on you like nothing you have read before.