Pocket Review: Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann

mccannThirteen Ways of Looking
Colum McCann
HarperCollins, 2015

I can’t very well talk about my best books of the year until the year’s over, and I had one last book to finish up on the last day of 2015. So imagine my delight when I opened up Colum McCann’s Thirteen Ways of Looking this afternoon to find the collection’s second story beginning:

He had agreed in spring to write a short story for the New Year’s Eve edition of a newspaper magazine. An easy enough task, he thought at first. In late May he settled down to sketch out a few images that might work, but soon found himself struggling, adrift. For a couple of weeks in early summer he cast about, chased ideas and paragraphs, left a few hanging, found himself postponing the assignment, putting it to the back of his mind. Occasionally he pulled his notes out again, then abandoned them once more.

He wondered how he would ever push into the territory of a New Year’s Eve story—create a series of fireworks, perhaps, drop a mirrored ball in a city, or allow snow to slowly scatter across the face of a windowpane?

Descriptions of writers trying to write what we’re reading can be tiresome—hey, if we’re reading it, he wrote it, now, didn’t he? But McCann keeps his touch light, and besides, who can resist a metanarrative like that? The writer assembles his characters and the faint outlines of a plot, a Marine in Afghanistan calling home to South Carolina:

[S]he will simply pick up the phone, she will dial through, she will call her lover and her lover’s son, and she will simply say, “Happy New Year,” in the most ordinary way, and they will return the greeting, and life will go on, since this is what our New Year’s Eves are about, our connections, our bonds, no matter how inconsequential, and the story will be quiet and slip its way into its own new year.

And it does. Thirteen Ways of Looking is a tight and nicely realized collection—one novella and three short stories—and its small size means that McCann can play with a few themes at one time without the whole muddying to some shade of literary brown. There is, of course, the Wallace Stevens poem that gives the book and its opening novella their title, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” each stanza of which opens one of the novella’s 13 sections. There are also, literally, ways of looking: at someone, for someone, at a surveillance tape, through the scrim of memory, through the haze of old age. (“Oh, the mind itself is a deep, deep well. Lower me down and let me touch water,” intones the elderly gentleman around whom the title story centers.) And McCann offers a way of looking at loss as something that’s not a consummation but a refraction—how it can be given us, then taken away, then granted again.

There’s not a lot of joy in this collection—in an Author’s Note in the text and on his website, McCann discusses how the book was shaped by an assault in 2014, when he was attacked and injured on the street by a stranger. Yet it’s hopeful, in its way, by virtue of the fact that not one of these tales wraps up neatly. McCann’s resistance to any kind of tidy conclusion speaks to what is, often, better about life than fiction: anything can happen, and usually does. The story doesn’t end just because the page count is finite, and there’s always room for the unexpected.

It’s a good thought for the new year, and Thirteen Ways of Looking was a good book to ring out the old one. “How do we look out into the dark?” McCann asks the apocryphal New Year’s Eve piece’s readers. That’s a good question for pretty much any night of the year, and a good reason to keep reading.

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