Colum McCann’s first short story collection in more than a decade sees the Irish-born writer operating on a markedly different level from that of his two bestselling, career-changing novels that appeared in the interim. Gone is the web of interlocking lives of National Book Award-winner “Let the Great World Spin” (2009) and the series of dramatized historic encounters in “TransAtlantic” (2013). For the novella and three stories that make up “Thirteen Ways of Looking,” McCann returns to the present and resorts to more streamlined storytelling, each time following the modern thoughts, fears and exploits of one main fictional character. Despite these changes, all four tales are still recognizably the work of McCann — elegantly composed, emotionally charged and searingly perceptive.
In “What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?” a writer constructing a story involving a Marine calling home from Afghanistan one New Year’s Eve goes from one extreme to the other — first struggling for inspiration and later wrestling to contain his overflowing ideas. In “Sh’khol,” a distraught mother frantically combs the wind-lashed Irish coast in search of her deaf and troubled adopted child who has disappeared with his Christmas present — a wetsuit.
And in the equally powerful “Treaty,” a nun sees on a news report the man who kidnapped and raped her 37 years ago. Stunned to learn that he is now a key player in a peace process, she flies from a retreat on Long Island to London to confront her past and expose her tormentor.
Two of McCann’s stories are about women coping with trauma. However, in McCann’s standout piece, the title piece, the protagonist who becomes the victim is a man, and one who doesn’t survive his calamity to suffer. Retired judge Peter Mendelssohn spends a morning going about his daily routine in his New York apartment while contemplating his busy life: his journey from Lithuania to America via Ireland as a child, his marriage and offspring, and his successful high-court career.
In the afternoon he meets his son for lunch, but on leaving the restaurant he is knocked to the ground and killed.
The novella unfolds in 13 alternating sections, flitting between Mendelssohn and his final hours, and the detectives who scour camera footage after his death for clues to the identity of his murderer. McCann keeps us entertained with his James Joycean flourishes (Mendelssohn’s stream of consciousness and endless wordplay — “let bygods be bygones”) and riveted as the police sift suspects, then close in on their wanted man.
These remarkable tales expertly articulate either conflicting feelings (is Sister Beverly supposed to forgive her rapist?) or ungovernable feelings (a mother sick with dread; Mendelssohn afraid he has sired a monster). Throughout, McCann makes us share his characters’ pain and their eventual cathartic release, and he helps us to understand and appreciate that there is “A lot of volume in this life. Echoes too.”
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.