Reviewed by: Vickie Fang
Once again, Colum McCann shows the world how to write highly cerebral literary fiction that’s still interesting enough for people to actually enjoy reading it. In his Thirteen Ways of Looking, he explores the last day in the life of a murder victim, the disappearance of a disabled child, the process of writing a story about a lesbian soldier stationed in Afghanistan, and a nun who meets the man who kidnapped and tortured her years earlier. In each story he plays with the nature of language and understanding, but he does so within the context of his characters’ lives, deepening their humanity, rather than undercutting it.
The first story, actually a novella, centers on an elderly, widowed judge who is rapidly losing his physical and mental capacities. The inner voice McCann creates for him — disjointed, yet highly literate, filled with irritation over the minutia of daily life as well as with poetic longing for his remembered past — evokes a complex, richly imagined human being. It’s a thing of beauty in and of itself, and it allows the judge and the readers to explore the mysteries of perception, or, as the judge puts it, “the dark dogs of the mind” together.
McCann, however, does not stop at a compelling voice. The judge is viewed through cameras hidden in his home, and we learn fairly early on that the homicide detectives will be surprised by their presence. The irritations, dreams, and disappointments of this man take on a heightened significance as we realize that these vivid, highly realized hours are all he has left. “There is something of the Greek epic about it, the old gray man with his walking stick, venturing out, into the snow, out of the frame and away, like an ancient word stepping off a page.” The frame is the frame of the cameras that are also now ubiquitous on a New York street. The judge’s murder is almost, but not quite, caught on camera. The truth emerges in pieces, a word overheard, an angry look, the cap on the head of the head of the man who swung the fatal punch. It takes shape gradually, partially, with dignified insight into every person involved. “Just as a poem turns its readers into accomplice, so, too, the detectives become accomplice to the murder. But unlike our poetry, we like our murders to be fully solved . . .” Whether the judge’s murder is fully solved or not, should not be told in a review, but the novella itself reaches a deeply satisfying conclusion.
The short stories also reach deeply satisfying, though far from pat, conclusions. The mother adores her disabled son, but not even a mother’s love is simple or easily understood. “There was a raw wedge of thrill in her love for him. The presence of the unknown. The journey out of childhood. The step into the future self.” The longing to communicate is explored in What Time is It Now, Where You Are? when a male writer creates a female marine and has her making a phone call from Afghanistan on New Year’s Eve because “this is what our New Year’s Eves are about, our connections, our bonds, no matter how inconsequential.” Her attempt to reach out to her partner back home is as freighted, precarious, and necessary as any artist’s attempt at creation.
The nun who recognizes her kidnapper is plagued by both isolation and an untrustworthy memory, but, like every other character in the book, she struggles bravely to make sense out of a confusing world. And, as with every other character, she is much more than a mere victim. “In Saint Louis, in the convent hospital, along the dark waters of the Mississippi. The anger. The shame. The false pride. The disgrace. It would return. She built up a wall of prayer. Neither life nor death. Nothing can separate me from Your love and mercy.” The astonishing way in which she is at last able to see and be seen is a fitting conclusion to a book which explores what it means to perceive by way of understanding what it means to be human.