Mur­der framed in mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Adrian McKinty Adrian McKinty’s lat­est novel is Gun Street Gun.

Thir­teen Ways of Look­ing By Colum McCann Blooms­bury, 256pp, $29.99

Colum McCann’s new book con­tains one long novella and three short sto­ries. The novella, Thir­teen Ways of Look­ing, is a mur­der mys­tery of sorts set in New York.

Pe­ter Men­delssohn is a re­tired Jewish judge in his 80s who lives in a well-to-do build­ing on the Up­per East Side. His Ir­ish wife Eileen has only re­cently died.

In the first chap­ters of the novella we learn about Pe­ter’s child­hood in the Lithua­nian cap­i­tal Vil­nius, his fam­ily’s flight from the Nazis, first to Paris, then to Dublin (where Eileen was his neigh­bour) and fi­nally to Brook­lyn.

Eileen joins Pe­ter in the US, they marry, pros­per and have two chil­dren: a do-good­ing daugh­ter who lives in Is­rael and a creepy son, El­liot, who wants to ride his fa­ther’s coat-tails into a po­lit­i­cal ca­reer. The day of the mur­der be­gins typ­i­cally for Men­delssohn. He deals with the in­dig­ni­ties of night-time in­con­ti­nence, he charms his Trinida­dian home help Sally and he rem­i­nis­cences about his wife’s af­fec­tion for Ir­ish lit­er­a­ture and the au­to­graphs he got for her from po­ets Sea­mus Heaney and Paul Mul­doon.

It’s snow­ing but Men­delssohn de­cides to have lunch at his favourite Ital­ian restau­rant, where he is joined by a dis­tracted El­liot. On the way home from lunch he is the vic­tim of a onepunch killing.

Each chap­ter of the novella be­gins with a verse from a se­quence of Wal­lace Stevens’s fa­mous poem Thir­teen Ways of Look­ing at a Black­bird — and, like that poem, each chap­ter is told from a slightly dif­fer­ent emo­tional and lyri­cal per­spec­tive. Parts of the novella are from Men­delssohn’s stream of con­scious­ness and at other times we see the point of view of the de­tec­tives in­ves­ti­gat­ing the mur­der.

The most fas­ci­nat­ing as­pects of the story are when McCann of­fers an im­per­sonal look at Men­delssohn’s last day as seen through the city’s silent se­cu­rity cam­eras. This re­minded me of the great Eoin McNamee story — also a mur­der mys­tery — Corpse Flow­ers, which is en­tirely un­packed through de­scrip­tions of CCTV footage.

Men­delssohn is a fairly con­vinc­ing char­ac­ter, sim­i­lar in out­look to Saul Bel­low’s Ar­tur Samm­ler, but per­haps there’s a lit­tle too much of Colum McCann in him; Men­delssohn is well versed in Ir­ish po­etry but doesn’t name-drop any Jewish writ­ers, and for a Lit­vak doc­tor’s son is oddly ret­i­cent with the Yid­dishisms.

In an af­ter­word to Thir­teen Ways of Look­ing, McCann ex­plains that he was half­way through writ­ing the book when he was mugged and badly beaten in Con­necti­cut. Go­ing back to his work-in-progress be­came part of the heal­ing process.

Jorge Luis Borges, in his in­flu­en­tial es­say On Blind­ness, states that “what­ever hap­pens [to a writer] in­clud­ing em­bar­rass­ments and mis­for­tunes, all have been given like clay, like ma­te­rial for our art”. McCann sim­i­larly mines his own mis­for­tune and the book is a more pow­er­ful, po­etic and melan­choly one be­cause of the rude in­cur­sion of real life into art.

The mur­der mys­tery is solved agree­ably and I don’t think many read­ers will be­grudge McCann his re­jec­tion of the Law & Or­der end­ing re­gard­ing the ver­dict.

There are three other sto­ries in Thir­teen Ways Of Look­ing that ap­pear to have been just tacked on at the end of the book; they have lit­tle in com­mon with the themes of the open­ing novella. In McCann’s two most re­cent story col­lec­tions, TransAt­lantic and Let The Great World Spin, all the sto­ries res­onated, in­ter­linked, bounced off and in­formed one an­other in ar­tis­ti­cally sat­is­fy­ing ways. Not so here, alas, where the links, such as they are, seem forced.

Treaty is about an Ir­ish nun who was raped in South Amer­ica by a ter­ror­ist now claim­ing to be a man of peace. She en­coun­ters her rapist in a Lon­don cafe and un­cov­ers the truth about his sup­posed trans­for­ma­tion. (This may be an al­le­gory for Gerry Adams, whose brief ar­rest for a cold case mur­der was very much in the New York me­dia dur­ing the story’s com­po­si­tion.)

Sh’kol is about a Jewish-Ir­ish woman whose deaf adopted son goes miss­ing on a swim­ming trip in Gal­way.

She’s a trans­la­tor look­ing for an English equiv­a­lent of the He­brew word sh’kol (a par­ent who has lost their child). For her son to ac­tu­ally have drowned would be bathos wor­thy of O’Henry so there’s no real ten­sion in this tale and I wasn’t en­tirely con­vinced by the char­ac­ters or the sit­u­a­tion. The most in­ter­est­ing story of the three is

What Time is It Now Where You Are? about a fe­male US Marine in Afghanistan about to call her girl­friend back in South Car­olina on New Year’s Eve. This story is rather bril­liantly writ­ten as a meta-nar­ra­tive in which McCann races against a dead­line to write a New Year’s Eve story, build­ing the char­ac­ters, the set­ting and the themes in his mind as the story pro­gresses. It’s the most orig­i­nal and dar­ing part of the en­tire book and it’s a shame that it’s so short.

Thir­teen Ways of Look­ing proves that McCann is a fine minia­tur­ist but I’d like to see him delve deep into a sin­gle sub­ject again in the way he did with Dancer, a novel about the life of Ru­dolf Nureyev: a book that is lyri­cal, well re­searched and pro­found, and which re­mains his mas­ter­piece.

A mug­ging in Con­necti­cut changed the na­ture of Colum McCann’s new novella

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