Murder framed in multiple perspectives
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