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13 Ways of Looking by Collum McCann

Winner of the Pushcart Prize 2015, Best American Short Stories 2015 and Amazon Book of the Month October 2015, Thirteen Ways of Looking is one of those books that makes you gasp for breath afterwards. Taking the form of a novella and three short stories, which were written before and after McCann was attacked while helping a woman who had been assaulted, he describes them as accidental autobiography, in the guise of fiction.

Sometimes it seems to me that we are writing our lives in advance, but at other times we can only ever look back. In the end, though, every word we write is autobiographical, perhaps most especially when we attempt to avoid the autobiographical.

The eponymous novella traces the thoughts of an elderly judge, on the last day of his life. It is a murder mystery, but it reads like poetry. As his memory jumps from past to present, and his attention skips from one subject to another, we see his past, present and future jumbled together in a kind of stream-of-consciousness narrative. Propelled by the desire to find out who-dunnit, the reader is lured into the spectacular prose that characterizes McCann’s style. The second story, “What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?” is about a writer who is trying to write a short story; it is a frame story of the creative process, but also of loneliness and distance, as he creates the story of a Marine who stands watch in Afghanistan on New Year’s Eve, away from her family. In “Sh’khol” we are pulled into the panicked and disturbing thoughts of a woman whose adopted son has gone missing, possibly drowned, the day after she gave him a wetsuit. Finally, in “Treaty”, a nun who is the survivor of a brutal assault comes face to face with her attacker.

He pauses by the fire hydrant, to gather his breath. Can never see a fire hydrant without thinking of the September dust coming down ten years ago. All those young firemen going up the stairs. All intimately connected. A terrible day, he watched the collapse on television. For weeks afterwards every little thing was charged with meaning, even the dust on the windowsill, you were never quite sure what it might contain: a paper, a resume, an eyelash.

The sombre tone of the novella drew me in, and this story profoundly upset me. The judge’s relationship with his housekeeper, his inability to voice the many thoughts running through his head, limited by his age to vague mumblings that, out of the context of his runaway mind, make little sense to others. His ability to connect with people; his perceptiveness of others motivations and characters, made him a sympathetic character, which made his death all the more frustrating. This is a story that is, too, charged with meaning and I think different parts of it will affect readers differently, as the reading of it is as much about our own experiences as it is about the characters within it. McCann draws on his own experience of trauma to bring sincerity to the voices of an old man, a nun, a writer, a marine and a single mother.

Just as a poem turns its reader into accomplice, so, too, the detectives become accomplice to the murder. But unlike our poetry, we like our murders to be fully solved: if, of course, it is a murder, or poetry, at all.

The characters strive to be the best they can, while honestly being aware of their own weaknesses. Their experience, like ours, is limited by perspective. Primarily the mother whose inability to communicate with her deaf son, and lack of knowledge about his early life, combined with her projection of her own fears, desires and emotions onto him, creates a compellingly difficult relationship. So too the writer struggles to piece together a story from a single phrase, grasping for details until they fit, which creates an interesting parallel between his own emotions and those of the character through which he is expressing them. The complexity of the characters in this book are what makes it excellent, but there is more to it than that.

If only real life could have the logic of the written word: characters with conscious actions, hidden causes becoming plain, all things moving toward a singular point, the universe revealing itself as inexorably stable, everything boiled down to a static image, controlled, ordered, logical.

What I liked most about this book was McCann’s style. A lot of the time, we choose to read authors with whom we are familiar. However, one of the benefits of short fiction is the opportunity to try out new authors without committing to a full length book that might not be worth the time, money or effort. We have the chance to seek out novelty – a new story, a new perspective, a new voice, a new way of describing things. McCann’s descriptions ooze novelty; his similes and metaphors, his rhythm and the repeated motifs – these are the bits that made this book stand high above the others.

They stepped into a shaft of light so clear and bright it seemed made of bone. Just by the low stone wall, a cloud curtained across and the light dropped gray again. A few stray raindrops stung their faces. This was what she loved about the west of Ireland: the weather made from cinema. A squall could blow in at any time and moments later the gray would be hunted open with blue.

It’s a stunning collection of stories that are connected more by theme than plot. It stands solidly as a single piece of work, and the characters are unforgettable. This is a beautiful book. It’s a heartbreaking book. It’s an emotionally explosive book, and it’s a book that will force its way into your heart. It is a must-read, and if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to read it one more time.