Saturday 13 April 2024
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Randy Kraft’s OC Book Blog: “Thirteen Ways of Looking” by Colum McCann

Colum McCann presents an inventive grouping of one novella and three stories with "Thirteen Ways of Looking."

Colum McCann presents an inventive grouping of one novella and three stories with “Thirteen Ways of Looking.”

A novella and three stories from a master.

Colum McCann is a New Yorker with Irish roots. His fictions stand up to the legacy of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde and often blend the real world and the underworld. If you somehow missed the National Book Award winner Let The Great World Spin, make sure to read this exquisite homage to NYC pre-9/11. Now, he has presented an inventive grouping of one novella and three stories, and all are wonderful, although the novella alone is worth the price.

The title novella, based on a Wallace Stevens poem, which includes excerpts of that poetry at the start of the thirteen segments, introduces an old man, his caretaker, his abhorrent son, and an assorted cast of restaurants workers where he regularly takes his lunch. The daily routine of a man in his last years, or days, or perhaps hours. We know from the start a homicide has occurred but not sure who or why. Not an uncommon set of characters, or set up, but an uncommon series of events, and an unexpected perfect ending. Police detectives are meticulous in their search to solve the crime, and McCann said in an interview with the NY Times they work like poets: “…the search for a random word, at the right instance, making the poem itself so much more precise.”

The three subsequent stories are gems and each worthy of discussion. What Time is it Now, Where you are? deftly depicts the writer’s dilemma: how to match the words to the reverie? How to focus on the work and have a life? A writer has agreed to contribute a story to a holiday edition of a magazine, and expects the task to be easy enough, until he finds himself distracted, disenchanted with his own work, and generally taken with daily living over writing. In the end, of course, his process reveals the very essence of creativity. I recommend to aspiring writers as well as readers.

242 pages. Random House. $26.

242 pages. Random House. $26.

I should note here that while writing this collection, McCann was assaulted when attempting to assist a woman under attack. He was badly hurt and said his writing was halted for a time. So the underlying sense of vulnerability, and suspense, throughout the collection, might be attributed to this event, making every emotion more raw, every even ordinary sensation rising to the surface of characters’ skins.

“The more we know of time, the less we have of it. The less we have, the more we want.”

Talk about suspense: Sh’Khol describes the terrifying day when a mute adopted thirteen year-old boy goes missing, and every doubt his adoptive mother has ever had haunts her. “Impossible to be a child forever. A mother, always.”

The final story, Treaty, is simply astonishing. Something one of the great Colombian writers might have written. An elderly nun, who as a girl was brutally tortured and held sexual captive, sees her captor on television, now a famous peace negotiator. Talk about irony. She revisits every horrific moment in her mind and resolves to confront him. No spoilers – read it! One of the most amazing endings I’ve ever read.

I am an unabashed fan of McCann and he has once again delivered. Find yourself a quiet space for a time and read these powerful and sensitive short fictions. Relish each one on its own and reflect on how fragile, and redemptive, we are.  

Available in hardcover at Laguna Beach Books or for your favorite e-reader.

~ Written by Randy Kraft

Lead photo credit: Rich Gilligan

Randy Kraft is a retired journalist, an active book reviewer and fiction writer. She also occasionally teaches and coaches aspiring novelists, and has been the OC Book Blogger on this site since its inception. Born and bred in New York City, Randy resides in Dana Point. Her first novel Colors of the Wheel published in 2014 and her second, Signs of Life, in 2016. In recent years, she has published several short stories in literary magazines and her first collection, Rational Women, was released in 2020. (Maple57Press)