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Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann

Thirteen Ways of Looking by Columm McCann (2015) French title: Treize façons de voir. Translated by Jean-Luc Piningre.

I am slightly late with this billet as Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann was my Book Club read for…June. I definitely don’t manage the BTW (Billets To Write) pile according to the FIFO method. Thirteen Ways of Looking is made of four stories, the eponymous novella and three short-stories. (What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?, Sh’khol and Treaty)

Let’s start with the novella. The main character is an eighty-two-year-old retired judge from Brooklyn. He’s a widower and he needs a caregiver, Sally because his body now betrays him. His days are made of little rituals and it soon becomes clear that he’s going to die from a violent death. We are in his head, following his musings about his late wife, his quotidian, his career as a judge and all the little humiliations that his failing body imposes on him. I enjoyed that part very much, it reminded me of the depiction of old age in Exit Ghost by Philip Roth.

Our body ages quicker than our mind and we often need reminders of our actual age because, inside, we never feel as old as what our ID says. For our protagonist, the mirror seems to lie and reflect a stranger instead of him

He caught a glimpse in the mirror the other day, and how in tarnation did I acquire the face of my father’s father? The years don’t so much arrive, they gatecrash, they breeze through the door and leave their devastation, all the empty crockery, the broken veins, sunken eye pools, aching gums, but who is he to complain, he’s had plenty of years to get used to it, he was hardly a handsome Harry in the first place, and anyway he got the girl, he bowled her over, he won her heart, snagged her, yes, I was born in the middle of my first great love.

He feels humiliated to need diapers, handlebars and various reminder that his body doesn’t obey to him anymore. And he muses

And why is it that the mind can do anything it wants, yet the body won’t follow? What a wonderful thing it would be to live as a brain for a little while. To be perched in a jar and see it all from there.

A wonderful concept for times when our body takes precedence over everything because it aches or we are sick. He hasn’t lost his sense of humor but it’s hard for him to be old. I would have been happy with following his train of thoughts and revisit his life with him. I was not really interested in the events around his death. He was interesting enough on his own, without the added drama. His quirky mind was enough for me.

All war, any war, the vast human stupidity, Israel, Ireland, Iran, Iraq, all the I’s come to think of it, although at least in Iceland they got it right. Odd that. You never hear a peek of war from Iceland at all, but then again who’d want to be firing bullets over a piece of frozen tundra?

Indeed, who’d want that? Come to think of it, if said tundra has oil below, all bets are off.

The three short stories are very different from one another.

What Time Is It Now, Where You Are? is the story of a novelist who committed to write a short story for Christmas and inspiration deserts him. The story shows the writer turning ideas in his head until he settles on the character of a female soldier who phones her family for Christmas. We follow his creative process and here we have another story about writing. Someday, some writer will be original and decide to write about the technicity and angst of something else. Let’s say bookkeeping. That would be a change.

Sh’khol is set in Ireland. A mother lives with her mute adolescent son in a cottage by the ocean. It’s Christmas, and she got him a wet suit for he loves to swim. She wakes up to find that both he and the wet suit are gone. The story describes the sheer terror of a mother who might lose her only son. This one was difficult to read because as a parent, you can relate and feel in your bones the horrible moments this woman is living.

The one I preferred is Treaty. Beverly is an aging nun. She lives in America now and she struggles to fit in with the other nuns. Beverly –she is never called Sister Beverly, which is a telling detail—smokes and is considered as a rebel. One day, she watches television and sees a man from her past on the screen. We learn that Beverly used to work in South America and had been kidnapped by rebels. She was badly abused, beaten up and raped for months when she was held captive in the jungle. Now the man who used to torture her is on TV because he’s the main negotiator of a peace treaty on behalf of his country. The horrors of her past come back to her but also the difficulty she had to keep on living after she was freed. McCann describes her inner struggles masterfully.

She struggled for so many years with absolution, the depth of her vows, poverty, chastity, obedience. Working with doctors, experts, theologians to unravel what had happened. Every day she went to the chapel to beseech and pray. Hundreds of hours trying to get to the core of it, understand it, pick it apart. Forgiveness for herself first, they told her. In order, then, to forgive him. Without hubris, without false charity. Therapy sessions, physical exams, spiritual direction, prayer. The bembrace of Christ’s agony. The abandonment at the hour. Opening herself to compassion. Trying to put it behind her with the mercy of time. The days slipping by. Small rooms. Long hours. The curtains opening and closing. The disappearance of light. The blackened mirrors. The days spent weeping. The guilt. She sheared her hair. Swept the rosary beads off the bedside table. Took baths fully clothed. No burning bush, no pillar of light. More a pail of acid into which she wanted to dissolve.

We assume that she was better equipped than most to move on but even as a nun and a very pious person, forgiveness is not easy to find. Before being a nun, she’s human and her weakness makes her an engaging character.

Sometimes, writing a billet long after reading a book is a good way to know how much stayed with you. So, verdict for Thirteen Ways of Looking? I remember the novella quite well. Beverly stayed with me but I had absolutely no memories of the two other stories, even the terrifying one with the Irish mother and her missing son.

Although I was impressed by McCann’s impeccable style, I didn’t get on with the stories that much. It probably doesn’t help that I had no knowledge of Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird by Wallace Stevens, a poem whose verses adorn the chapters of Thirteen Ways of Looking. Like I said, I would have been happy with the old man’s life story and a peaceful death in his bed. And Beverly made a lasting impression. If you have read and reviewed it, don’t hesitate to leave a link to your review in the comments.

  1. August 24, 2017 at 1:44 am

    Great commentary Emma.

    I have never read McCann but these stories and characters sound interesting.

    I would likely read the Wallace Stevens poem before I read this book.

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    • August 24, 2017 at 1:29 pm

      Thanks Brian.

      My English is not good enough to read English poetry, I’ll have to pass on the Wallace Stevens poem.
      McCann is worth reading, if you still have room on your TBR.

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  2. August 24, 2017 at 9:24 am

    I’ve never read him, but I liked these quotes. And I do know the Wallace Stevens poem.

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    • August 24, 2017 at 1:18 pm

      I’ve also read This Side of Brightness and enjoyed it very much.
      He writes really well, I was a bit disappointed by the stories, though.

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  3. August 24, 2017 at 2:48 pm

    It well written and reasonably well done, but I’m not sure it sounds like me and I note you weren’t really blown away. Besides which I have a bit of a short story backlog presently (I’m slowly working through Kevin Barry’s collection Dark Lies the Island which is very good).

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    • September 2, 2017 at 7:43 am

      Sorry for the really slow answer.
      I wasn’t blown away, except for the last story. I read a few story collections this year and I need a break too, so I understand why you’d want to read your backlog before.

      I’ll have a look at Dark Lies, I’ve never heard of it.

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  4. August 24, 2017 at 4:03 pm

    I’ve read a few of his novels and liked them. I wasn’t sure whether this would be for me but now that I’ve read your review, I think I’d feel similarly lukewarm about it.
    You can manage Stevens’ poem. Trust me.

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    • September 2, 2017 at 7:50 am

      I liked his novels better too. Which ones did you read?
      I’d never heard of Steven, so I looked him up. Modernist poet, I might miss out less than with classic ones. For poets like Keats, I miss the rhythm embedded in the verses. I don’t have the cultural background necessary to fully grasp the beauty of classic verses.

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      • September 4, 2017 at 6:51 pm

        This Side of Brightness and Dancer. Both were excellent. There may have been a third one but I can’t remember the title.

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  5. August 27, 2017 at 3:17 am

    My take on this collection of novella and stories was very positive.
    https://anokatony.wordpress.com/2015/11/08/thirteen-ways-of-looking-by-colum-mccann/
    It wound up as #3 on my year end Top Ten list.

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    • September 2, 2017 at 7:51 am

      Thanks for the link to your review.
      I think it’s a fine piece of literature but that it didn’t work for me. I understand why someone else would love it.

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  6. September 6, 2017 at 5:30 pm

    It’s really interesting to read about your response to these stories and novella. Several years ago, I had a fairly similar reaction to one of McCann’s novels, Let The Great World Spin – also a book group read as it happens. I thought it was fine, but just not for me. Everyone else in the group thought it was wonderful, so I felt like a bit of an outlier – almost as though I couldn’t see the magic. What did the rest of your group think about these pieces?

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  7. September 7, 2017 at 8:53 pm

    Nobody was blown over. Maybe it doesn’t speak to French minds ?

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