Colum McCann’s new collection includes a piece that sounds like the classic high-school cop-out: It’s a story about a writer trying to write a story. That McCann manages to overcome the necrotic cliche of that premise is a sign of his technical skill; that he makes the story so emotionally compelling is a sign of his genius.
“What Time Is It Now, Where Are You?” is the shortest piece in “Thirteen Ways of Looking,” and the only one that feels autobiographical, though McCann claims in the “Author’s Note” that “every word we write is autobiographical.” In 13 short segments, this story describes an Irish writer living in New York struggling to meet a deadline for a newspaper magazine. His editor’s only criterion is that the plot be related to New Year’s Eve, a topic that looks as fresh as Dick Clark.
If you’ve ever gone to an author reading, you’ve heard someone in the audience rise and say, “Tell us about your process” (which is pretty much why I stopped going to author readings). But here, in just 10 pages, is an answer that captures the mundane and mysterious aspects of shaping characters from the gray clay of words, placing them in realistic settings and breathing life into their lungs.
We watch as McCann’s writer casts about for a protagonist and finally lights upon a Marine — “let’s say a young woman” — in Afghanistan, pining for home. She’s vague at first but gradually gains definition: age, home, name. “The essence of Sandi’s story has begun to place layers upon layers,” McCann writes, “though he does not know yet who the loved one is or what might eventually exist between them.” Sometimes, the writer feels boxed in by what he’s already decided (having made her 26, how can he give her a 14-year-old son?) or intimidated by what he doesn’t know (“Could a bullet travel that distance?”). But the rough scaffolding begins to shape the story in interesting ways. Suddenly, Sandi and her stateside lover and their little boy have a claim on our affections. Their voices break from the writer’s, their hopes and fears inflating into life-size. It’s like watching an engineer construct a plane in flight and then parachute away. They’re on their own now, the members of this little family; their final destination can’t be seen, but we’re desperate to know.
The irreducible mystery of human experience ties this small collection together, and in each of these stories McCann explores that theme in some strikingly effective ways. The collection’s title comes from a poem that Wallace Stevens published a century ago, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” One of that poem’s 13 haiku-like stanzas speaks of “The mood/Traced in the shadow/An indecipherable cause.”
Those lines echo through the title story, a novella about a retired judge in New York City. At 82, Peter Mendelssohn is enduring the indignities of old age with a mixture of irritation, befuddlement and wit, doing his best to remain urbane to all who care for him. His thoughts drift erratically into the past — good times, mostly, but heartache, too, of a life that spanned the Atlantic and achieved a degree of renown. McCann has perfected a method of finely blending his own narration with his characters’ thoughts and dialogue, without allowing any of those distinct strains to blur.
In summary, there’s not much here for a story that runs to 138 pages: Peter gets dressed, hobbles through the snow to a nearby restaurant and eats lunch with his obnoxious son. But as that simple action gains surprising weight and color, it’s constantly interrupted by police detectives studying surveillance footage to see who punched and killed Peter as he left the restaurant. (In a horrific example of life imitating art, this story was conceived before McCann himself was beaten unconscious on a street in New Haven, Conn.)
The effect of reading these two converging narratives — the event and the recording of the event — is as fascinating as it is poignant. And McCann uses both tracks to explore the limits of what can really be determined. While Peter wonders how his little boy could have become such an unpleasant man, the detectives study videos frame by frame, speeding them up, slowing them down, comparing them with others. They’re certain that if they look hard enough, carefully enough, the truth will make itself apparent: “The homicide, like a poem, had to open itself to whatever might still be discovered.” And yet, as McCann points out, “Unlike our poetry, we like our murders to be fully solved.” It’s a perfect story for an age naively convinced that if only we installed cameras everywhere, we could, in the words of Saint Paul, “understand all mysteries and all knowledge.”
Any of its four pieces is enough to recommend this collection, but the most remarkable one is “Sh’khol.” It’s the story of a translator, a single mother named Rebecca, who’s raising her son, Tomas, in a remote village in Galway. Adopted from Russia when he was 6, Tomas is now a strong 13-year-old, deaf, with no formal method of communication. In dark moments, Rebecca worries how she’ll be able to control him as he gets bigger, but for now, “there was a raw wedge of thrill in her love for him,” McCann writes. “Some days Tomas took her hand, leaned on her shoulder as they drove through the village, beyond the abandoned schoolhouse, past the whitewashed bungalows toward home. She wanted to clasp herself over him, shroud him, absorb whatever came his way. Most of all she wanted to discover what sort of man might emerge from underneath that very pale skin.”
The story opens on a happy Christmas morning, when Rebecca gives Tomas his first wetsuit and they swim together in the ocean. But the next day, she finds that her son has gone out to the water alone, and so begins the terror that haunts every parent.
It’s no wonder that “Sh’khol” won a Pushcart Prize and has been included in the just released “The Best American Short Stories,” edited by T.C. Boyle. Caught in the rushing currents of this drama, you know you’re reading a little masterpiece. Even as Rebecca struggles to peer through her deepening guilt, she’s haunted by her work translating an Israeli novella about a couple who lose both their children. How, she wonders, to translate the Hebrew word sh’khol. “There was no proper match. There were words, of course, for widow, widower and orphan, but no noun, no adjective, for a parent who had lost a child. . . . She wanted to be true to the text, to identify the invisible, torn open, ripped apart, stolen.”
Watching this mother discover the most faithful translation for that unspeakable fate is only one of the treasures in this collection.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
On Oct. 23 at 7 p.m., Colum McCann will be at Politics & Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.
THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING
By Colum McCann
Random House. 242 pp. $26