Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann

By Ekta R. Garg

October 14, 2015

Genre: Short stories

Rated: Borrow it

A retired judge muses about his life one morning, not knowing that day will be his last. A single mother agonizes over her only child when he goes missing. A writer struggles with a story about a Marine in Afghanistan. A nun considers the opportunity to confront the kidnapper who raped her. National Book Award winning author Colum McCann offers readers four novellas that dig deep in his brand new book Thirteen Ways of Looking.

In the title story, retired Judge J. Mendelssohn wakes up on a day that threatens a snowstorm. He doesn’t care,. He’s going to gather what dignity he has left, what dignity a man who has to depend on a live-in nurse to take him to the bathroom can gather, and go to lunch to his favorite restaurant with his son. Never mind that his son is glued to his phone during the meal. Never mind the weather. Judge Mendelssohn is going to lunch. When someone attacks Mendelssohn and kills him, the police must piece together the former judge’s last steps and movements on that morning to figure out who might have targeted him and why.

The second story, “What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?”, follows an unnamed writer’s struggles with a story. He tries to follow one plot and then another, settling finally on a story about a Marine in Afghanistan on New Year’s Eve. As the year progresses and his deadline approaches, the characters in his story move toward the inevitable stroke of midnight on December 31. Questions come to the writer, and in the end he spends just as much time pondering his character’s situation as the character herself.

“Sh’khol”, the third story, introduces readers to Rebecca and her son, Tomas. When Rebecca adopted Tomas she was married and happy; now, when he’s reached the age of 13, she’s divorced and determined to enjoy their first Christmas as mother and son in a cottage on the ocean. When she presents him with a wetsuit for Christmas, Tomas is thrilled. But when he goes missing one morning, Rebecca fears the worst. With his communication disabilities heavy on her mind, Rebecca sinks into a depth of doubt about herself as a mother.

The final story, “Treaty”, details the history of Beverly, a nun, who sees her rapist on television. The attack happened decades ago, and Beverly has spent her entire life since then trying to come back to a normal state of living. She finally thinks she’s reached it when her attacker appears as part of a coalition of peace. From the time she sees him, Beverly returns in her mind to her abduction. She finally decides that enough is enough. She needs to create an opportunity to confront her rapist so she can put the entire terrible incident behind her once and for all.

Fans of literary fiction will revel in author Colum McCann’s character development and the sheer enjoyment he clearly reaps from handling language well. McCann doesn’t let touchy issues hold him back, whether it’s the details from a rape scene or the considerations of a man in what it means to get old. He pushes forward, letting his stories and the language share equal time in the forefront.

The first and last stories in this collection bookend the set with strength, while the second and third stories aren’t quite up to the same mark. Regardless, McCann pushes his readers’ emotions and asks them to work a little harder than what much mainstream fiction requires of readers. I recommend readers Borrow Thirteen Ways of Looking.