Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

"Thirteen Ways of Looking" by Colum McCann (Random House, 2015)

4 stories.

Thirteen Ways of Looking - 144 pages. An ailing ex-Judge in New York ruminates on his life, The PoV is part 3rd-person, part 1st. Sometimes it shifts within a paragraph. More commonly, it shifts like this -

Where was I anyway? The mind these days, it slides so quickly. Nosce te ipsum. Something to do with cell phones? Or was it the newspaper and the folds?
Used to be that he'd read the paper cover to cover, minus the sports, then fold out the crossword

On p.24 begins a 2-page flash-forward to after his death. Then we return the ex-Judge's PoV. We flash-forwards again - his last few hours are recounted by noting what the police see on CCTV cameras. They use material from several cameras, and we're told the speed they watch recordings at (an ideal distancing method) - They enter the frame, actor-like, hitting their marks. The detectives halt the image and magnify, hold them in digital suspension, then click a slow motion forward. The pair hover at the entrance. She kisses him on the cheek, then Mendelssohn lets go of his nurse's arm, shuffles forward, slope-shouldered, and stops at the restaurant door. A single flake briefly obscures him when blown against the screen (p.69)

Analogies are made between detectives and poets/readers, e.g. Just as a poem turns its readers 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 (p.73)

There's more switching between timelines. From p.102 for a few pages I wouldn't change a word. Then there are interrogations - In nearly all interrogation rooms, the camera is set up high in a corner: the cobweb cam. It is preferable to have a glimpse of the doorway - the truth is so often worn in the shape of arrival (p.115).

What Time Is It Now, Where You Are? - 12 pages about a writer commissioned to write a story. Not much to it.

Sh'khol - 36 pages. An Irish couple, having adopted a 6 year-old child, probably deaf, from Vladivostok have split up. The mother (a translator from Hebrew) takes him, now 13, to the West Irish coast for a holiday - 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 (p.165). She wakes one morning and can't find Tomas. She swims for hours looking for him, has to be hauled out. He's found after two days. She never finds out where he was. He's going through puberty.

In "sometimes she wondered if the fear edged toward hatred. She reached underneath for a red hatbox" (p.170) it's strange that "hatred" and "red hat" are so close together.

Treaty - 43 pages. A 76 year old Irish nun held for months in captivity in a jungle 37 years before, sees her captor, respectable now, on TV. She flies from the US to London to confront him. She can't give up smoking.

I liked 3 of these stories.

Other reviews

  • Erica Wagner (Perhaps it is the accomplishment of “Sh’khol” that makes the final story, “Treaty”, feel like a coda, its connections – like the connections in the title story – just a little contrived.)
  • Sarah Lyall
  • Sarah Crown (it's in the flawless opening novella, which gives the collection its title, that McCann really lets loose.)
  • Michael Christie (So why is this collection so uneven? One can’t help but suspect today’s squeamish fiction-buying public, whose fickle taste demands that even a masterfully soaring novella like Thirteen Ways of Looking must be padded into publishability by a trio of parboiled, flightless stories and then ambiguously described as “Fiction” on the cover, all because readers fear to tread beyond their novelistic comfort zone. Still, regardless of the soggy second half, I’d recommend this book to anyone. Because I’ll take stumbling greatness over steady mediocrity any day.)
  • Éilís Ní Dhuibhne (It is this idea, that reality trumps invention, which drives this beautifully written – some might say too beautifully – disconcerting collection)
  • Ruth Gilligan (“What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?” is portioned into 13 brief sections, just as Rebecca’s son Tomas in “Sh’khol” is 13 years of age, and the whole of Thirteen Ways of Looking draws on the unlucky number for both its form and inspiration. Perhaps at times McCann risks overadorning what is already an abundantly striated set of tales. Meanwhile, some of the recurring motifs or metaphors can also stretch a little thin. For example, the work of Mendelssohn’s homicide detectives is compared to that of a poet: “the search for a random word, at the right instance, making the poem itself so much more precise.” Not a bad simile but one that is revisited repeatedly, certain versions proving less successful than others)
  • Philip Maughan
  • B. David Zarley
  • Ron Charles (Any of its four pieces is enough to recommend this collection, but the most remarkable one is “Sh’khol.")

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