Sunday 22 September 2019

Books: A school of hard knocks for Colum McCann

Thirteen Ways of Looking, Colum McCann, Bloomsbury €23.99

Life imitating art: Colum McCann is in reflective mood
Life imitating art: Colum McCann is in reflective mood

Hilary A White

Life imitated art in June of last year when Colum McCann was knocked out after stepping in to help a woman who was being assaulted on a street in New Haven, Connecticut. He was on the pavement outside his hotel, chatting on his phone with his 15-year-old son, when the man he had confronted earlier that evening blindsided him with a punch from behind. He woke up two-and-a-half hours later as he was being wheeled in for an MRI scan.

The story was widely reported, not only because McCann is one of the most successful contemporary Irish authors on the international circuit, but because of the seriousness of his injuries, which included contusions, a fractured cheekbone and the loss of several teeth. There followed a summer spent "in and out of doctors' waiting rooms for various physical problems that arose directly from the assault".

Much has already been made of the fact that the largest offering in this new collection concerns a man dying as the result of a spook-ily similar attack outside a New York restaurant. A separate tale, meanwhile, finds a victim confronting her former attacker in a cafe decades later. McCann swears in an author's note here that the former was "dreamed up long before the incident" in Connecticut. Incredible as this sounds, you tend to believe him.

"Sometimes it seems to me that we are writing our lives in advance," he says, "but at other times we can only ever look back."

It is generally accepted that while some writers prefer to meticulously map out the stories they are sitting down to tell, others write in order that they might then discover what to say. Going by Thirteen Ways Of Looking, your gut would swear the multi-award- winning author of Let The Great World Spin was of the latter persuasion. It bills itself as a short-story collection, but it is more like a novella with three tales tacked on afterwards to amplify the vibrations of the main concerto. There are themes of regret, longing, surveillance, captivity and fear. There are both meditative flows as well as the desperate thrusting movements of a writer seeking to dig his way towards light.

The title story swings between the ranging and rhythmic stream of consciousness of Mendelssohn, a retired New York judge, and the police detectives investigating his killing. Angles flick (slightly annoyingly) from first to third person or present to distant past, a little like those polyphonic structures of Donal Ryan. Metafictional walls materialise elsewhere as a writer tries to conjure a New Year's Eve story for a news- paper in What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?

These characters rarely have a narrow genetic or spiritual origin, which also feels like a device carved on the fly from ether. They are either like McCann himself, a migrant Dubliner who has called the US - and particularly the melting pot of New York - his home since the mid-Eighties, or they have been moved around by external factors. The world is McCann's stage, but there remain umbilical links to this island, unbreakable gossamers that stay attached while McCann plonks these characters in Colombian guerrilla prisons, an orphanage in Vladivostok or a barracks in Afghanistan.

Consistency is where many short story anthologies fall down, yet it is less of a concern with Thirteen Ways of Looking's small handful of entries. Sh'khol (a Hebrew term often used to describe parents who lose children in war or terror attacks) drips with an excruciating suspense that will unsettle any parent. Its plot of a lone woman in Galway searching frantically for her deaf adopted son app-ears, like everything here, thinly conceived and almost insubstantial, yet it emanates a sensory potency. Mendelssohn's tale, meanwhile, involves protracted phases of rummaging way back through a lifetime as well as around the immediate vicinity, but somehow it all sharpens into a riveting mini crime mystery.

It's a nifty trick that McCann pulls off a few times (he can resort to gimmicks to do so). He will also occasionally slow us down to pronounce narrative notes, then zing us with skitty, musical language (especially in the case of Mendelssohn's internal rhapsody).

In Treaty, McCann riffs on what he called in his victim impact statement from the 2014 attack (available to read on his website) the "punches behind the punch", or the fallout from victimhood. He works it into the head of an unassuming nun and ends up heaping power on to a victim whose tormentor thinks they can outrun their crimes (McCann's assailant ended up serving only three weeks of a two-and-a-half year sentence).

There is a hefty amount of heart between these covers from a man who has always kept active in the world of philanthropy. McCann is one of four founding members of Narrative4, a global non-profit that fights for social change by educating through the exchange of stories. The night of that attack, the 50-year-old had been giving a presentation at a conference being staged by the organisation. The title was "Radical Empathy", which while being another bizarre element to the dimension-smashing genesis of this release, is not oddly surprising. Thirteen Ways of Looking is, after all, laced with the stuff.

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