Saturday 16 December 2017

Books: Colum McCann: Writing our lives in advance...

Fiction: Thirteen Ways of Looking, Colum McCann, Bloomsbury, hbk, 256 pages, €26.85

Attack: Colum McCann was punched from behind and knocked unconscious.
Attack: Colum McCann was punched from behind and knocked unconscious.
Colum McCann's Thirteen Ways of Looking

John Boland

In an author's note at the end of his new book, Colum McCann says that its novella and accompanying stories were written "on either side" of an incident in New Haven last year when he was "punched from behind and knocked unconscious, then hospitalised", after trying to help a woman who had been assaulted by her partner.

The attack, for which the man served only three weeks of a two-and-a-half-year jail sentence, made newspaper headlines both in Ireland and in the United States and was clearly deeply traumatic to the author, who here refers the reader to the victim impact statement he gave after the incident and which he says can be found on his website.

I couldn't locate it there, but I was puzzled about this author's note, in which he also informs us that some of the stories were written before the assault and some afterwards - indeed telling us that the lethal punch in the title story was "dreamed up long before" the real-life incident.

The point of this information remains unclear, though it does allow the author to reflect that maybe sometimes "we are writing our lives in advance" and that, in the end, "every word we write is autobiographical, perhaps most especially when we attempt to avoid the autobiographical".

I don't really know what that means, but happily there's much greater clarity to be found in the stories themselves, especially the main novella, which takes its title from Wallace Stevens' Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird and which prefaces each of its 13 chapters with a stanza from that famous - and famously enigmatic - poem. (Stevens is clearly in fashion with Irish novelists these days. John Banville's latest book, The Blue Guitar, also filching its title from the great American poet).

The story concerns the last morning in the life of retired 82-year-old judge J Mendelssohn, who is lethally punched after leaving a restaurant in which he has been lunching with his boorish middle-aged son. Each alternate chapter is told from the perspective of the old man, and McCann is wonderfully good at conjuring up both the judge's present frailties and bemusements and the vibrancy of his past, including a marriage to a beloved Irish wife. Indeed, so vivid is his presence that even though you've been forewarned about his death you somehow hope that such an interesting life won't be so cruelly terminated.

Each other chapter is told from the perspective of a police investigation into what happened outside the restaurant, and this, too, is chronicled with the author's customary assurance and alertness to detail, though his comparison of detective work with the writing of verse seems a tenuous conceit.

The short story that follows, 'What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?', is even more of a conceit, an extended doodle about the arbitrariness that's involved in writing a story, but 'Sh'khol' is an affecting account of a divorced woman trying to raise a deaf and troubled adopted son on the Atlantic coastline and finding that he has gone missing.

Even finer is the concluding story, 'Treaty', in which an elderly Irish nun who's watching a televised peace conference recognises the face of a delegate who raped and tortured her in Colombia 37 years earlier. This reaches a powerful climax when she confronts him in London and it demonstrates, along with the title novella, that McCann has as much mastery of shorter forms as of the more epic fiction for which he is famous.

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