Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann

Who in the world invented pockets for pajamas anyway? And for what purpose? A place for a little extra bread or cracker or toast in case we get hungry during the night? A spot for the love letters from long ago? A slipcase for the alter ego, waiting, out there, in the wings?
Colum McCann opens each chapter of Thirteen Ways of Looking with a stanza from Wallace Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." Just like the poem, the novella plays with the concept of perception, both literally and figuratively. McCann moves from the internal, winding monologue of the elderly Mendelssohn as he lives out his final days in New York City, to flashes of his past in Ireland, to cameras filming his movements in his home and throughout the city. McCann does his usual effortless weaving of narratives spanning decades and continents, and the snapshots he captures and beautifully rendered, even more impressively in such a short span.

The internal narrative chapters are my favorites. McCann meditates on phrases and images, building on them each time: "I was born in the middle of my very first argument," "I was born in the middle of my last epic voyage." We learn of the love of his life, his career, his children, and the high and low points of each. He's old, so the narrative meanders accordingly, but it balances between nostalgic recollections and stark descriptions of the day to day indignities of getting older.

There is a mystery at the center of the story, and it's unveiled artfully. McCann uses the device of perspective to slowly unwind the solution. Sometimes it's a little on the nose: the use of cameras as a symbol for perspective occasionally felt like a little much, but his descriptions are beautiful enough that it still works.

This felt very much like Let the Great World Spin and TransAtlantic, McCann has a gift for wide ranging stories. This one wasn't as ambitious as TransAtlantic in its scope or as nuanced as Let the Great World Spin in its characters, but it packed so much into so few pages. I enjoyed the use of the Stevens poem as a device as well, it lent a new dimension to both the poem and each chapter.

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