Thirteen Ways of Looking

Colum McCann has produced one novella and three short stories in this collection, Thirteen Ways of Looking.  The tales are together, but they are not; a series of loosely connected themes and ideas.  The migrant life, inheritance of Judaism, New York, Ireland and throughout it all a longing and pain.  Something bad happens in each of these stories, filled with a little suffering.

And this, of course, is life.  Finding connections, thinking on it all, working through what gets thrown at us.  But McCann has captured this in a different way.  It’s almost as if life as we know it, the lives of the characters he writes on, is perceived as light fragmented through a prism.  He breaks things down, focuses on only a couple of shards, leaving a lot left for us to simply imagine the rest.

However, his wordy meditation actually leaves no space for this.  The narration can be almost relentless, a constant examination – an overexamined life, perhaps.  The writing can be striking, beautiful, stunning you with its perceptions (“They stepped out into a shaft of light so clear and bright it seemed made of bone.”) but there is no breathing room for the rest.  Can we forgive him through, when we have this?:

 

“Curious thing, the snow.  They say the Eskimos have eighty words for it.  An articulate lot.  Slush and sleet and firm and grain.  Hoar and rime.  Crust crystal vapour blizzard graupel.  Pendular permeable planar.  Striated shear supercooled.  Brittle glazed clustered coarse broken.  An insult of snow, a slur of snow, a taunt of snow, a Walt Whitman snow, a bestiary snow, a calliope snow, it’s snowing in Morse code, three longs, a short, a long again, it’s snowing like the ancient art of the newspaper, it’s snowing like September dust coming down, it’s snowing like a Yankees Day parade, it’s snowing like an Eskimo song.”

These words do dance and lilt, full of poetry, but for me it was not enough to sustain.  Too extended, page after page of this is just indulgence, distractions, ramblings.  Where is the story, the drive?  Perhaps by problem is with the character McCann has expertly created here – a sad, sick, aged judge – or perhaps my problem is with McCann so blatantly using him as a tool to write his words rather than using his words to really create the character.

I have read books before which though prose, seemed pure poetry.  Where through moments a story emerges, a perfect fully realised image, characters and a world so deep and true that it hits you in the chest.  So, to me, this means I don’t need these things spelt out to me, that there is a way that makes sense to how I read my stories to show not tell with a language that just sings.  But not here, not here.

The review that caused me to buy this book was not wrong.  There is poetry, light, grace; a precision in its imagery.  But it is what the review does not mention that killed it for me: character, plot, story.  Thirteen Ways of Looking does contain those pure perfect moments of a coming together of words and image, but deploying that again and again and again without more structure, more attempt to tell an actual tale stops this collection being the wonder that it could for others.

 

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