Thirteen Ways of Looking: A Novella and Three Stories

Thirteen Ways of Looking: A Novella and Three Stories

by Colum McCann


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NAMED ONE OF THE TEN BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY CHICAGO TRIBUNE AND ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY The New York Times Book Review • NPR • Los Angeles Times • The Boston Globe • The Seattle Times • The Independent

In such acclaimed novels as Let the Great World Spin and TransAtlantic, National Book Award–winning author Colum McCann has transfixed readers with his precision, tenderness, and authority. Now, in his first collection of short fiction in more than a decade, McCann charts the territory of chance, and the profound and intimate consequences of even our smallest moments.

“As it was, it was like being set down in the best of poems, carried into a cold landscape, blindfolded, turned around, unblindfolded, forced, then, to invent new ways of seeing.”

In the exuberant title novella, a retired judge reflects on his life’s work, unaware as he goes about his daily routines that this particular morning will be his last. In “Sh’khol,” a mother spending Christmas alone with her son confronts the unthinkable when he disappears while swimming off the coast near their home in Ireland. In “Treaty,” an elderly nun catches a snippet of a news report in which it is revealed that the man who once kidnapped and brutalized her is alive, masquerading as an agent of peace. And in “What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?” a writer constructs a story about a Marine in Afghanistan calling home on New Year’s Eve.

Deeply personal, subtly subversive, at times harrowing, and indeed funny, yet also full of comfort, Thirteen Ways of Looking is a striking achievement. With unsurpassed empathy for his characters and their inner lives, Colum McCann forges from their stories a profound tribute to our search for meaning and grace. The collection is a rumination on the power of storytelling in a world where language and memory can sometimes falter, but in the end do not fail us, and a contemplation of the healing power of literature.

Praise for Thirteen Ways of Looking

“Extraordinary . . . incandescent.”Chicago Tribune

“The irreducible mystery of human experience ties this small collection together, and in each of these stories McCann explores that theme in some strikingly effective ways. . . . [The first story] is as fascinating as it is poignant. . . . [The second] captures the mundane and mysterious aspects of shaping characters from the gray clay of words, placing them in realistic settings and breathing life into their lungs. . . . That he makes the story so emotionally compelling is a sign of his genius. . . . The most remarkable [piece] is Sh’khol. . . . Caught in the rushing currents of this drama, you know you’re reading a little masterpiece.”The Washington Post

“McCann is a writer of power and subtlety and beauty. . . . The powerful title story loiters in the mind long after you’ve read it.”—Sarah Lyall, The New York Times

“[McCann] unspools complex and unforgettable stories in this, his first collection in more than a decade.”The Boston Globe

“McCann is a passionate writer whose impulse is always toward a generous understanding of his diverse characters.”The Wall Street Journal

“Powerful, profound, and deeply empathetic, McCann’s beautifully wrought writing in Thirteen Ways of Looking glides off the page.”BuzzFeed

“McCann weaves the magic that made Let the Great World Spin so acclaimed.”The Huffington Post

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812986587
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/20/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 244,087
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Colum McCann is the internationally bestselling author of the novels TransAtlantic, Let the Great World Spin, Zoli, Dancer, This Side of Brightness, and Songdogs, as well as two critically acclaimed story collections. His fiction has been published in thirty-five languages. He has received many honors, including the National Book Award, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres award from the French government, and the Ireland Fund of Monaco Literary Award in Memory of Princess Grace. He has been named one of Esquire’s “Best and Brightest,” and his short film Everything in This Country Must was nominated for an Oscar in 2005. A contributor to The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, and The Paris Review, he teaches in the Hunter College MFA Creative Writing program. He lives in New York City with his wife and their three children, and he is the cofounder of the global nonprofit story exchange organization, Narrative 4.

Read an Excerpt

Thirteen Ways of Looking


Among twenty snowy mountains,

The only moving thing

Was the eye of the blackbird.

The first is hidden high in a mahogany bookcase. It shows the full expanse of room where he lies sleeping on a queensize bed among a heap of pillows.

The headboard is intricately carved. The bedframe, sleigh-shaped. The duvet, Amish-patterned. An urn sits on the left bedside table, a stack of books on the right. An antique lantern clock with exposed weights and pulleys is hung on the wall near a long silver mirror, freckled and browned with age. Beneath the mirror, tucked in a corner, almost hidden from view, is a small oxygen tank.

Half a dozen pillows are placed in the armchair, away from the bed. Several cushions rest on an oak chair with leather armrests.

The writing table sits near the doorway, with a number of papers neatly towered, a silver letter opener, a seal embosser, an open laptop. There is a pipe on the desk but no tobacco box, matches, or ashtray.

The artwork is contemporary: three urban landscapes, sharp lines and blocks, and a small abstract seascape on the wall by the bathroom door.

Amid it all, he lies lumpen in the bed, a blanket-shape, his head little more than a blur.


I was of three minds,

Like a tree

In which there are three blackbirds.

I was born in the middle of my very first argument. He should rise, find a notebook, scribble the phrase down, but it’s frigid in the room and the heating hasn’t yet kicked on, so he’d rather not move. But at least the sheets are tight and warm. Perhaps Sally came in to re-tuck him, since he seems, now, to remember the journey, or the several journeys, or—more to the point—the endless voyages to the bathroom. I was born in the middle of my last epic voyage. Above him, the ceiling fan turns. The handymen have reversed its usual spin. But how is it that a reverse-spinning fan creates warmth? Something to do with the updraft of air and the way a current flows. If only we could catch the draft, reverse our spin. I was born in the middle of my first jury argument. Strange to rethink the memoirs at this age, but what else is there to do? It was a surprise that the original book didn’t sell well, back in the eighties, nicely published, nicely packaged, nicely edited. All the niceties. Even with a modesty pill he would have thought it would sell a few copies here and there, but it ended up, after three months, on the remainder tables. I was born in the middle of my first public failure. But when was it really, truly? I was born the first time I made love to Eileen. I was born when I touched the hand of my baby son Elliot. I was born when I sat in the cockpit of a Curtiss SOC-3. Oh, bullshit really. Bullshit with two capital L’s. Truthfully he was born in the middle of that first case when he stood in front of the Brooklyn court, a fresh-plucked assistant DA, and he shaped the words exactly the way he had dreamed, and they entered the air, and he could feel the way they fluttered, and what they did to the faces of all the all-male jury, and what they did, also, to the sympathetic judge who beamed with something akin to pride. A very solid argument, Mr. Mendelssohn. He knew right then he would never turn away. The law was what he was made for. How many eons ago now? He should write it down. But that’s the problem with age, isn’t it? You have the feeling, but not the dates. Find the dates, you lose the feeling.

A pencil and some paper, Sally, my dear, is that too much to ask? I was born in the middle of my very first memory loss. Why, oh, why is there is never any paper by the bedside? Maybe I should use a tape recorder? One of those little digital marvels. Perhaps there’s one on my BlackBerry—it has, after all, everything else. He has taken, recently, to tucking it into his pajama pocket where it remains during the night, the little red light pulsing. A wondrous machine, it brings news of all the latest triumphs and terrors while he dozes and snores. Coups and wars and revolutions and rebellions and other sundry sadnesses all plotting their escape from the comfort of his bed.

Interesting that. They design the pajamas so the pocket sits on the left-hand side, over the heart. Something medical perhaps? A little compartment for the doctor to search. Somewhere to hold the stents and tubes and pills in case of attack. The accoutrements of age. He should ask his old friend Dr. Marion. Why is the pocket over the heart, Jim? Maybe it’s just a tic of fashion. 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?

Oh, the mind is wandering, plotting its escape: out the frosted window and away. And who was it, anyway, invented the cool side of the pillow?

He moves his toes a little in the sheets, rubs them together slowly, lets the warmth crawl up through him. He has never understood the heating systems in New York. All these underground steam pipes and oil trucks and board meetings about boilers, and Nobel-winning engineers, and smarty-pants architects, and global-heating specialists, a veritable brain trust, geniuses every one, and still all you get is a terrible clack clack clack in the morning. Dante in the basement, trying to prime the pipes. Good God, you’d think that in the twenty-first century they’d be able to solve the mystery of the fucking heating, excuse my French, my Polish, my Lithuanian, but no, they can’t, they won’t, never have, possibly never will. They don’t turn the boiler on until five in the morning unless it’s eastern Siberia outside. The building’s superintendent is a chess master, hails from Sarajevo, once played against Spassky, boasts about his brain capacity, says he’s a member of Mensa, but even he can’t get the goddamn heating going?

He grabs the BlackBerry, keys it alive. Twenty-two minutes still before the pipes kick on properly. He is tempted to break his ritual, do an early check of the news and his e-mail, but he slides the BlackBerry back into his pajama pocket. I was born in the middle of my first jury argument and I came out onto Court Street with a spring in my step. Not quite true. There was never much of a spring in my step, even in those days. Always lagging a pace behind. Not quite Joe DiMaggio or Jesse Owens or Wilt Chamberlain or anyone else for that matter. The spring was kept coiled, instead, in the language, the intonation, the shape of his words. He sometimes stayed up all night at the mahogany desk, crafting lines. He had wanted, when younger, to be a writer. The fountain of Helicon. I was born in the middle of my first contradiction. Great arguments had nothing to do with substance. It was all about style. The right word at the right time. All fools know that a touch of fancy language can make any stupidity shine. In court he would study the jury’s faces to see what fine words he might slip under their skin. The grace of an orator and the shape of a snake, said a colleague once, or was it the shape of an orator and the grace of a snake? A compliment anyway. Even a snake has its sibilant slither.

Eileen loved reading his judgments, especially in the later years, after he was promoted to the Kings County Supreme Court, when one newspaper or the other was always out to get him, The Village Voice, The New York Times, that chip-choppity New Amsterdam rag, what was it called? Not the Brooklyn Eagle, that’s dead long ago. They cartooned him once as a praying mantis. He hated the face they gave him, the pouchy cheeks, the spectacles perched on his nose, the little round sling of belly as he chomped away on another praying mantis. Fools. They got it wrong. Only the female eats the male, after a bout of love. Still and all, it was hardly complimentary.

And why was it that they always portrayed judges as portly mountains of flesh? He was always as skinny as they came. A beanpole. A scarecrow. More fat, said Eileen, on a butcher’s knife. But the cartoonists and even the courtroom artists insisted on giving him a bit of jowl, or a touch of paunch. It annoyed Eileen no end. She even started cutting back on the calories until he could hardly see himself sideways in the mirror. He used to think that the great grace of old age would be the giving up of vanity, but it is apparent even more these days: the sag of skin, the wrinkles, the eyes surprised by the sight of himself. He caught a glimpse in the mirror the other day, and how in tarnation did I acquire the face of my father’s father? The years don’t so much arrive, they gatecrash, they breeze through the door and leave their devastation, all the empty crockery, the broken veins, sunken eyepools, aching gums, but who is he to complain, he’s had plenty of years to get used to it, he was hardly a handsome Harry in the first place, and anyway he got the girl, he bowled her over, he won her heart, snagged her, yes, I was born in the middle of my first great love.

He lets his arm fall over to the other side of the bed. Saudade. A good word that. Portuguese. Get you close, Eileen. Come snuggle in here beside me. Never a truer word. The longing for what has become absent.

She always said that his early court performances in Brooklyn were full of patience, guile, and cunning. A literary reference somehow—she was a fan of Joyce. Silence and exile. At home every morning she ironed his shirts and starched his collars and, with each case he won, she bought him a volume of poetry and a brand-new tie from the shop on Montague Street. He could have strung them from here to the Asian sweatshop: the ties, that is, not the poems. Eileen must have kept the Gucci factory girls alive, the number of cravats he had hanging in his closet, perfectly arranged, neatly coded and layered. Her dark hair, her pert little nose, the single mole on the rim of her cheek. She was lovely once and always, like the girl from the song. Lovely once and always, moonlight in her hair. There are times he still spritzes a tiny bit of perfume in her pillow, just to inhale and pretend she’s still there. Sentimental, of course, but what’s life without sentiment? And let’s face it, when is the last time he had a bout of good old-fashioned lust?

Consult the BlackBerry, it will know. It does, after all, seem to know everything else: wayward sons, broken-hearted daughters, another spill in the Gulf.

He can hear Sally, already up and at it in the kitchen. The rattle of the spoons. The slide of the saucer. The touch of the teacup. The ping of the orange glass. The juicer being yanked from the cupboard. The soft sigh of the fridge’s rubber tubing. The creak of the bottom drawer. The carrots coming out, the strawberries, the pineapple, the oranges, and then a serious clank of ice. The juice. Sally says he should call it a smoothie, but he doesn’t like the word, simple as that, nothing smooth about it. He was on a shuffle in the park the other day—no other word, every day a shuffle now—and he saw a young woman at the park benches near the reservoir with the word Juicy scrawled in pink across her rear end, and he had to admit, even at his age, that it wasn’t far from the truth. With all apologies to Eileen, of course, and Sally too, and Rachel, and Riva, and Denise, and MaryBeth, and Ava, no doubt, and Oprah, and Brigitte, and even Simone de Beauvoir, why not, and all the other women of the world, sorry all, but it was indeed rather juicy, the way it bounced, with the little boundary of dark skin above, and the territory of shake below, and there was a time, long ago, when he could’ve squeezed a thing or two out of that, oh don’t talk to me of smoothies. He had a reputation, but it was nothing but harmless fun. He never strayed, though he had to admit he leaned a little. Sorry, Eileen, I leaned, I leaned, I leaned. It was his more conservative colleagues in the court who gave him the evil eye. A bunch of shriveled-up prunes, or prudes, or both—how in the world, beyond party politics, did they ever get elected? What did they think, that a man must hide his life in the judge’s shroud? That he has to pop the errant head back under the shell? That the only noise he’d make was the gavel? No, no, no, it was all about taking the rind of life. Extract the liquid. Forget the pulp. Juice it up. The Jew’s Juice. A smoothie.

Oh, the whirl of the mind. Sorry, Eileen. I was passionate once, and that’s the word. Flirtatious maybe even. Nothing more. Never one to harass. That was something he passed on to young Elliot instead. More’s the pity. Look at that poor boy now. But enough of all that. It’s no way to start the day, with his errant son, his wandering eyes, hands, ears, throat, wallet.

He can hear the faint ticking begi. Come, heat, hurry. Rise up the pipes.

Why is it that New York never produced some boy genius to solve the heating problem? You’d think that with all the children born in this thumping metropolis that at least one of them would get miffed about the clank of pipes and the hiss of steam? That they’d solve their everyday dilemma? But no, no, no. Off they go and make their millions on Wall Street and Broadway and in Palo Alto and Los Alamos and wherever else, and still they come home to an apartment designed for cavemen.

What is this godforsaken apartment worth anyway? Half a million twenty-seven years ago. Sold the brownstone on Willow Street and made the trek to the Upper East Side. All to make Eileen happy. She loved strolling by the Great Lawn, taking her ease around the reservoir, going on jaunts down to Greenberg’s bakery. She even put a mezuzah by the front door. To protect the investment as much as anything else. Two million dollars now, they say, two point two maybe, two point four, but they can’t get the heating on before five in the morning? We can put a black man in the White House but we still can’t get toasty? We can send a mission to Mars but we have to freeze a good man’s cojones off on East Eighty-sixth Street? We can fit our BlackBerrys into our heart-side pajama pockets, but we can’t guide the steam up through the walls without a racket?

Reading Group Guide

1. The title of this collection comes from the poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens, which appears in its entirety throughout the first story. What do you think is the significance of the poem, and why did the author adapt its title for this collection?

2. McCann has said that his favorite passage from the poem is “I do not know which to prefer,/The beauty of inflections/Or the beauty of innuendos,/The blackbird whistling/Or just after.” How might this passage relate to the theme of surveillance throughout the novella?

3. The world of the first story, “Thirteen Ways of Looking,” is one in which security cameras are everywhere but fail to capture the crucial moment of the attack on Mendelssohn. What do you think is the significance of that failure, and what does it say about how we perceive the truth?

4. The act and art of storytelling appears in many forms throughout this collection—from the unnamed author crafting his story in “What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?” to Carlos presenting a new “story” of himself as a supposed agent of peace in “Treaty.” What are some other examples? What do these ­instances of storytelling have in common, and how are they ­different?

5. What do you think Beverly is seeking in her trip to London in “Treaty”? Does she find it? Do you agree with her decision not to expose Carlos for who he is? Does she achieve justice or revenge?

6. Discuss the theme of empathy as it’s explored in this collection. What does empathy mean to you? What does it mean to the characters in these stories?

7. In his author’s note, Colum McCann writes, “In the end, . . . every word we write is autobiographical, perhaps most especially when we attempt to avoid the autobiographical.” Do you agree or disagree with that statement? How does it affect your reading of the collection?

8. None of the stories are told in first person, but each has its own distinct voice that brings to life the characters’ perspectives. How does the author achieve this? Did you identify with any of the characters more than with others? Why?

9. Compare and contrast the different ways the author depicts the relationship between a parent and a child throughout the collection. What does the idea that it’s “Impossible to be a child forever. A mother, always” mean to you?

10. The mother in “Sh’khol” struggles to find a translation for the title word, meaning a parent who has lost a child, and eventually realizes that the word is “shadowed.” Why do you think that’s the word she decides on? Do you agree or disagree?

11. There is a large amount of random violence, loss, and difficulty in these stories. Ultimately, do you think this is an optimistic collection? McCann has said that to be a good optimist one must be “muscular enough to refuse cynicism.” What do you think he means by this?

12. Each of the four stories is written in thirteen sections. There is a very conscious structure at play, but it’s subtle, particularly in “Sh’khol” and “Treaty.” Why do you think that is? Do you think being aware of that structure as a reader would take away from the spontaneity of the stories?

13. What would your own thirteenth question be?

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