A New Way of Looking: Colum McCann and the Empathy of His Fiction

By Ruth GilliganFebruary 15, 2016

Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann

IN “SH’KHOL,” a story from Colum McCann’s new collection, a translator named Rebecca Marcus spends her days converting texts from Hebrew into English. Although “the pay was derisory,” the translator enjoys her work. In McCann’s phrase, Rebecca “liked stepping into that otherness.”

This embrace of otherness, of stepping outside the self, typifies the (better paid, one hopes) career of Rebecca’s creator. Through six novels and three collections — this one called Thirteen Ways of Looking — McCann has remained committed to eschewing his own experience and writing instead about a range of marginalized groups, from the black homeless community of New York, to the itinerant Romas of Eastern Europe. He has rejected the famous dictum that writers should write what they know. As McCann once said in an interview, writers should write, “towards what [they] want to know. There’s a great freedom in the fictional experience.”

As a Jewish woman living in the West of Ireland, Rebecca Marcus is certainly somewhat “other” to the locals. She enjoys little company save for that of the characters in her books, and her 13 year-old son Tomas. Tomas is ‘other’ in his own way; he was adopted from Russia and, crucially, he’s deaf. Rebecca seems to relish Tomas’s difference: “There was a raw wedge of thrill in her love for him. The presence of the unknown.” She tries a range of languages on him – Irish, English, Hebrew, Yiddish – but mostly she discerns his moods and needs via “rudimentary” signing or by reading certain aspects of his body language.

This, of course, speaks to her job as a translator. At the time of the story, she’s working on an Israeli novella about a middle-aged couple who have tragically lost both their children. However, while the Hebrew language offers the term sh’khol for a parent who has suffered such a fate, Rebecca discovers there is no English equivalent —  “widow, widower, and orphan” are the limited options — so she searches in vain for a word that will “be true to the text,” that will “identify the invisible.”

It is during this search that another kind of translation occurs. One morning Tomas has suddenly gone missing, believed to have gone swimming in his new wetsuit and drowned. We are reminded how life can often imitate art in the cruellest of ways. The police and the lifeguards set up their own kind of search, combing the area for clues of Tomas’s whereabouts, but the more time passes the more Rebecca finds herself bereft of language entirely, until “she was making the sounds, she knew, of an animal.”

As it happens, around the time of writing “Sh’khol,” McCann was also working on a novella that follows retired New York judge Peter J. Mendelssohn — a man of energetic mind and ailing body — over the course of his last day on earth, each stage interpolated with various reminiscences from Mendelssohn’s colorful past. Like Rebecca, Mendelssohn is Jewish and feels a close affinity with Ireland, having spent some time there in his youth. He also has a largely “unknowable” son, Elliot. Elliot arrives at their lunch date overweight and overwrought, and it is precisely his volume  – in every sense of the word – which remains incomprehensible to his father. “And the truth of the matter,” Mendelssohn admits, “Is that I couldn’t love him any more or dislike him any less – the curse of the father.”

Despite his frustration with his son, this lunch forms the highlight of Mendelssohn’s day, worth even the treacherous journey through the furious New York snowstorm: “Jaywalking. Jayshuffling it is, now. The jaybird. Mr. J., indeed. On the Upper East Side. A lot of volume in this life. Echoes too.” Unfortunately Elliot doesn’t stay for long, so the judge lingers on to enjoy dessert for one, before he exits himself, dreading the walk home, “like crossing the Styx.” And then right there on the sidewalk, out of nowhere at all, he is punched — a seemingly random act, which causes him to fall and crack his head; it is a death as lacking in warning as it is in grace.

We watch this shocking attack more than once — first via a nearby security camera, then again via Mendelssohn’s own point of view. The novella as a whole alternates between these two modes, going back and forth a titular 13 times. However, there is also another perspective at work here that cannot be ignored, and indeed, another case of life imitating art. While developing the story, McCann himself was the victim of such an attack — a punch to the head, which left him unconscious and hospitalised and, by his own admission, broken in more ways than one.

This brutal incident occurred in New Haven, Connecticut last summer after McCann intervened on behalf of a woman who was being assaulted in the street. Even more ironically, the reason McCann was in New Haven at all was to attend a conference at Yale University based on the concept of empathy — an annual summit for the storytelling charity Narrative 4, to whom Thirteen Ways is dedicated.

Founded by McCann in 2013, and supported by everyone from Dave Eggers to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to Oprah Winfrey, Narrative 4 is an international organization devoted to the art of storytelling as a means of breaking down barriers. Bringing together youths from alternative backgrounds and inviting them to share their stories with one another, McCann and his team strive to shatter damaging concepts of “otherness” in the hope of creating a “next generation of empathetic leaders.”

After suffering this horrendous attack, McCann’s empathy was faced with a new challenge of its own. Should he put himself in his assailant’s shoes? This dilemma found its way across the media, and back home to Ireland, where I followed every step. When reading Thirteen Ways of Looking, I felt its presence throughout; it was an extra strand to the collection’s already elaborate weave. And yet, I couldn’t decide whether this simply belied my own preoccupations, my own inability to allow the fiction to stand alone — “fiction,” the word so clearly emblazoned across the book’s cover. 

At the back of the Thirteen Ways, I found an author’s note that not only explains the incident but points the reader to McCann’s website, which includes his Victim Impact Statement from the Connecticut incident and a photo of the author unconscious in his hospital bed. So, it seems I was not alone in my preoccupations.

McCann has spoken of his uncertainty over whether or not to include this author’s note. In some ways it does feel counter to his previous embrace of “otherness,” of eschewing the self and exploring the unknown. However, through this note, and this book, McCann announces that he has in fact reached a new conclusion: “in the end …  every word we write is autobiographical, perhaps most especially when we attempt to avoid the autobiographical.” He has decided to wear his heart on his literary sleeve, his project no longer simply uncovering lost stories but, rather, widened to include an attempt to tell some version of his own story.

Truly, a new way of looking.

Of course, different readers will respond to this shift in different ways, each with their own opinions on where the line between fiction and reality might — and perhaps, should — lie. That said, from a literary point of view McCann’s new approach represents a significant progression from his preceding novel, TransAtlantic, published in 2013. Here, other biographical figures and historical instances were brought to life — from Frederick Douglass’s 1845 tour of Ireland, to Senator Mitchell’s visits to Belfast to facilitate the negotiations which led to the ground-breaking 1998 Good Friday agreement. However, a number of critics felt that in taking these celebrated men as his fictional fodder, McCann was in fact somewhat stifled by his reverence; his depictions, at best, too awe-inspired, at worst, too polished and detached.

By contrast, there is no denying that Thirteen Ways of Looking injects a new vitality into McCann’s characters — these living, dying humans — their flaws as celebrated as their feats. McCann’s personal investment appears to have infused each tale with a rediscovered emotional energy, each one brimming with effervescence, no matter how dark the surroundings.

And they can certainly be very dark.

In ‘Treaty,” the collection’s final story, we encounter Beverly, an Irish nun with a troubling past now living in Long Island, where she smokes like a chimney and muses on the imminence of old age:

It is not the slowness of rising in the morning, or the weariness of eyesight, or the chest pains that appear with more and more regularity, but the brittleness of memory that disturbs her now – how the past can glide away so easily, how the present can drift, how they sometimes collide – so that when she sees her torturer on television she is not sure if her imagination is playing tricks, or if he has simply sifted through the sandbox of memory, slid headlong down the channel of thirty-seven years to tease her into a terrible mistake, or if it is truly him, appearing now on the late Spanish-language news, casual, handsome, controlled.

I quote this at length in part to show the sheer scale of McCann’s lyrical elegance. Where TransAtlantic was delivered mainly in staccato, incomplete sentences, Thirteen Ways of Looking unfolds in a lyrical flow, with a liquid causality that here precisely mirrors the very notions of aging and remembering it describes. The word “torturer,” erupting so unexpectedly from beneath the graceful prose, become a formal re-enactment of the uncanny recognition Beverly herself must have felt upon seeing that face after so many years.

These intervening years are recalled for us in vivid detail — from her brutal stint in captivity in the South American jungle, to her eventual escape and struggle towards recuperation, maybe even redemption. However, now that she has stumbled upon this likeness once again, Beverly feels compelled to track him down and confront him, “her torturer. Her abuser. Her rapist.”

She travels by plane to London where she lands on the doorstep of her estranged brother, who, interestingly, has long been persuading her to make a documentary about her experience. He urges her to speak out, to become “a heroine, a figurehead.” Of course, Beverly has always declined such offers, busying herself instead with “deeper wounds, other lives,” until now, when she finds herself unable to ignore the past any longer.

And yet, when she does finally come face to face with her captor, over a cup of tea in a Westminster café, Beverly realises she has no idea what to do: “Am I supposed to directly bestow my forgiveness, Lord? Am I to reconcile with evil? Is that what is being asked of me?” In all these questions, of course, we might hear echoes of McCann himself, face to face with his New Haven attacker. “Is there no wisdom? Is that what I have to learn? That there is finally none at all?” However, both McCann and Beverly find the grace to leave these questions unanswered. They let the very asking be enough, allowing the reader to wrangle the meaning long after the story has drawn to a close. In many of these stories, McCann is content to leave us in the dark, trusting us to find our own kind of light. Unlike in TransAtlantic, which worked so furiously to ensure that all loose ends were firmly tied, we are now encouraged to embrace the unknown “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.”

“Thirteen Ways of Looking” forms the largest part (and title) of this new collection, and is both structured around and indebted to Wallace Stevens’s 1917 poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” This collection shows a McCann who is unashamed about displaying his literary influences. This is most obviously the case in the titular piece, where the Wallace Stevens poem serves as a fruitful framework around which to structure the novella’s twists and turns. However, another Modernist work also lingers here: we are following a Jewish man, married to an Irish woman, as he wanders the city streets, an endless stream of his thoughts and impressions relayed to us in all their playful, pun-filled glory. “They mangle the language. Mingle it. Mongrel it. No Chicago Manual. No Strunk or White,” Mendelssohn thinks. There were (somewhat tenuous) attempts to classify McCann’s 2009 masterpiece Let the Great World Spin as a sort of New York Ulysses — given its cacophony of voices set over the course of the single, city day. But here, even Mendelssohn himself cannot deny his Joycean linkages, from “the Avenue of the Americas in full and righteous bloom, oh, she loved Leopold Bloom, too, that’s for sure,” to “and snow is general all over Eighty-sixth Street, the half-living, and I think she died for love, Eileen, I think she died for love.”

This evocation of Joyce’s story “The Dead” also crops up again and again — as Mendelssohn reminds us: “A lot of volume in this life. Echoes too.” However, the allusion not only gestures outward from McCann’s text, but also inward, reappearing soon after in the collection’s second story, “What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?”

In the most self-conscious of the four tales, we encounter a nameless author who has been commissioned to write a short story for a New Year’s Eve edition of a newspaper magazine, and who “cannot get this phrase out of his mind: The living and the dead.” This is not just any author, but a Dublin author living in New York, who is “well aware that reality so often trumps invention.” McCann draws on himself yet again, this time explicitly foregrounding the reflective act. His metafictional play then leads us through the process of creation, revealing how fact and fiction begin to blend into one, thus once again begging the question of where the two may or may not divide.

“What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?” is portioned into 13 brief sections, just as Rebecca’s son Tomas in “Sh’khol” is 13 years of age, and the whole of Thirteen Ways of Looking draws on the unlucky number for both its form and inspiration. Perhaps at times McCann risks overadorning what is already an abundantly striated set of tales. Meanwhile, some of the recurring motifs or metaphors can also stretch a little thin. For example, the work of Mendelssohn’s homicide detectives is compared to that of a poet: “the search for a random word, at the right instance, making the poem itself so much more precise.” Not a bad simile but one that is revisited repeatedly, certain versions proving less successful than others: “Just as a poem turns its reader into accomplice, so, too, the detectives become accomplice to the murder. But unlike our poetry, we like our murders to be fully solved: if, of course, it is a murder, or poetry, at all.” Later, though, the same metaphor, used for the investigators’ physical machinations, strikes the perfect note: “She leans forward, the male detective leans back. It is as if there is some sort of swinging pulse in the room, the bodies, like rhyme, dependent on one another.”

We are happy to overlook the odd moment of overwriting, the extra extra touch, for it is a minor trade-off for the sheer pleasure of basking in McCann’s effervescence; his unashamed relish in capturing everything from the tiniest physical detail to the most profound of human truths.

There may be “great freedom” in writing about the “other,” as McCann has said, but in Thirteen Ways of Looking, his writing feels freer than it has in years. He bravely pours his self and his experiences into every corner of these four exquisitely crafted tales.

We look forward to whatever way he may choose to look next.


Ruth Gilligan is a bestselling novelist and journalist from Ireland, now living in the UK. Her fourth novel, Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan, is based on the history of the Jewish community in Ireland, and will be published by Atlantic Books in July 2016.

LARB Contributor

Ruth Gilligan is a best-selling novelist and journalist from Ireland, now living in the UK. Her fourth novel, Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan, is based on the history of the Jewish community in Ireland, and was published by Atlantic Books in 2017. Ruth works as a lecturer in creative writing at the University of Birmingham and writes literary reviews for the Irish Independent, Times Literary Supplement, and the Guardian.


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