There is a hot red ribbon binding the short stories and novella of Colum McCann’s Thirteen Ways of Looking, which creates a harsh physical law governing his characters: an elderly judge, a midwifing author, a shadowed Irish mother, an elderly nun. In turn, that idea also governs his writing; Thirteen Ways of Looking is a book derived from violence. It is an exploration of harm, the delicate spiderwebs of broken glass and fractured parietals, fresh blood on the snow and gunsmoke coalescing pungently down range, the beautiful byproduct of assault.
Which is not to say that anything in here is particularly graphic; in fact, McCann goes to great lengths to bury the brutality—both in the actual writing of the book and, in one memorable instance, notionally within the character. McCann focuses not on the point of impact, but on the fissures from which it spreads by avoiding the easiest, most lusty evocation of beautiful violence—say, Bret Easton Ellis’ delicious horror. If it prevents the violence from truly, deeply, ineffably impacting the reader, so too does it rob the savagery of rhetorical hegemony, the shock preventing an examination of its effects, the same animal excitement with which we cheer action heroes or football players or videogame characters.
Instead, McCann turns his loupe on the lasting effects of violence and its burden upon the psyche and soul; he turns to the seemingly useless minutiae, sanctified in the blood of the victim; he turns to the desire to inflict harm upon others, to its very position as the dark thread laced throughout creation. He vivisects the unfortunately living beast, examines it without glorifying.
He addresses the latter most of these—the most important and intriguing of these—in “What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?,” written from the perspective of an author in the process of finishing his short story assignment for a newspaper magazine. The author’s NYC apartment and Dublin provenance lead one to the conclusion that McCann is the author in question, and indeed “What Time Is It Now” reads as a journalism of sorts in fleeting resemblance to Tom Wolfe’s “Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine,” albeit far from withering.
The author is tasked with writing a short story themed to New Year’s Eve, and he settles upon the somewhat proptosis-inducing premise of a lonely Marine ringing in the New Year from frigid isolation in Afghanistan. There are some wonderful moments of writing porn in “What Time Is It Now,” the sausage fetishists getting a good glimpse inside the casing. Part six is especially exciting, as he adorns flesh upon the skeleton, instantaneously, with but a few details—but to become absorbed in these is to miss the point; the only struggle of the author that matters is his urge, gnawing in the back of his mind, to split the Afghan sky.
It is the feverish desire of the itchy trigger finger.
“He wants desperately to create gunfire across the Afghan hills,” McCann writes of his creator, “or to see a streak of light that is not just a metaphor—an RPG perhaps, or the zip of an actual bullet into one of the sandbags—to force a tracerline across the reader’s brain, to ignite alternative fireworks on the eve of the new year, and to increase the intensity of the possible heartbreak.”
In his Canaanite wrestling match with god—god being, in this case, the author—McCann strikes at that which makes violence so assiduous and prevalent in our expressions and, one must think, our society. What brings the realization even closer to home—which makes one recoil at just how Old Testament a deity we are wont to be—is that McCann himself resists the urge, albeit not completely, the phone line tethering his marine to her lover (wife?) and her stepson ringing, ringing, ringing.
In “Thirteen Ways,” a doomed, elderly judge comes to life via his death. The beauty to be found in the physical decline of the world to the judge (lofted, by his Tobagonian nurse, Sally James, from his bed, his soiled diaper hanging hot and ugly beneath him: “ … but, oh, she has me halfway in the air, it’s all a matter of science now, lift me, bring me to the mountaintop, resurrect me, roll away the stone, and he can feel his body creaking forward, Sallying forth, and he half collapses on the Zimmerframe and he heaves a big sigh of relief …”) is the time dilation, the attention to miraculous detail, which one imagines the falling man possesses, an entire lifetime flashing by in each minute.
McCann’s judge is, of course, no stranger to violence, having adjudicated against it, having been a bulwark in Brooklyn against the blackest sea before collapsing in to the tide as a sandcastle; this, too, can be painfully pretty, as when McCann traces the outlines of the trial, the “two forensic video analysts who will ask for the courtroom curtains to be drawn.” Judge Mendelssohn’s murder is the dark star at the center of the pulsar, its beams radiating in both directions. McCann compares the detective’s work—interspersed with the judge’s last morning, a Tralfamadorian view of the proceedings—to poetry, an apt analogy he admirably carries only once across The Thin Maize Line into corniness, in its assemblage of, and reliance upon, singular pieces of a whole; one word, one moment, is the linchpin to it all. The same can be said of a victim’s life.
How one goes about life as the victim—the permanent condition—is encapsulated in “Treaty,” in the grace of a nun who finds her barbarous torturer, many decades and many miles removed from the damp, Cimmerian jungle where he chained her like a dog and raped her. Her confrontation with her tormentor comes so abruptly that one finds oneself over-reading in response, running downhill in a violent escalation of McCann’s words; it is a masterful vignette, and one made all the better by the conquering of the violent urge, McCann as Jacob, victorious in his wrestling match with himself.
McCann devotes himself to the violence within love, too. The mother of “Sh’khol” is tortured by her devotion to Tomas, her adopted son afflicted with fetal alcohol syndrome. It is not Tomas’ night rages, not the cruel Irish sea, not even his slow blossoming into a man, which demarcates the most difficult and necessary of brutalities. It is instead, once again, in the tiny moments that McCann magnifies so well, in Tomas manipulating the hard Galway wind over some fence pipes; instances that “crept up, sliced her open.”
Without the idealization of violence—or its fire-and-brimstone, pound-the-pulpit-to-pulp condemnation—Thirteen Ways does lose something, however; it lacks the capacity not only to shock but to haunt, lingering not quite long enough when the covers close. Its legacy will, fittingly, be felt mainly in moments.
Violence is, by its nature, of the moment: the moment of impact; the moments, newly imbued with heavy significance, that immediately precede; the moments with heavy sorrow that follow; the moments made most important by not being imbued with anything at all. McCann knows all of these—knows them intimately, personally. Thirteen Ways of Looking is his gentle baptizing of us, too.
B. David Zarley is a freelance journalist, essayist and book/music/art critic currently based in Chicago. A former book critic for The Myrtle Beach Sun News, his work can be seen in VICE, VICE Sports, Sports on Earth, The Classical and New American Paintings, among numerous other publications. You can find him on Twitter or at his website.