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'Thirteen Ways' Takes A Powerful, Layered Look At Life

Colum McCann's first story collection since his novel Let the Great World Spin won the National Book Award makes it clear that his work is growing ever more textured and timely — and he has few contemporary parallels as a storyteller.

The collection's title comes from a Wallace Stevens poem, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." "The first is hidden high in a mahogany bookcase," McCann writes in the first sentence of the title novella. It's not a bird he's describing, but a camera, eyeing the full expanse of the bedroom where Eliot Mendelssohn lies sleeping.

Stanzas of the Stevens poem open each section, in subtle alignment with the angles of the surveillance cameras — nanny cams, traffic cams — that capture the action of the story. It's a complicated structure, but in McCann's hands it provides a solid scaffolding from which to view the innermost thoughts of a man on the last day of his life, and to explore profound questions about the difference between truth and what we see through the 21st century equivalent of the blackbird's line of vision.

Mendelssohn, a retired judge now 82, muses on his past, his day ahead, his late wife, his errant son, his caretaker Sally James. McCann creates a sense of the flow of his consciousness that is both elaborate and clear. The judge goes out for an unsatisfactory lunch with his son and is murdered just outside the restaurant. Detectives scour for clues. "They work in the same way as poets: the search for a random word, at the right instance, making the poem itself so much more precise," McCann writes. Video shows only so much; even footage of the attack, obscured by a snowstorm, winter coats and hats, becomes useless.

It's a remarkable story, fluid yet dense with layers of consciousness and mystery. It's also uncanny in its mirroring of the violence in McCann's own life — while in the middle of writing the stories in this collection, he was attacked and knocked unconscious on a street in New Haven. "Sometimes it seems to me we are writing our lives in advance, but at other times we can only ever look back," he writes.

The three other stories in this collection are equally complex and powerful, raising questions about the ways our actions reverberate. "What Time Is it Now, Where You Are?" is about the act of storytelling itself, in this case the process of telling a story about a soldier standing guard in Afghanistan, anticipating a call home to her partner in South Carolina on New Year's Eve.

"Treaty" gives us a Maryknoll nun, once based in Central America, who catches a glimpse on television of the man who kidnapped and raped her years before — and sets out to track him down.

In "Sh'khol," a divorced translator living on the Irish coast makes a "terrible mistake" when she gives her 13-year-old son a wet suit for Christmas. The next day, he disappears, and as the search goes on, she finds herself haunted by her own choices. It's an indelible tale of love and loss.

The stories in Thirteen Ways of Looking reflect an understanding of the swiftly disappearing flow of our lives as knowing and unflinching as any by Joyce or Chekhov.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jane Ciabattari is the author of the short-story collections Stealing The Fireand California Tales. Her reviews, interviews, and cultural reporting have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Daily Beast, the Paris Review, the Boston Globe, The Guardian, Bookforum, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and BBC.comamong others. She is a current vice president/online and former president of the National Book Critics Circle.