NOTE: Colum McCann was WINNER of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2011 for Let the Great World Spin, among his many other literary prizes.
“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.” – Peter Mendelssohn, retired judge.
In his mid-eighties, Peter J. Mendelssohn, a former New York Supreme Court judge, struggles to maintain some decorum in his life, even as he must rely on Sally, an aide from Tobago as he deals with what is left of his life. His wife Eileen died two years ago, and he still longs for her; his daughter Katya and her three children live in Israel, where she has been working on the Mid-East Peace process, “pleading and cajoling and mollifying her heart out” to no avail. Only his son Elliot, now in his third marriage, this time to a trophy wife with three children, lives anywhere near him, and Elliot has little interest in anything more than working his hedge fund, protecting his assets, and admiring his twelve-bedroom house in Stamford.
Within the first twenty pages, Irish author Colum McCann, with his matchless ability to describe places and recreate lives through dialogue, has made the reader like and understand Mendelssohn, appreciate his sense of dignity and his sensitivity to Sally and her job, and understand why he so loves his home, an apartment in New York’s Upper East Side, with its antique furniture, its contemporary paintings, its books, and its memories. Then, in a sudden shift, McCann mentions that strangers will be “surprised by the presence of the cameras,” installed in the apartment by Elliot – to keep an eye on Sally, apparently. The point of view changes from that of Mendelsohn to that of the strangers and what they would find or not find on the several cameras in the apartment and elsewhere.
Gradually, the story of Mendelsohn unfolds, expanding as he goes out to lunch at his favorite restaurant on a snowy day, tries to chat with his son, who is late and spends nearly all of the lunch time on his cellphone, thinks about the various employees at the restaurant who have become almost friends, and appears in videos both inside and outside the restaurant. Eventually, the day’s events are presented from thirteen overlapping points of views, most of them from different videocams, which McCann further connects to Wallace Stevens’s poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” selections of which appear at the beginning of each of the thirteen sections of this novella. With the conclusion, the reader realizes that the author has left room for a fourteenth point of view, one which guarantees that this story will return to mind again and again, not just on the strength of the dramatic writing but on the strength of the reader’s own involvement in the action and investment in the main character and his fate.
Three additional stories of varying lengths add to this unforgettable collection about points of view and the impossibility of ever knowing for sure what the essence of reality really is and why its interpretation differs among people who have participated in the same events but come to different conclusions. “What Time is it Now, Where You Are,” the shortest of the stories at only eleven pages, is the metafictional account of a writer having trouble producing a story for a magazine with a imminent deadline. Again, the reader accompanies the main character, this time as he works to tell the story of Sandi, a twenty-six-year-old female Marine in Afghanistan on night duty overlooking the Kerengal Valley on New Year’s Eve. As the author considers all the possibilities for developing the story and taking it in a variety of directions, the reader follows along, accepting the various possibilities and the questions the writer asks himself about what will happen if… again leading to a conclusion in which the reader participates.
“Sh’Khol,” more of an action story, takes place in a cottage on the water in Galway, as Rebecca Marcus, a translator of literature from Hebrew to English, gets ready to celebrate Christmas with her son, adopted from Russia when he was six. Mute and suffering from the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome, Tomas, now thirteen, still requires full-time care. To celebrate the holidays she gives him the pants, boots, and hood of a wetsuit so that they can swim together in the winter. When he later disappears, Rebecca and the Coast Guard fear the worst. Again, McCann creates multiple points of view and a “conclusion” which is not as conclusive as some might expect -Tomas has always been mute, after all. The final story, “Treaty,” tells of Beverly, a Maryknoll nun, kidnapped, tortured, confined to a “jungle cage,” and repeatedly raped while she was in Latin America. Struggling with her vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, she has worked to put all this behind her, but “the past emerges and re-emerges. It builds its random nest in the oddest places.” Now, thirty-seven years after these events, she catches a glimpse of her torturer, Carlos, on television. In a consummate irony he is working in London for the Institute for Peace, and she knows she must finally confront him.
Powerful, climactic moments, both physical and emotional, pervade these stories, which are dramatic and thought-provoking in their emphasis on the various ways of looking at violent incidents while recognizing that there are always unknowns that creep into the reality of such events. In one of the consummate ironies, author Colum McCann himself was assaulted on June 27, 2014, and knocked unconscious in New Haven where he was to speak at a conference. He’d been punched from behind and knocked to the sidewalk, suffering a broken cheekbone, several broken teeth, and many other injuries. In another terrible irony, he had already completed his story “Thirteen Ways of Looking,” at the time of the assault. As he explains in the Afterword, he wrote “Treaty,” in which Sister Beverly confronts her attacker, after his own assault. McCann’s own Victim Impact Statement from his assault appears on his website, and I urge everyone who reads this book to read that statement, see the photos which accompany it, and recognize just how much the violence of his own traumas reverberate throughout this book. As the author says, “In the end…every word we write is autobiographical, perhaps most especially when we attempt to avoid the autobiographical.”
Photos, in order: The author’s photo appears on https://kpfa.org/
An apartment building on East 86th St., similar to the one where Mendelssohn lived, is from http://streeteasy.com/
The photo of the soldier on guard duty in Afghanistan has been adapted from this photo on http://www.nocaptionneeded.com/2009/05/embedded-in-afghanistan/
The thatched cottage in Galway may be found on https://allthingsnice4life.wordpress.com/
The Study, a hotel in New Haven, not far from Yale University, where the author was assaulted in June, 2014, appears on http://www.kpmbarchitects.com Photo by Tom Arban
The author’s Victim Impact Statement regarding his assault in New Haven on June 14, 2014, may be found on his website: http://colummccann.com/