The first is hidden high in a mahogany book case.
–Colum McCann - Thirteen ways of looking - c.2015
A novella, Thirteen ways of looking and short stories, What time is it now, where you are?, Sh’hkol, Treaty.
Trigger warning – assault & rape are referenced.
The first story, the novella, in this connection gets its title from a poem by Wallace Stevens Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird. Before this book I’d never heard of this poem, or of the poet, but the entire poem is in the story, parts of it begin every chapter. As I wasn’t familiar with the poem I googled it and one homework website suggested that the poem is about what it is to really know something, that you have to look at a thing, an object, a person, from so many different perspectives in order to truly understand what it is. And that is what McCann is attempting to do in all the stories in this book.
The first, the title story, is about an assault and murder. But also about a life, and lives, and relationships and growing old and living. I guess it is about life. The protagonist, Mendelssohn, never gets to understand what happened to him, the assault kills him. One punch has drastic consequences.
What time is it now, where you are? is much more of a meta-fiction as it is about a writer writing a short story about a marine, and all the different ideas and inspirations that come to that writer and make him decide which way her story will go.
Sh’hkol is the story of a child and his mother, his disappearance and her worry and fear. It is a story about motherhood.
Treaty is the story of a nun who was kidnapped, tortured and raped, and then one days sees her attacker on the news.
In a way all of the stories are about how to deal with trauma, whether it is emotional or physical, and how reactions are all valid and right, even when you may want more.
At the end of the book there is an author’s note1 where McCann tells that he himself was the victim of an assault and that this has left an impact on him. Although some of the aspects of the stories were written before the incident, the punch in the first story for example, it has coloured his writing, of course, and in many ways it feels like his way of working through the emotional violence inflicted upon him. On his website he includes his own Victim Statement where he states
“I do not object to the notion of clemency, but I would like to point out that there is no such thing as a first-time victim. To be a victim is permanent. To be a victim is absolute.”