Irish writer Colum McCann’s four stories in his new collection “Thirteen Ways of Looking” are small masterpieces of meandering but eloquent storytelling. He appears Oct. 20 at the Seattle Public Library with John Freeman and Paul Constant.
“In the end, though, every word we write is autobiographical,” writes Colum McCann in an author’s note to his new short-story collection, “perhaps most especially when we attempt to avoid the autobiographical.”
McCann, the masterful Dublin-born author of works including the novels “Let the Great World Spin,” and “Transatlantic” and two previous collections of short stories, makes brief mention, in the note in “Thirteen Ways of Looking” (Random House, 243 pp., $26), of a life-altering event in 2014.
He was, in the course of trying to assist a stranger on a New York street, assaulted and hospitalized. Curious, he muses, that the incident took place after he had already imagined this book’s title story, in which an elderly man is violently attacked on a Manhattan sidewalk. “Sometimes it seems to me that we are writing our lives in advance,” he writes, “but at other times we can only ever look back.”
The author of “Thirteen Ways of Looking” will appear in conversation with John Freeman and Paul Constant at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 20, at the Seattle Public Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle; free (206-386-4636 or spl.org).
Violence hangs over the book’s four stories, like a shadow slowly advancing. In “Treaty,” an aging nun determines to face the man who, decades ago, raped and imprisoned her; in “Sh’khol,” a devastated mother tries desperately to find her missing child. In the briefest story, “What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?,” an author crafts a story of a young female Marine in Afghanistan, gazing into the night, “several layers of black pressing down on the already dark mountains.”
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McCann’s wondrously meandering stream-of-consciousness style, which he employs for the title story (really a novella; it takes up more than half the book), owes a debt to James Joyce; echoes of “The Dead” sound throughout, like a distant chorus of angel voices. We’re inside the head of retired judge Peter J. Mendelssohn — like Leopold Bloom of “Ulysses” — as he goes through the motions of an ordinary day, heading out into the streets of a bustling city.
The language here is both playful — Mendelssohn is alliteratively “slackmouthed in sleep … a light snore sailing from the back of his throat” — and moving. “The dead are with us,” muses Mendelssohn, of his late wife. “They glide along behind us on our endless journeys, they accompany us in our smallest gestures …”
It’s a tricky construction — the character’s pointillist thought process alternating with a more omniscient narration, both during and after the story’s central day — but McCann pulls it off, as easily as his “Let the Great World Spin” tightrope walker strolled on a high wire.
His sentences pour like water, sometimes for entire long paragraphs or pages without punctuation, encouraging a reader to dive in. “Sh’khol” (whose title refers to the Hebrew word —- with no English equivalent —- for the particular kind of bereavement of a parent who has lost a child) and “Treaty” likewise immerse us in the minds of their narrators; letting us walk with them, shiver with them, weep with them.
And in “What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?,” a tiny masterpiece of writing about writing, we’re in the head of a McCann-like author, sitting in his New York apartment, dreaming up a story.
Ideas, phrases (one from Joyce, again) flit through his head; memories of his childhood invade the fiction he’s creating. Ultimately the story becomes a barrage of questions about the characters he’s birthed, pummeling like hailstones. He writes, in that quiet apartment, because he needs to find the answers. May those questions, from this most eloquent of wordsmiths, never end.