Thirteen Ways of Looking

Colum McCann > Books > Thirteen Ways of Looking

Pushcart Prize Winner 2015

Best American Short Stories 2015

New York Times Notable Book of 2015

Amazon Book of the Month October 2015

In such acclaimed novels as Let the Great World Spin and TransAtlantic, National Book Award–winning author Colum McCann has transfixed readers with his precision, tenderness, and authority. Now, in his first collection of short fiction in more than a decade, McCann charts the territory of chance, and the profound and intimate consequences of even our smallest moments.

“As it was, it was like being set down in the best of poems, carried into a cold landscape, blindfolded, turned around, unblindfolded, forced, then, to invent new ways of seeing.”

In the exuberant title novella, a retired judge reflects on his life’s work, unaware as he goes about his daily routines that this particular morning will be his last. In “Sh’khol,” a mother spending Christmas alone with her son confronts the unthinkable when he disappears while swimming off the coast near their home in Ireland. In “Treaty,” an elderly nun catches a snippet of a news report in which it is revealed that the man who once kidnapped and brutalized her is alive, masquerading as an agent of peace. And in “What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?” a writer constructs a story about a Marine in Afghanistan calling home on New Year’s Eve.

Deeply personal, subtly subversive, at times harrowing, and indeed funny, yet also full of comfort, Thirteen Ways of Looking is a striking achievement. With unsurpassed empathy for his characters and their inner lives, Colum McCann forges from their stories a profound tribute to our search for meaning and grace. The collection is a rumination on the power of storytelling in a world where language and memory can sometimes falter, but in the end do not fail us, and a contemplation of the healing power of literature.

Reviews and Praise

“The irreducible mystery of human experience ties this small collection together, and in each of these stories McCann explores that theme in some strikingly effective ways….McCann has perfected a method of finely blending his own narration with his characters’ thoughts and dialogue.  [The first story] is as fascinating as it is poignant.  [The second story] captures the mundane and mysterious aspects of shaping characters from the gray clay of words , placing them in realistic settings and breathing life into their lungs…that he makes the story so emotionally compelling is a sign of his genius…  The most remarkable one is [the third story]… caught in the rushing currents of this drama, you know you are reading a little masterpiece…. Only one of the treasures in this collection.”—Ron Charles, The Washington Post

“McCann is a writer of power and subtlety…The four stories here — one is a long novella of shifting tone and focus; the others are short and more directed — differ widely from one another. But they are connected by a tension, an unease, a threat, a sense that things are off kilter but perhaps can be put right if the characters, and the reader, understand them more fully. The powerful title story loiters in the mind long after you’ve read it…Mr. McCann’s first story lingers, asking you to read it again…[He] shifts gears, as [Wallace] Stevens does so often in his poem, leaving us without resolution but with the haunting image of a gray, motionless sky and a sense of how multiple perspectives can obscure, not illuminate, a fragile truth.” —Sarah Lyall, The New York Times

“McCann is a passionate writer whose impulse is always toward a generous understanding of his diverse characters.”—The Wall Street Journal

“Each chapter of the title novella in Colum McCann’s hauntingly beautiful new collection of short stories begins with a stanza from Wallace Stevens’ poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.’ But instead of blackbirds, the sky above retired judge Peter Mendelssohn is filled with cameras, tracking his movements on the fateful day when he is assaulted outside a Manhattan restaurant…Another story features a single mother raising her deaf son in a cottage along the Irish coast. She is a translator, struggling to find the precise word in English for the Hebrew word ‘sh’khol’ — ‘losing a child.’ Her linguistic labors track the story’s heart-wrenching developments…[‘What Time Is It Now, Where Are You?’ is] a story about the difficulty of writing a story — how many layers do you need to peel back to create a believable character? McCann, of all writers, needn’t worry. He knows.” —Associated Press

“The author of Let the Great World Spin has spent so long illuminating history through fiction that readers can miss the real source of his power: his perfection of sentence, idea, and voice. In this new quartet of stories, all thematically related to a random assault McCann suffered last year, he displays a rare confluence of skill, style, and moral vision.”—New York Magazine

“Colum McCann doesn’t write stories so much as compose sonatas, interweaving a range of rhythms and tonalities to create a luxuriant music. His new collection, Thirteen Ways of Looking, traces the journeys of his characters in lyrical prose that heightens the perils and losses they struggle to overcome…Influenced by the assault McCann suffered last June on a street in New Haven, Connecticut, the stories explore themes of voyeurism and the fractious relationship between art and life, in a page-turner that rings with echoes of Wallace Stevens, James Joyce—and Law & Order. Suffused with melancholy yet bright with beauty, the collection reaffirms McCann’s stature as one of our essential literary voices.” —O: The Oprah Magazine

“[T]he novella is an intriguing and suspenseful work. The three short stories that conclude the collection are extraordinary; in the shorter fiction his prose becomes incandescent, charged with the economy and lyricism of poetry. In one story, a mother and her adopted teenage son step into ‘a shaft of light so clear and bright it seemed made of bone.’ This is precise and evocative writing, strengthened by later events in the story that sharpen the analogy’s menacing edge. Waves hurrying to shore are ‘long scribbles of white,’ and the unlatched bottom half of a door swings ‘panicky’ in the wind. As in Joyce’s Dubliners, the psychological states of characters subtly color the descriptions of their environments, an artful mapping of inner worlds onto external ones.” —Chicago Tribune

“[Thirteen Ways of Looking] makes it clear that [McCann’s] work is growing ever more textured and timely — and he has few contemporary parallels as a storyteller….Stanzas of the [Wallace] 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 [title] 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…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. …The three other stories in this collection are equally complex and powerful, raising questions about the ways our actions reverberate…[‘Sh’khol’] is “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.” —

“For the novella and three stories that make up Thirteen Ways of Looking, McCann returns to the present and resorts to more streamlined storytelling, each time following the modern thoughts, fears and exploits of one main fictional character. Despite these changes, all four tales are still recognizably the work of McCann — elegantly composed, emotionally charged and searingly perceptive. [In the title novella,] McCann keeps us entertained with his James Joycean flourishes (Mendelssohn’s stream of consciousness and endless wordplay — ‘let bygods be bygones’) and riveted as the police sift suspects, then close in on their wanted man…Throughout [the four stories], McCann makes us share his characters’ pain and their eventual cathartic release, and he helps us to understand and appreciate that there is ‘A lot of volume in this life. Echoes too.’ —Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Stellar…a suspenseful and moving collection…Of the themes that thread through some or all of these stories — the degradations of old age, the insidious fissures that can unbind a family, the innumerable electronic eyes that gaze on us as we move through the world — violence doesn’t seem primary, yet it is undeniably present. McCann builds the [title] novella around the puzzle of an old man’s homicide…Set during a snowstorm, this is a detective story blanketed with softness, into which McCann folds an acid-etched study of gender, race, and class relations and an entertaining, emotionally on-target portrait of paternal dismay…as much as the novella is about the mystery of a death, it’s also about the failures of a life: the sins of the father amplified out of all proportion in the sins of the son…The effects of violence reverberate through all of these stories, whose characters detect an absence of safety even if they don’t perceive any immediate threat. There is a common yearning for a sense of serenity — a refuge from the chaos. In his victim-impact statement, posted on his website, McCann tells of having suffered ‘a series of punches behind the punch’: physical and psychological trauma that left him ‘for long stretches . . . unable to write.’ This collection is an assertive counterpunch, in nonviolent form, from an author who’s regained his footing.” —The Boston Globe

“Sometimes it seems to me that we are writing our lives in advance, but at other times we can only ever look back,’ McCann wrote in an author’s note at the end of Thirteen Ways of Looking, his new collection of stories. ‘In the end, though, every word we write is autobiographical, perhaps most especially when we attempt to avoid the autobiographical. For all its imagined moments, literature works in unimaginable ways.’ As authorial statements go, I think that one is pretty great. It would fit right in the middle of William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the one that ends ‘The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.’ McCann is onto something big, both in his statement about all writing being autobiographical – How could it be anything but? – and about how it works in unimaginable ways. McCann was working on the title novella, about a retired judge on the last day of his life, when he was assaulted. Thirteen Ways of Looking is divided into 13 sections, each beginning with a stanza of Wallace Stevens’ ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,’ and is about, among other things, surveillance and perspective, different ways of looking that include a room viewed from the point of view of a fly. But its central image, its sudden strike, is a man being punched by a stranger. McCann writes that the fictional blow ‘was dreamed up long before’ he was assaulted. How to account for that? Coincidence doesn’t get anywhere near it. In his author’s note, McCann invites readers to go to his website and read the victim’s impact statement he presented to the court when his assailant was sentenced. It is eloquent and forceful, pointing out that a woman is assaulted every nine seconds in the U.S. McCann said he forgave the man who struck him but his forgiveness ‘will not come at the cost of silence.’ The stories in Thirteen Ways of Looking are anything but silent. McCann is a gorgeous prose stylist, one who can establish and easy flow and then drop a sentence like this one: ‘The roof over our love has been torn off and is open now to the endless sky.’ Or this one: ‘All the beginnings he attempted – scribbled down in notebooks – wrote themselves in the dark.’…His story ‘Sh’Khol,’ included in Thirteen Ways of Looking, is as fine a piece of short fiction as I’ve read in the last five years. It’s haunting and surprising, like everything from this amazing writer.” —Portland Oregonian

“[A] masterful Dublin-born author…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…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.” —Seattle Times

“It is always a cause for celebration when Colum McCann, author of Zoli, TransAtlantic and Let the Great World Spin, brings out a new book. Thirteen Ways of Looking, his first collection of shorter fiction in over 10 years, is comprised of the title novella and three short stories. Each explores the role that chance plays in the lives of real people and all are written with empathy, humor and compassion. This is storytelling from a master.” —Portland Press Herald

“McCann’s characters in this new work — whether nuns or judges or writers — are mostly ordinary people encountering extraordinary situations often touched by loss. Powerful, profound, and deeply empathetic, McCann’s beautifully wrought writing in Thirteen Ways of Looking glides off the page.” —Buzzfeed Fall Preview

“In just three short stories and one novella, McCann weaves the magic that made Let the Great World Spin so acclaimed—especially in one brilliant short piece of metafiction in which the process of writing a story becomes interwoven with the story created.”—Huffington Post

“In an author’s note at the end of the book, [McCann] writes about the vicious assault on a New Haven street that left him hospitalized in 2014, and he acknowledges that this collection has been shaped by that experience. Readers are directed to his Victim Impact Statement in the ensuing court case, in which he writes about the ‘punch behind the punch,’ an enduring sense of danger and uncertainty that haunts victims and those who love them. The stories in Thirteen Ways of Looking all deliver something of that punch behind the punch. Their effect lingers.” —Knoxville News Sentinel

“McCann shows his unparalleled storytelling ability in this new short-story collection.” —

“[R]ousing and beautiful…His gift is in weaving narratives that are epic in their scope but retain their intimacy—miniature dramas told against grand backdrops…all four tales here convey creeping unease, the haunting insinuation of a violence that sometimes goes unnamed…His characters in this fine collection are caught between repeating pasts and uneasy futures, personal chronologies arranged around violence and grief. There is never any guarantee that they’ll piece things together in a way that makes sense—but perhaps there is something redemptive just in the attempt.” —FLOOD Magazine

Thirteen Ways of Looking, Colum McCann’s first collection of short fiction since 2004, confirms his status as a gifted writer…McCann’s writing has always been distinguished by its humanity, a quality best displayed in ‘Treaty,’ in which Beverly, an Irish Maryknoll nun who was captured and tortured in Colombia nearly four decades earlier, believes she has glimpsed her sadistic captor on television at a peace conference in London. Whether reading him for his stories or for his sentences, Colum McCann is one of those writers whose work consistently engages the imagination. Colum McCann’s first collection of short fiction since 2004 showcases his gift for evocative prose and empathetic storytelling.” —Shelf Awareness

“A superbly crafted and deeply moving collection of fiction…underscores [McCann’s] reputation as a contemporary master.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“Separate and together, these four works prove McCann a master with a poet’s ear, a psychologist’s understanding, and a humanitarian’s conscience.” —Publishers Weekly (starred)