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"Thirteen Ways of Looking" by Colum McCann

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The highly talented and National Book Award-winning author Colum McCann offers four shorter pieces in Thirteen Ways of Looking; they are varied and vivid, captivating and thought-provoking. Its memorable characters include a retired judge trying to fathom the self-absorbed boor who is his son; a lonely Marine stuck on a mountainside in Afghanistan on New Year’s Eve; a single mother of an adopted son who neither hears nor speaks; and an aged nun jolted into reliving days of torture from decades before.

These stories bear the McCann stamp: their characters’ inner voyages convince and compel. We encounter events - either violent, pathetic, or simply recognizably human - which push lives into new directions. Characters frequently don’t welcome these directions, as occurs to many of us in life, but in McCann’s hands we feel their inevitability and sympathize with the anguish they produce.

In the title piece, we join in an elderly retired judge’s consciousness as he wakes one winter morning in his Manhattan apartment. His mind rambles in and out of different compartments: pop culture, with its song lyrics and puns; the various indignities of dotage, particularly the horror of being put in a diaper while asleep; the charms of his Caribbean live-in nurse; the ache of missing his dearly departed wife. His luncheon at a local restaurant with his son, a funds trader at a large downtown firm, taints him unfortunately with a stain from his son’s sordid life, with catastrophic results. Besides the utterly convincing stream of the old judge’s thoughts, this story also features excellent shifts in point of view, as we meet homicide detectives while they review video footage.

A dark solitude and linearity distinguishes “What Time is it Now, Where You Are?” A woman in the Marine Corps holds a lonely New Year's Eve vigil on a freezing mountain in Afghanistan, after encouraging the rest of her platoon celebrate at the base without her. She counts down to the moment when she will put her satellite call to her partner back in South Carolina. This piece is almost a metafiction. McCann asks us to imagine a writer who, working against a deadline, tries to piece together a holiday story. He writes about writing the story, and gradually, this vivid and chilling scene forms. The voice in which he composes, the way in which he places himself inside the narrative, is unlike anything I have seen. That, and the tenuous stretched-out distances of the piece - calls to far-off continents, the possibility of a sniper’s laser light and bullet finding her in the utter darkness - make this story an awe-inspiring, multilayered treat.

In “Sh’Khol” a single mother spends a panicked few days while the authorities search in their plodding, inexorable way for her missing adopted son. The story serves to bring out her feelings of inadequacy, about which her ex-husband helps her not at all. The young man is ultimately the focus, as his experiences become clear to Mom after his return. Youthful dismay at the maturing process becomes especially pronounced in one who can neither hear nor speak.
 

“Treaty” is a work of understated brilliance. An aged nun is shocked into a downward spiral when she unexpectedly sees her onetime tormentor in the news on TV - he is the South American man who imprisoned and tortured her decades before. For an old woman on the downward slope to her life’s end, she finds an extraordinary strength and resourcefulness and confronts this slime from her past, traveling from Long Island to London, and hunting her quarry like an accomplished detective. The scene of their confrontation, a few remarkable and quiet minutes in a coffee shop on a London street corner, is stunning - we cheer for our tired but triumphant nun, and even further for her understanding with the shop owner as she gets ready to leave.

These stories reinforce my opinion of Mr. McCann. Since 2009’s Let the Great World Spin, I’ve thought him one of the very best plying his trade today. By all means, pick up and savor these stories.

"The Bone Clocks" by David Mitchell

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We meet lovely Holly Sykes in 1984 as a rebellious 15 year-old in Gravesend, a town in Kent fronting on the Thames. By novel’s end, she’s in her 70s, living in Ireland, with every reason in the world to be frantic and worried. The Bone Clocks centers on Holly and her adventure among some exceedingly unusual humans - humans who travel in time, have psychic and psycho-kinetic powers, and who cheat death for centuries.

Holly provides the focus, but author David Mitchell provides the pyrotechnics. He populates his novel with two opposing camps of warriors. One side “decants” human souls to renew their own life forces, while the other side tries to save people from this ugly fate. Holly is a marginal soldier in this war, because she was psychic as a child, and because one of the villains once loved her. She plays a critical role in the climactic battle, using a comically old-fashioned weapon in a psycho-battle royal among super-beings. You have to read it.

This author plays so stylishly, and fills our consciousness with such outlandish issues, that he continues to be a favorite. He does a very thorough job of setting up the conflict that we know is coming, and Holly’s everywoman role provides the reader a portal through which to witness this startling and vivid fight. Because of all this, I’m disappointed with the post-battle sequence, where Holly’s and her family’s history is wrapped up and we learn what happened to her ancient ally (but not her onetime lover). It’s set in a post-apocalyptic dystopia in the 2040s and Holly’s struggles see their final battle. Mitchell uses this framework not only to necessitate the book’s final conflict, but also, it seems to me, to wag his finger at the naughty modern world for its profligate and polluting ways.

This detracts from the book’s other delights. It feels tacked-on, a disjointed attempt to wrap up the story’s loose ends. As much as I agree with his sentiments, this seems a heavy-handed and unworthy try. The book is overlong as well - it could have done without the section on the lonely writer’s life altogether.

I do recommend this book, however, but with something less than my usual ardency where David Mitchell is concerned. I recommend it for its flight of fancy, which Mitchell handles at least as well anybody out there. His fantasy concepts and executions are second to none I have encountered. This book, however, could have big chunks excised and be much better.



"Amsterdam" by Ian McEwan

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Two old friends fall spectacularly out in Amsterdam; it forms the plot of this Booker Prize-winning novel, and it makes an intriguing read, even if getting its lessons takes something out of you.

Clive is a renowned composer working desperately to meet a deadline on a commissioned piece. Vernon edits a well-respected daily newspaper, on the verge of publishing a stunning front-page piece to ruin a prominent national politician. Author Ian McEwan achieves his best effects when describing the settings, processes, and personal anxieties of these two men on the eve of what could be the crowning achievements of their respective careers. Instead, they reach loggerheads on some matters of principle, and each falls back on petty jealousy, egomania, and paranoia, to his emphatic downfall.

I’ve seen the book described as “darkly comic,” and while I agree, I would stress that Mr. McEwan intends to steep his readers not only in the unpleasant realities of a relationship gone bad, but also in the ghastly reality of modern society’s culture of self-absorption and moral turpitude. It’s easy to convince oneself that the book received the Booker based on this fact alone. It’s a good reason.


As solid a job as this is, I found the reading a little disturbing - too close to modern societal sickness for comfort. That is exactly what this book is about, and its message hits home extremely effectively.