Looking and seeing are two different things

Paul Constant

October 20, 2015

The title novella in Colum McCann’s new collection Thirteen Ways of Looking is a mystery, but it’s less of a whodunnit and more of a how’d-it-happen. Our protagonist, a former New York state Supreme Court judge named Peter Mendelssohn, is elderly and infirm. His wife, Eileen, has died. His son, Elliot, is a disappointment. Mendelssohn spends all morning in bed, thinking of the life he lived. He’s not overcome with regret, although he desperately hates the adult diaper that his nurse, an immigrant named Sally, makes him wear.

If you were to tell Mendelssohn as he lays in bed at the beginning of the story that today was to be the last day of his life, he’d probably believe you. But murder would not be the way he’d expect to go: maybe a clot elbowing into his brain would make more sense, or a shard from his broken heart finally getting caught in his ribs and bleeding him out. But murder? Why would anyone want to kill a lonely old man already dragging himself into death’s shadow?

That’s the question of “Thirteen Ways of Looking,” and McCann unravels the story at a leisurely pace. At times, the reader can be forgiven for forgetting that it’s a mystery at all. A lot of the story consists of the victim rolling death over in his mind, again and again and again:

Oh, it takes a lot of volume to fill a life. So said Boris Pasternak. Or at least, I think it’s Pasternak. Eileen would know. She used to read it aloud to me at night. The roof over our love has been torn off and is open now to the endless sky.

This is a man in love, a wounded man, but not a suicidal man. Mendelssohn, it seems, is not ready to die. He’s got more lamenting to do, more disappointments to live through. If it was his choice, you’d half expect Mendelssohn to choose immortality, just so he’d have the pleasure of complaining forever and ever.

Half of “Thirteen Ways of Looking” is narrated after the murder. Some nameless detectives scour the security footage from Mendelssohn’s apartment, trying to find a clue that could unravel his killer’s identity.

For the week of the murder they watch at a rate of thirty-two by: the world zooming past. A whole day slips along in less than an hour. There is comic texture to the motion, especially when Mendelssohn, with his nurse, uses his cane and stutterstarts out of the frame. As the days wind down, they slow the picture and go forward at a rate of sixteen by, then eight by. Each minute takes seven and a half seconds. Four hours in half an hour. Their fingers glide over the keys. Looking. Digging. Scratching. Mining. A face seen one two three times. Someone loitering near the awning. A covert glance. A nervous tic. Or maybe something more brazen, more obvious, an assailant with a malevolent fuck-you stare. Eery incident with its own peculiar rhythm: the ordinary comings, the goings, the delivery trucks, the doorman shuffle, the tenants, Mendelssohn and his nurse, the arrival of the snowstorm.

The detectives in the story are never granted names, or personalities. Instead, they’re questing fingers, scrubbing footage forward and backwards again at varying speeds. While the trivia of Mendelssohn’s life is explained in vivid detail, we’re only allowed to passively tap into the detective’s eyes every other chapter, to see what they see. We're not allowed to immerse ourselves into their story the way we dive into Mendelssohn's life. Of course, because the detectives have access to the cameras in Mendelssohn’s apartment and all the cameras on the streets of New York City near where the crime took place, their omniscience extends to a fair chunk of time and space.

McCann is making some sort of a statement, here, about the surveillance state, but it’s not as cut and dried as most popular entertainment about the panopticon tends to be. He does not grant the detectives a maliciousness, a lack of respect for anyone’s rights. They’re merely curious, and they want to see justice done. But the fact that their kingdom only stretches to a few gigabytes of digital footage means that their reach is limited. Just because you can see everything doesn’t mean you have the ability to understand someone’s motivations. You can analyze all the data, but you still can’t account for a moment of irrational rage, say, or a tenuous human connection that ends in a life-or-death struggle. Seeing everything doesn’t provide you with all the answers.

Thirteen Ways is made up of the title novella and three short stories, all of which have to do in some way or another with surveillance. The most successful of the short pieces is “Treaty,” in which a nun who was repeatedly tortured and raped decades ago is shocked to see her attacker praised in the media as a peacemaker.

In many ways, the central character in “Treaty” is granted the opportunity that Mendelssohn never is: she gets the chance to confront her attacker. It’s an incredibly tense scene — the nun and her tormenter are standing in a convenience store, and they’re trying to size each other up without letting on to the security cameras just what they’re doing. They know they’re being observed, and that observation is changing their interaction. The observation has stripped them of their freedom to act. Instead, they watch themselves through other peoples’ eyes and try to figure out what they’re supposed to do. It’s not justice, exactly, this constant state of surveillance, but for some people it’s close enough.

Books in this review:
  • Thirteen Ways of Looking
    by Colum McCann
    Random House
    October 13, 2015
    242 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

Other recent reviews

  • We Were Eight Years in Power
    by Ta-Nehisi Coates
    One World
    October 03, 2017
    400 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound
December 05, 2017

A fairy tale of New York

Paul Constant

writes about
  • Daughters of the Air
    by Anca L. Szilágyi

    undefined NaN, NaN
    260 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound
November 30, 2017

The mourning pause

Sophia Shalmiyev

writes about
  • Afterglow
    by Eileen Myles
    Grove Press
    September 12, 2017
    224 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound