Who Bears the Cost of Mercy?

Thirteen Ways of Lookingby Colum McCann

Random House. 256p $26

Because of the simultaneous revelation and mystery of its shifting perspectives, Wallace Stevens’s poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” has remained a literary touchstone for nearly 100 years. Now the fiction writer Colum McCann uses its stanzas as epigraphs to the novella Thirteen Ways of Looking. Stevens’s poem, 13 stanzas published in the early 20th century, is imbued with symbolism about observation and the actions that knowledge can provoke.

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But it also portrays literal blackbirds that still fly at twilight along the route where Stevens composed much of his verse on daily walks in Hartford, Conn. The absence of the blackbird from McCann’s otherwise identical title echoes thematically in his collection’s three stories. Indeed, Stevens’s blackbirds, functioning as doubled seers and images, are replaced in McCann’s contemporary world with surveillance cameras and television, yet a preoccupation with the consequences of seeing makes the two works kin.

What’s most worth contemplating about McCann’s characters is how they grapple with bearing witness. This responsibility is paramount in the lives of the faithful. The transformation of witness from passive observation into engagement and action fascinates McCann. This, too, he shares with Stevens, though there are now “more cameras in the city than birds in the sky.” McCann’s text poses what seem like direct questions while also respecting the reader’s power and desire to traverse the unknown. We are allowed to discern the answers, if they exist, for ourselves. In enacting this inner expanse of the unknown, he channels Muriel Spark. At times, McCann risks commentary on language and even poetry, but his sentences never become sterile; rather, they always pulse with potential.

The delight in this collection comes from dwelling on the surface questions of what is known and how it is known but also from being submerged in the moral repercussions. Technology, McCann seems to say, with its banks of images, enhancements and angles, is no more illuminating about the past or future than the light we cast on the present from within. But it is not only surveillance or the Edward Snowden era that the book examines. The judge in Thirteen Ways of Looking falls in love with his wife largely by gazing at her through a window when they are childhood neighbors and then spends years penning her letters from another country before they reunite. “How odd it was to know someone so well and never have talked a single word in her presence,” he thinks, looking back on their epistolary courtship.

In the novella, the judge is murdered after a lunch with his son, who might be the intended victim of a revenge crime. The father pays for the sins of his son, and yet in his last moments he ponders that he may be the son of his son. It is the rambling of an old man, perhaps, but also an invocation of lineage and trinity. What inheritance do the blackbird, the image and the camera give us?

Sister Beverly, the protagonist of “Treaty,” was held captive decades ago in a South American jungle. She discovers through a foreign language news broadcast that the man who bit and then sewed her breast shut has remade himself into a diplomat, a peacemaker, in an institute in London. Galvanized by simultaneous recognition and inability to understand what has changed him, she goes to London where she carries out the oldest form of espionage, sitting outside of his building, waiting patiently for him to emerge. When he does, you cannot breathe for the duration of the time they share the page. This is the emotional intensity McCann brings to bear to this day of reckoning. Sister Beverly loses her words at times to early dementia but not the sense of how forms fit together into worlds. Lost in a train station in London on her impulsive mission—not yet described as revenge, justice or forgiveness—she reflects on a pigeon: “How odd to think that it might live inside the station, a nest in the rafters, its whole life without a tree of any sort.”

Human encounters and natural forces are still more powerful than the seemingly omniscient shadows of manmade surveillance. Relationships are what shape the world, not our static mountains of information. In “Sh’khol,” an adopted deaf boy goes missing in part because of his love for the sea’s sensory pleasures. Tomas’s mother, who translates Hebrew into English, learns all and nothing from the nestling of his head on her shoulder, the covering of his body with his hands. All of the tests and conclusions of experts who try to measure his abilities to comprehend language pale before Rebecca’s experiential knowledge of her chosen family.

In “What Time Is It Now, Where Are You?” we enter the mind of a narrator who is a writer, trying to make decisions for his characters. A deployed American marine wonders what to say to her family given an opportunity to call them on New Year’s Eve; the writer ponders various scenarios for the conversation before deciding to eschew dialogue altogether. The story ends with the phone ringing, unanswered.

As in faith, difficult questions do not solve or shut down these stories’ situations but expand them. What motivated the judge’s murder? What happened to Tomas during the hours unaccounted for? Most hauntingly, how should one act when seeing one’s rapist after 37 years? Who bears the cost of mercy? How do we learn to gaze into the dark again, unblinking, when our complex systems of language, information acquisition and telecommunication have failed? We do so, this book suggests, by somehow making treaties with those who also have faith in a higher power, even if they call it by another name. Sister Beverley’s witness is Muslim; she worries that she has violated his beliefs. He makes her a promise that dissolves any sense of wrongdoing on her part. It is not circumstances but whom we put our trust in that matters.

Like Wallace Stevens, McCann is concerned with our confidence in time. As Stevens meditates on how evenings can last all afternoon, McCann notes, “It is happening, as the poet says, and it is going to happen.” Read these stories and ask: How are exposure, vulnerability, violence and peace a linked? Is transformation possible? Enter others’ experience of these questions. It is when we do not know we are being observed that we are most truly ourselves: “the more obscure the moment, the more valuable the knowledge.”

McCann rips away “fancy language [that] can make any stupidity shine,” challenging us to respond viscerally to what we see in the same way we do when we shiver as the wind moves in our bones. He takes us beyond language into our souls, a part of the mind that the judge calls a deep well where we can touch water. Precipitation—the snowy mountains from Stevens’s poem, a falling rain in McCann’s story—opens and closes this collection, a gesture I observe as a beautiful sign that we remain helpless, small, blessed, vulnerable and connected to God’s splendor.

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