A writer who shows how reality can mimic fiction; Week in Books

Is fiction just life waiting to happen? Colum McCann's new short story collection

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The Independent Culture

Until I turned over the last page, I had been enjoying Colum McCann’s new short story collection, Thirteen Ways of Looking (Bloomsbury, £16.99). “Enjoying” may in fact be the wrong word for these jittering stories about violent attack, the disappearance of a child and a mother’s guilty desperation, about a female marine meditating on the possibility of sudden death in Afghanistan and a nun, confronting her apparently transformed kidnapper decades after his sexual torture of her, only to see, staring back, the same sadistic lack of remorse.

Better to say I had been enjoying the fairground thrill of being willingly rattled by the fictional menace and mortality in these pages that, combined with the energy and playfulness of McCann’s writing, made for good reading about bad things. Then the blow of the author’s end note, with the spectre of reality (and autobiography) jostling its way into the fiction I had just read. Now I was rattled in a different way.

To return to the stories for a moment; the first, novella-sized, eponymous tale is about a violent attack on a retired New York judge called Mendelssohn. The reader is taken into his frail, betraying old body, his fuzzy-yet-sharp mind, up to the exact moment the blow is shed on a street corner, as he shuffles out of a restaurant, when his inner voice is replaced by the jigsaw perspectives of CCTV cameras and detective analysis in the police procedural that follows.

The last story’s violence is inflicted on another unassuming bystander: Sister Beverly, from “Treaty”, who recognises her South American torturer on television decades after her horrifying experience of kidnap. He has, all these years later, reinvented himself as a politician, on the up, suited and booted, and she must now navigate the converging impulses for revenge, retribution and (most unpalatable for this reader) forgiveness. 

When these stories have ended, we discover that McCann was himself attacked, outside a Connecticut hotel last year “when I was punched from behind and knocked unconscious, then hospitalized, after trying to help a woman who had also been assaulted on the street.”

It makes a difference that he mentions this. It means we must review the stories as stories, with the comfort blanket of pure make-believe removed, or partly shrugged to the side at least, for what that’s worth. More unsettlingly, though, McCann had already written the story of Mendelssohn’s assault by the time of his real-life assault. The fictive punch had been thrown before the real one. Perhaps it was coincidence. Or perhaps reality imitated fiction. It would be a postmodern twist for a postmodern writer.

I spoke to McCann this week as part of the London Literature Festival, where he expanded on his statement that “sometimes it seems to me that we are writing our lives in advance...”. The idea, he suggested, was that just as part, present, future, don’t run in the neat, linear and discrete lines we allot them, neither does fiction and non-fiction. And maybe, he threw in, there was no such thing as pure “non-fiction” either. Maybe pure non-fiction was a lie, just as pure fiction was too.

It’s a deep, complicated thought that seems to have a few kinks on Kierkegaard’s retrospective view of life and art – that life can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards. Like the many cameras in McCann’s story of Mendelssohn, piecing reality together and making sense of a life – a death – after the event. McCann has gone back to novels written in the past, he said, apparently disconnected from autobiography (namely Dancer, a book about Rudolf Nureyev), and seen his life in them – maybe even incidents that revealed themselves after the fiction was written. It’s a disconcerting thought, more so when he talks of his belief that “every word we [writers] write is autobiographical, perhaps most especially when we attempt to avoid the autobiographical.”

Andrew Miller, also at the festival, discussing his novel, The Crossing, recognised the truth in this. He can see in his first novel, Ingenious Pain (1997) – about an 18th-century surgeon burdened with the curse or gift of feeling no pain – landscapes from his childhood that weren’t consciously inserted then, but recognised now, retrospectively, despite the historical locality of the novel. McCann’s argument is one that will be contested by some novelists, or deemed reductive; to me it sounds like an opening up, rather than closing down, of imaginative possibilities, the idea of writing a story, that could, just around the corner, be waiting to happen.

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