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Colum McCann's Thirteen Ways of Looking seeks mental depth cameras can't see

This new short story collection approaches the subject of trauma from a number of angles.

On 27 June 2014 the New York-based, Dublin-born writer Colum McCann was hospitalised after being punched in the back of the head. He was in Connecticut to attend a conference at Yale University when he came across a man assaulting his wife on the street. McCann yelled at the man, who walked away, only to return the same day while the author was speaking on the phone with his teenage son. “I was knocked unconscious,” McCann recently told the Irish Times. “Knocked out all my teeth; fractured cheekbone; severe contusions.”

In an author’s note at the end of McCann’s new book, a 143-page novella and three short stories, he writes: “Sometimes it seems to me that we are writing our lives in advance, but at other times we can only ever look back.” It’s a vague, slightly concussed statement intended to highlight how, uncannily, McCann had already begun to write some of these stories – each of which concerns a character who either fears, or succumbs to, an act of unforeseeable violence – before he was attacked.

McCann is well known (more so in the US than the UK) for his shifting, cinematic narratives, most notably the 2009 National Book Award-winning Let the Great World Spin, which used Philippe Petit’s heroic tightrope walk between the World Trade Center buildings as a symbol to connect an ensemble of disparate characters in 1970s New York. By comparison, Thirteen Ways is a messier, more ambiguous work.

This is no bad thing. McCann forgave the man who hit him, though he still struggles with “the punches behind the punch . . . the emotional impact”. That impact can be felt throughout the new collection, in which real life dovetails neatly with its recurrent themes: recollection, perspective, physical frailty and what Peter J Mendelssohn refers to as “the dark dogs of the mind”.

Peter Mendelssohn is a caustic, verbally gifted, 82-year-old former judge, a feisty Jewish relic of the Upper East Side whose Irish wife, Eileen, has recently died. He is both modern (his BlackBerry is “a wondrous machine” that lives in his breast pocket) and playfully unreconstructed (the sound of a juicer reminds him of the word “juicy” that he saw written on the back of a woman’s trousers in the park: “Sorry all,” he thinks, “but it was indeed rather juicy”).

His son, Elliot, “the hedge fund man, political aspirant, well-known philanderer”, is an accomplished disappointment, a man whose lack of charm and consideration for others – there are no “sorry alls” from him – is the opposite of his father’s warmth. When the pair meet for lunch, Elliot is unable to put his phone away long enough to indulge his father’s need to “talk . . . of our gone days” and rushes out without finishing.

Elliot is being sued for wrongful dismissal after an affair with a woman at his firm. “Don’t worry, Dad, I’ll crush her,” he says as he leaves Peter, who will soon be murdered outside on the street – a fact we learn early on in the novella, as McCann’s artful descriptions of the city are shown to be the static visions of surveillance cameras.

The image of a security camera also closes “Treaty”, the final story in the collection. “Suffering exhaustion”, Beverly Clarke, a 76-year-old nun, has been sent to a tranquil community on Long Island, where she is confronted by the image on late-night TV of the man who kidnapped, raped and abused her 36 years earlier: a former paramilitary commander who has now “taken on the aura of a diplomat”, speaking at a peace conference in London.

Beverly, like Mendelssohn, lives in the past. She smokes late into the night – “to cough, to burn and disappear” – and is undecided whether she has really seen Carlos, now restyled Euclides Largo, or not. “The odd little magpie of the mind”, she thinks, plotting a wearying trip to London to discover the truth. “Nothing is finally finished, then? The past emerges and re-emerges. It builds its nest in random places.”

Thirteen Ways takes its name from a Wallace Stevens poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”, which catalogues some of the perspectives that a poet might take on the natural world. Unlike Mendelssohn, Beverly does not succumb but confronts Carlos. She shows him her scars. McCann approaches the subject of trauma from a number of angles. He seeks out the mental depths that cameras, surfaces and screens cannot know. Yet, for all the modes of catharsis and redemption that exist, it is Beverly’s calmly spoken words that feel most vital. “I just want you to know that I’m here,” she says. “I exist, that’s all.” 

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear