narrative risktaking, the inherent lessons in the work of Colum McCann

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

I have a place on my shelf reserved for Colum McCann. An Irish man. A global citizen. A risk-taker.

In his newest book, Thirteen Ways of Looking, McCann provides a master class not just in storytelling, but in story making. The title novella is, on the surface, the story of an elderly man's unwitting final day—his roiling thoughts, his disgust at all the ways the body betrays us, his docking and decking of time, his relationship with his nurse, his lunch with an unfortunately distracted son. It's also a detective story, a whodunnit, and a meditation on the intersection of poetry and life.

Poetry as life?

Life as poetry?

From the novella:

Poets, like detectives, know the truth is laborious: it doesn't occur by accident, rather it is chiseled and worked into being, the product of time and distance and graft. The poet must be open to the possibility that she has to go a long way before a word rises, or a sentence holds, or a rhythm opens, and even then nothing is assured, not even the words that have staked their original claim or meaning. Sometimes it happens at the most unexpected moment, and the poet has to enter the mystery, rebuild the poem from there.

What strikes me as particularly exceptional here is McCann's talent for manipulating the eye of the story—the old man's un-wary first person seamlessly held within the frame of a third-person voice that already knows how this story sadly ends. You could study the mechanics of those transitions for days. How thought bends to action, how interior monologue becomes dialogue, how all the cameras in this story keep titling their angles.

McCann proves how resplendent the effect can be when one leaves every line open to the possibility of a shifted POV.

Watch this:

How many mornings, noon, and nights have I walked up and down this street? How many footsteps along this same path? When I was young and nimble and slick I would dart across the road in Dublin traffic, horse carriages, bicycles, milktrucks, and all. Jaywalking. Jayshuffling it is, now. The jaybird. Mr. J., indeed. On the Upper East Side. A lot of volume in this life. Echoes too.

—Just fine.

Sally's hand lies steady on his elbow now. Gripping rather hard into what is left of the muscle. The walking stick in his other hand, propping him up and propelling him along. And why is it that the mind can do anything it wants, yet the body won't follow?....
A few weeks ago, when I thought I'd have some time, I planned an essay on narrative risktaking. Had I written that piece, I would have included these seamless POV shifts within my accounting. For this is the kind of risk that interests me—a true master sidestepping the expected not just in what the story is, but how it gets told.

It doesn't read like flashy pyrotechnics.

It reads like something far smarter.


Victoria Marie Lees said...

Thank you for this, Beth. So is it that when we are in the old man's thoughts/mind it is first person, but the frame story is told in third?

Forgive me. I need to add this book to my to read list. Perhaps it is only when the old man speaks of/thinks about the past that it is first person, and when segued into the present it is third?

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