Nothing renders you mortal like a flying fist that you don’t even see coming. When celebrated Irish novelist Colum McCann came to the aid of a woman involved in a dispute on a street in New Haven, Connecticut last summer his life, career and even his art were upended in ways that would haunt him long afterward.
After the unprovoked assault from the woman’s husband, which left McCann with a fractured cheekbone, multiple cuts and broken teeth, he began the process of physical healing but was surprised to discover that the emotional and spiritual realignment would take much longer.
“My head is in a good place now but this time last year I was a complete and utter mess,” McCann, 50, tells the Irish Voice.
“First of all I had severe physical problems. I got shingles across my optic nerve (that can threaten blindness). I got high blood pressure, I developed an arrhythmia (an irregular heartbeat) and all were directly tied to the assault. I was fairly down in the dumps.”
It was writing that eventually released him. First McCann wrote out his victim’s impact statement. Then the stories of his new collection Thirteen Ways of Looking (Random House) helped him begin to make sense of what had occurred.
On the night of the attack McCann, who won a 2009 National Book Award for Let the Great World Spin, had been in New Haven to attend a conference on -- of all things -- empathy.
“The irony of all this is that I was at a conference about empathy. The big decision after the assault was, do I say this, do I talk about what happened, or do I keep quiet? I think it would have been absolutely the wrong decision to embrace that silence. I feel justified in having done it.”
Coming face to face with your own vulnerability, depending on how you experience it, can be a frightening or a liberating thing, but for McCann it has proved unusually creative.
“When it all happened and it got into the papers I received literally hundreds of letters from all over the world. It was like this small incident sort of reverberated in everyone’s skull box,” he recalls.
“I suppose opening myself to that vulnerability is a thing that I want to do. So many people are coming up to me and saying, I had this happen to me, I had this trauma, I was hit too.”
Judging by the stories in his new collection, which are the strongest of his career, McCann’s healing process was foundational. I ask him was he as heart shook by the experience as the stories (which are in many ways poems in prose) suggest?
“I was heart shook by the whole thing, I think that’s a good word for it. I think it did open up my writing in a certain way, but part of that was because quite honestly I was down,” he says.
“I had the breath taken from me for a couple of months. I wouldn’t have thought that could happen to me. I thought that after it happened I’d have gotten up. I’d go through recovery and fix my teeth and wait for cheekbone to heal.”
Knowing himself, McCann thought he’d get out from underneath it soon enough.
“But then as the time went along, that’s when the emotional stuff started to rifle inside me. I was basically seized. I was unable to write. And I was never in my life before unable to do that.
“I always refused the idea of writer’s block. I just thought it was an excuse, a lack of courage or commitment. But this time around I actually suffered.”
It wasn’t until McCann got a chance to tell his story and reclaim that lost territory -- and try to understand it -- that the writing came back to him, he says.
“Then the stories started to change. That vulnerability and unease that you mention is there. But also -- I don’t know -- it’s not up to me to say this, but I would hope for some grace to come out of this sort of situation, you know?”
If there’s one thing the Irish know the value of, it’s territory. Whether it’s physical or metaphysical, we can fight for both with an uncommon facility, having had centuries of training. The idea of regaining his own territory, external and internal, is obviously profound, and in this way Thirteen Ways of Looking is McCann’s own De Profundis.
In the months after the assault, McCann found himself going back and forth between anger and isolation, between acceptance and depression. His victim impact statement urged that his assailant serve no jail time, and he served three weeks of a two and a half year sentence, the rest of which was suspended.
“I’m fully recovered now, this is the thing, and being able to talk about it is enormously important. But I think the reason to talk about it is to allow others to get up and tell their story. We forget how important it is that we need to be understood, that our stories are valuable things,” he feels.
There’s no direct reference to the assault in the stories in McCann’s latest collection, but it’s implicit throughout the book, he says.
“People can think about that in three ways. They can think it’s a cynical attempt to push book sales, or they can think of it as a personal attempt to regain territory and recover, or they can think of it as an attempt to make this sort of stuff more public and to tackle the root of some of the problem.”
The tonal shift in Thirteen Ways of Looking is open and unguarded in a way that is unlike anything in McCann’s previous work. Bodies are relentlessly subjected to scrutiny and the tiny humiliations of age and illness. Irony is never worn as a shield.
There’s an unmasking that happens in its pages too. People and illusions are gradually stripped away. The great title story moves forward and backward through time with the facility of a waking dream, echoing Joyce and Heaney, and in the process becoming talismanic in itself.
This is who I am, this is what made me, this is what I stand for, and this is what I will not stand for. The clarity and the confidence of McCann’s unfaltering steps makes you want to cheer.
“It is definitely my most personal book and I’m quite surprised by the fact that I am a character in it. I normally hate that meta-fiction stuff. When I started writing I said, Jesus Christ, what am I doing, you know?”
Was he afraid of it? “I was petrified. I said to myself, am I really going to write a story where I’m a character? The exact sort of fiction that I’ve been railing against for the past 25 years? But I just went into that territory and I ended up enjoying it.”
The title story is a portrait of age and aging, themes that inevitably dovetail from his experience last year.
“There are two fairly traumatic things that I used to build this connection. I haven’t really talked about this yet. One is the assault and getting over it. The second thing that happened is that my dad passed away in February.”
McCann’s father Sean McCann was a well-known Irish literary editor, and he read each of his son’s latest works before the public.
“I got the new collection to him in draft form. I was with him in January just before he died and we talked. So much of the character of Mendelssohn in the new collection is actually a portrait of my da. Including some of the less savory stuff” he says.
“And he loved it and he laughed about it. His mind was still sharp, he was 85 years old. It was good, I was able to give that to him as a sort of gesture. So I think those two things coming together opened up my rib cage a little.”