Well, this is a gem that I should have read a lot sooner. But no matter--I read it, and I loved it. Thirteen Ways of Looking is a collection of a novella and three short stories. The novella is the title piece, a wonderful and very overt riff on the classic Wallace Stevens poem, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. "Overt" is perhaps understating the case; the novella is divided into 13 pieces, each of which opens with one verse from the Stevens poem. And just as the Stevens poem examines different ways of looking, among other things, so does the novella; it's the story of the last day in the life of Mr. Mendelssohn, elderly widowed retiree whose life has come to a series of both humiliations (diapers) and routines that are not so unpleasant. Each section has a different way of looking at Mendelssohn's life, his death, and the aftermath, some from his point of view, some from others. We see the assistant who lives with him and takes good care of him, the doorman who trades the same jokes with him each day, the staff at his favorite restaurant; we also see, in memory, his nearly sainted wife, and we see his less-than-saintly adult son.
Ways of looking is also literal here. Mendelssohn's death is not natural. The police use security camera footage to try and determine who was responsible, and it turns out that a well-to-do elderly man in New York City is surrounded by cameras: Cameras at his building's entrance, on the street, in the restaurant, even in his home, put there secretly by said less-than-saintly son.
But all is not grim. Mendelssohn has some wonderful memories and turns of phrase, and there's more than just a bit of a tip-of-the-hat to Joyce's Ulysses (HEY! I finally have a good use for having read that book!!!).
Besides looking, poems and poets are also important, even apart from the title:
"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."
The novel takes up over half of this slim volume. The three remaining stories are also gripping and beautifully written, although "Sh'khol," a story of a single Irish mother whose deaf and mentally disabled teenage son disappears the day after Christmas, at times tips into overwritten. But the final story, "Treaty," about an elderly nun whose memory is starting to fail, but who sees her former captor and rapist on TV, is stunning. And in its own way, "What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?" rises above its structure (a short story writer tries to write a story) into something much bigger and better.
A book I more than enjoyed and will likely return to.