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Aging Book Review: Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann

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Once again, I accidentally found some fiction that beautifully explores the realities of aging. Colum McCann wrote one of my favorite novels, Let the Great World Spin. Naturally, when I saw Thirteen Ways of Looking on display at my favorite library, I grabbed it. Little did I know that the opening novella of the same name is a thoughtful, unsparing account of what it is like to grow old and infirm. Add to that a gripping crime story, and I was hooked.

We open with the main character, Mendelssohn waking from a deep sleep and discovering that his live in caregiver, Sally, has done the unforgivable.  Some time in the night she put an adult diaper on him. He refers to this as “winter gear.”  He is insulted and furious before he even gets out of bed. As the story develops, we learn that Mendelssohn was a powerful player in his time, a judge in Brooklyn who enjoyed a strong marriage and lifetime with a soulmate (Eilleen) who has now passed away. Rarely do we have the opportunity in fiction to hear the musings and inner life of a contemporary elderly man. Much of what we learn about Mendelssohn are his thoughts in the moment and stretching back to his early life. There is very little dialogue. McCann conveys Mendelssohn’s anger and frustration at his current limitations and his longing for time that is well in the past. It is a portrait of an old man, easily passed over by outsiders as invisible, but who has a fully formed identity and intelligence.

We also learn about the delicate relationship that the elder man has with his devoted caregiver, Sally James. He is aware that her true devotion was to his deceased wife, but he appreciates her care of him all the more because of that. He does not hide his frustration and annoyance with her ideas of what he needs. He is uncertain that he expresses his gratitude to her adequately for putting up with him. He is aware that Sally is an immigrant, that she has to be here to take care of him so that she can send money home for her nephew’s education, that she has sacrificed her own personal life to live in and be his caregiver. This is a great piece on the give and take between caregiver and elder, how the boundaries are sensitive and often unspoken.

The title of the novella is a reference to Wallace Steven’s poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. It also describes the security camera footage that the police in the story are later scanning to solve the crime that occurs. Security and cameras have become a feature of our modern lives, an extra set of eyes to protect us from harm. Many of us with parents living at home with caregivers have invested in these cameras to keep watch over our loved ones. There are cameras in Mendelssohn’s home too. But his unlikable son, Elliot, who put them there, is not likely to care enough to have been watching them.

I loved this story for its attention to the thoughts and feelings of a person aging, angry and lost at the end of life. The New York Times review of the book, which is collection of this novella and short stories, really missed the boat in my view. It didn’t help that in his review, Jonathan Dee mistakenly referred to the caregiver as a nurse, which is an annoying point for anyone familiar with elder care and nursing.  This novella is an excellent characterization of a man, a life and the losses of age.

 

 

 

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