A superbly crafted and deeply moving collection of fiction, with a provocative back story.
The Irish-born, New York–based McCann (who won the 2009 National Book Award for Let the Great World Spin) here offers four pieces of fiction that focus on the process of writing and the interplay between art and its inspiration. As he writes in a concluding Author’s Note, "Every word we write is autobiographical, perhaps most especially when we attempt to avoid the autobiographical. For all its imagined moments, literature works in unimaginable ways.” He provides literary framing with the title, evoking the oft-cited Wallace Stevens poem. As for autobiography: the title novella's multilayered narrative evokes an incident that—amazingly—happened to McCann after he wrote the story, in which he was cold-cocked on the sidewalk by a stranger in a seemingly senseless attack. The story’s protagonist is an aged judge of failing body but nimble mind who has just had dinner with his boorish son when he’s assaulted on the street. The story is told in the third person, but most of it hews closely to the judge's point of view. As he ponders his mortality, he muses, “Give life long enough and it will solve all your problems, even the problem of being alive.” Other perspectives come from a series of seemingly omnipresent security cameras—in the judge's apartment, in the public areas of his Upper East Side building, and in the restaurant where he has dinner with his son; their images are investigated after the attack by detectives whose work McCann compares with literary critics interpreting a poem. The three other stories are shorter, often involving a crime or a loss or a threat of some sort, with the writer’s presence most evident in “What Time Is It Now, Where Are You?,” which begins, “He had agreed in spring to write a short story for the New Year’s Eve edition of a newspaper magazine,” and then proceeds through possible variations of that story. “Sh’khol” explores similarities between a story the protagonist has translated and a possible tragedy she's facing. The closing “Treaty” has an activist nun of advanced years and unreliable memory disturbed by images of a man who brutalized her almost four decades earlier.
The author’s first collection of shorter fiction in more than a decade underscores his reputation as a contemporary master.