An Evening with Colum McCann

1. Crowded room. 2. Colum McCann + gesturing fan.

Colum McCann is gone by now. At his Selected Shorts event at Symphony Space last night, the man swore that this was his last public appearance before he burrowed deep into an unsocial part of the world. So, bad news is you won’t be hearing that terrific Irish accent around town. Good news is he’s burrowing to write, and all parts of the world will benefit from more published Colum McCann.

Even Symphony Space legend and event host Isaiah Sheffer said in his opening remarks that McCann had been trying to get away for a while. But Sheffer had “leaned rather heavily” on him to do Selected Shorts, and there we all were.

In his introduction, McCann said two things worth repeating here and everywhere. One: “I talk to my students (he teaches in Hunter’s MFA program, though is taking next semester off) about the story being a universe. The short story is an imploding universe whereas the novel is an exploding universe. The short story comes down to the matter and the form of it, it’s so tight … it forms a small almost perfect ball of energy.” Two, quoting Benedict Kiley: “The Irish are good at the short story because we know how to go to confession.”

1. Nathan Englander. 2. The night’s cast.

You must love a man true to his word. The three shorts of the evening were each electrifying and dark as the corners of the Vatican, even more so as delivered by the night’s star cast of readers.

The first short was McCann’s own “Everything in this Country Must,” read by Amy Ryan, the mostly serious actress known to The Office fans as guest character Holly. Then was “(She Owns) Every Thing” by Ann Enright, performed by Mary Louise Parker of Weeds and every smart man’s fantasy life. After an intermission, stage actor Michael Cerveris read Nathan Englander’s heartbreaking “Free Fruit for Young Widows.” Sometimes, no matter how great the text is, a reading can feel like muzak and everyone’s real interest is in chatting up the writers or the bar in the back. Not last night. McCann can pick ’em, and each short, however depressing in content, was like a shiny holiday present to the audience.

I’ve spent a decent part of my New York life on the Upper West Side and I don’t want to taint the holiday idea with snark, but the audience was as you expect up there: some college students, a whole lotta old folk. No one was the least bit interested in talking to me and fair enough because McCann stuck around to sign books afterward and the line quickly snaked towards the door. This was, after all, everyone’s last chance to see the man before he goes away and comes back with the next brilliant thing.

If you missed last night for a date with your couch and a mug of eggnog, Selected Shorts is the gift that keeps on giving. The program will be back in the new year with less Colum McCann, but more Electric Literature! Andy and Scott will hold down their own event on March 2nd. Hopefully we get a real photographer for that one.

– Kai Twanmoh is a regular contributor to Electric Dish.

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