‘Thirteen Ways of Looking’ by Colum McCann

Again, technically – technically – you might be tempted to call this a novella. But it’s in a short fiction collection, and by god I loved it, so it’s going in. As with all the best short stories – indeed, all the best art – this collection, and this tale, is about time. The curtain lifts on the bedroom of a murder victim, but the murder is yet to take place. While the reader, sitting outside the story’s fictional time, sees the future, the victim himself is unaware that his clock is ticking.

“Thirteen Ways of Looking” is a detective story turned inside out. Everything about the crime is known: time, date, place and method. The killer’s identity emerges smoothly and without fanfare: there are no dead ends or red herrings; no tension; little drama. Peter J Mendelssohn, 82, widowed, subject to the various afflictions and indignities of old age, exits his apartment in a January snowstorm, shuffles the few blocks to his favourite restaurant, eats an abortive lunch with his graceless son, leaves, dies. In conventional crime fiction we peer over the investigators’ shoulders, watching as they assemble clues and draw conclusions, but the detectives themselves are vague presences here. It’s not their thoughts we’re privy to but the victim’s: the son of a Jewish family who fled Europe for the United States, married his childhood sweetheart, fathered two children, served as a judge. In the “deep stone well” of his mind, memory flourishes, and the past dances and spins. His death is just a moment, but inside his head every moment is present. Knowing this, we feel the vastness of what’s lost.

The story carries an odd real-life coda. Like Mendelssohn, McCann was himself knocked unconscious in the street while trying to intervene in an assault – but the incident didn’t take place until after this story was written. This might be a coincidence, but it’s one that proves his point: time is subjective, and the present constantly obliges us to reassess the past. “Sometimes it seems to me,” McCann says, in a note at the end, “that we are writing our lives in advance, but at other times we can only ever look back.” In this superlative story, he manages to express both possibilities at once.

First published in Thirteen Ways of Looking, Bloomsbury, 2015