What Time is it Now, Where You Are? by Colum McCann is an interesting tale of a writer attempting to pen down a story for a magazine’s New Year’s Eve edition and putting in all his efforts to deliver a story which aligns appropriately with the themes and traditions of narratives concerning New Year’s Eve. This insightful work of art in many contexts mirrors the process of writing in all its complexities and dilemmas of McCann and presumably every author around the globe.
Colum McCann is an award winning Irish writer now residing in New York who revels in the art of storytelling because a story “can cross all sorts of borders and boundaries,” a viewpoint he maintains during an interview with Gabriel Byrne in 2018. The short story “What Time is it Now, Where You Are?” is a part of his recent collection Thirteen Ways of Looking (2015).
What Time is it Now, Where You Are? | Summary
The story commences with the narrator introducing a writer who embarks on a journey to write a short story for the upcoming New Year’s Eve edition of a newspaper magazine which, initially, presents itself as a cakewalk. The man begins to experience a writer’s struggle comprising of moments of procrastination, writer’s block and anxiety regarding the approaching deadline. The wide range of possibilities for his plotline additionally marks a check box against the existing list of concerns. He is unsuccessful in creating a beginning that suits the romantic notions of the day. To move in an opposite direction, he conceives an idea to centralise his plot on a military tale- a young Marine serving her station in Afghanistan who sits idly under the stars. He digs into various prospects about the character’s family and house with a final decision of a definite presence of her son.
Further, he draws a dark icing imagery encapsulating the outpost where the Marine and the rest reside, citing military some equipments as well. However, she is alone on the New Year’s Eve which is unusual but the writer protagonist gives the situation a plausible scenario by allowing Sandi to be an empathetic team member who gives other Marines a break to enjoy a party in the village barracks below. She has a special satellite phone to call to anyone she loves dearly but at this point in the development, the writer protagonist posses no idea regarding the details and recipient of the phone call. Sparing this detail, the only thing the writer protagonist is sure of is the “cube of human loneliness” that Sandi occupies. As a character, she is turning complex for him but to be a better writer, one should soak in the situations a character lands in.
After a rigorous decision making, he finalises background information concerning Sandi but again his writer’s mind begins to navigate around the likelihood of her death at the hands of a sniper which he later dismisses as –
“it would be far too simple to embrace the ease of death by sniperfire and what sort of New Year’s story might that be anyway?”
A sudden jump into the visions of Sandy involving a fourteen year old young boy parking his bicycle in a garage and his mother Kimberlee changes the course of the narrative. Sandi’s anxiety and despair due to technical glitches in the satellite phone descends her into sadness. The writer protagonist desperately desires to add a gunfire sequence to his story to spice up some action that must lead to an alternative for the fireworks and potential heartbreak. Just before the clock strikes twelve, Sandi resolves to call to her son.
The writer protagonist drafts the final sections of his piece in France. Deadline looms over him and he is sure of a few scenarios- Sandi not dying, she calling up her lover and wishing the New Year in the most “ordinary” way and life will move on. Surprisingly, the writer protagonist unfolds the endlessness of his story. New ideas speculating the left out details in the story do not hesitate to pop up in his brilliant mind. Even insignificant details about the technicalities of the phone, Sandi’s muscular movements while summoning the courage to speak on the phone, Kimberlee’s reflexive action of holding the telephone whenever she hears a sound, the origin of meeting between the two women, the subject Kimberlee teaches at the university etc surface the writer protagonist’s mind hindering him to derive a conclusion. The switch from Sandi’s to the writer protagonists’ own past and present blurs the progression of the narrative and it ends with the phone continuously ringing.
What Time is it Now, Where You Are? | Analysis
The story is a postmodernist venture that employs meta-fiction as its central trait to establish a link between the author and his readers. The plot traverses through the process of creating a short story that mirrors this story’s own construction. McCann in one of his interviews with Kate Costello-Sullivan however claims his dislike for meta-fiction “unless it’s done extremely well” as it “so often comes across as pretentious.” He asserts this story to be his first and last attempt at such a style of writing.
The narrator in the story is a third person omniscient who accesses the minds of all the characters through the mind of the writer protagonist. The two layers of narration– McCann’s story and the writer protagonist’s story often fuse in the writer protagonist’s reflections on his life. The story’s division into thirteen major sections ease out the reading process as each section corresponds the development of action in the writer protagonist’s story. The various set of complexities pertaining to the plethora of plot directions available at the writer protagonist’s disposal and the anxiety of missing out on crucial details interfere with his writing exercise. It adds up to the existing problem of carrying forward the plot when the writer protagonist’s own life sometimes permeates subconsciously into the characterisation or the plot of his story.
For McCann, language holds precedence over the plot which is evident in the story. There is no definite structure of the story except the writer attempting to construct one. With the wide array of events that are suitable for the writer protagonist’s story, McCann allows a sneak-peak into the ever evolving mind of a writer where imagination finds no boundaries. The writer protagonist decides to pen a story that would deviate from the traditional setting of stories concerning the New Year’s Eve like the snow slowly scattering “across the face of a windowpane” or dropping of a “mirrored ball in a city” and fireworks. The desire to stand out clashes with his suppressed wishes in their preoccupation with the elements mentioned before. He holds to the opinion that a story meant to be featured in the New Year’s Eve edition of a magazine should have the sentimental value symbolised by the snow, mirror ball and lights.
Reader participation is essential to the narrator of the story. The insistence “let’s call her Sandi” is a direct address to the readers like in a conversation. He (though the gender of the narrator is unspecified, it is safe to assume him as man in context of McCann’s interview where he discloses that he never thought to cast himself as a character) also desires the readers to experience the physical and emotional turbulence surrounding Sandi as if it is their own. He states “the reader must begin to feel the cold that claws Sandi up.” Also, he becomes one of them by seamlessly switching to a first person plural pronoun to expound the expectations from the meta story-
“we have something we must see, or understanding, or at least imagine into existence, far away and we too have a distant hope that Sandi will say something into her satellite phone, perhaps not a resolution but at least a resolve of some sort, a small parcel of meaning.”
He thus affiliates with the readers in his apprehensions.
During the development of Sandi’s character, the writer protagonist unconsciously identifies himself to the character in her longing to return home which is a recurrent message in narratives about New Year’s Eve. After all, the night is about spending the last day of the year with closed ones in a spirit of cheer. In this line of thought, it can be argued that the writer protagonist projects his life onto Sandi’s, however mysterious and unclear it might be. Sandi’s characterization is marked with ambiguities, especially her homosexuality which is not an explicit mention. The nature of her relationship with other characters dissolves in doubts and silences. Not only her character, but even the title of the story is vague and the only near mention of the title is when Joel interrogates about Sandi to Kimberlee as “What time is it now, where she is?”
The title of story refers to the distinction between the time zones that the character of the writer protagonist struggles between. Her deployment in Afghanistan puts her ahead in time against her hometown in America. The long hours of waiting to make/for a call leaves her in splits. Too much is unsaid at both the ends and a plausible interpretation of the title suggests a human to derive the best of the time available to him/her instead of waiting because time never waits for anyone and the lost time never returns. With subtle hints about the probable past life of Sandi by the writer protagonist and the narrator, a key message on regret and contemplation also materialize in her character development.
A sense that the writer protagonist craves to put in everything crossing his mind into the story verifies in his cataloguing of the prospects that he deems necessary. This presentation of a multitude of storylines supports a reader’s anticipation while reading a work of art. For instance, towards the end, the writer protagonist delves into details that he perceives to have miss out which some writers might find crucial and some none. However, they often become a valid point of inquiry amongst the readers. The conclusion to the writer protagonist’s story with just the telephone bell ringing despite the considerations of various scenarios reflects a writer’s dilemma who usually begins with a simple notion but the interfering plot lines digresses and compels him to get entangled in the web of indecisiveness.
What Time is it Now, Where You Are? | Characters
The Writer – He is the unnamed protagonist of the story who engages himself in a project of writing a short story for a magazine. His character is emblematic of all the writers around the world who chart their ways towards a successful story despite various challenges pertaining to abundant plot lines, characterisation and a narrative’s readability in its affiliation to the readers.
Sandi Jewell – She is a fictional character the writer in the story caricatures for his work. A twenty-six year old woman who wears “a balaclava over her face,” she views herself as “unpretty” but is proud of her strong white teeth. Her allowance to the other Mariners to attend the village party for the New Year’s Eve renders her a cool and understanding personality. She prefers privacy over crowds and does not delineate details about her life, especially the name inked on her skin which is now a fading memory. Her hometown is Charleston but her birthplace is Toledo.
Kimberlee – She is another fictional character of the meta-fiction- a thirty eight year old woman who is a professor in a university. She too longs for Sandi’s call during a New Year’s feast she organises at her house.
Joel – He is fourteen year old boy who addresses Kimberlee as his first mother and Sandi as his second with an engraving of their initials on his wrist. He plans to spend the eve with his girlfriend.
Paul – He is Joel’s father and Kimberlee’s estranged husband living in New Hampshire who is a biologist and anti-war activist.
What Time is it Now, Where You Are? | Literary Devices
Imagery – The writer in the story devises a military woman for his story is sitting in the cold valley of – -Afghanistan under “a steel mesh of stars” to convey about the night of New Year’s Eve which is always beautiful and a sign for the beginning of a new and bright future.
Contrast – The narrator’s peek inside the writer protagonist’s mind about his conception of the whereabouts of his fiction’s leading lady forms a contrast when he claims that he all pervading silent atmosphere the writer’s Marine woman finds herself in will be different from that in her hometown- “the grim perimeter of the soldier’s reality set against the possibility of what might be happening elsewhere.”
Simile – When Sandi sits alone in an anticipation of a call due to poor signals, the stars in the sky are “like bulletholes above her” to highlight the gloominess of the otherwise light reflecting elements that mirror the hollowness of Sandi’s life like a bullet mark.
Allusion – The writer protagonist fixates his mind on the phrase “The living and the dead” which probably alludes to the 1941 novel of the same name by Patrick White which sets its preoccupation in “character penetration” and detaching relationships amidst the advancement of the World War II.