The OF Blog: Jamaica Kincaid, See Now Then

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Jamaica Kincaid, See Now Then

See now then, the dear Mrs. Sweet who lived with her husband Mr. Sweet and their two children, the beautiful Persephone and the young Heracles in the Shirley Jackson house, which was in a small village in New England.  The house, the Shirley Jackson house, sat on a knoll, and from a window Mrs. Sweet could look down on the roaring waters of the Paran River as it fell furiously and swiftly out of the lake, a man-made lake, also named Paran; and looking up, she could see surrounding her, the mountains named Bald and Hale and Anthony, all part of the Green Mountain Range; and she could see the firehouse where sometimes she could attend a civic gathering and hear her government representative say something that might seriously affect her and the well-being of her family or see the firemen take out the fire trucks and dismantle various parts of them and put the parts back together and then polish all the trucks and then drive them around the village with a lot of commotion before putting them away again in the firehouse and they reminded Mrs. Sweet of the young Heracles, for he often did such things with his toy fire trucks; but just now when Mrs. Sweet was looking out from a window in the Shirley Jackson house, her son no longer did that. (p. 5 e-book)

Lyricism in prose can be tricky for both writer and reader alike.  The writer has to navigate between the shoals of florid prose and non-specific description.  The reader, particularly those unused to prose that differs in form and structure from dialogue-heavy content, has to learn to trust the writer more, to abandon her own preconceptions of what a novel should be and try to understand what the novel in front of her actually is.  Sometimes, the writer cannot navigate through the shoals; the reader cannot learn to trust in the writer.  But then there are those times when the writer does manage to achieve her aims and the reader's faith in the text is rewarded with a deeper, richer experience than if the story had been constructed along more conventional lines.  Jamaica Kincaid's just-released novel, See Now Then, is one of those works that will captivate the readers early on before it concludes with a devastating denouement that will linger with readers long after the final page is turned.

See Now Then has been interpreted by many critics as being an autobiographical story of a dissolving marriage and certainly there are elements in common between the slow dissolution of the Sweets' marriage and Kincaid's own situation several years ago.  But it is too facile to see some elements in common and conclude that Kincaid transfers her experiences whole cloth to the printed page; she mines her life's experiences well, but she rarely, if ever, engages in the sort of fiction/non-fiction blurring that an Annie Ernaux, for example, does in her quasi-non-fictional novels.  Instead, it would be better to approach See Now Then as a melding of the personal with something that is more universal, more "epic" in its tone and metaphors.

Take for instance the excerpt from the novel's first paragraph which I quoted at the beginning of this review.  From the very first "see now then" it is made clear that this novel will be presented from some removed perspective, akin to a "pan out" shot that lays out the field of action from a bird's eye view.  We are introduced to the Sweet (if only!) couple and their children, named after figures from Greek mythology.  Then we see the house referenced, Shirley Jackson's house, a house which in fiction has an ominous history to it.  So already the story has shifted from the purely personal to one in which the symbolism of the house, the family name, and the children's names appear to play a role in the narrative.  It is an effective combination, both of the names and of the looping sentences that follow, that slowly but inexorably draws the reader into peering more closely at the narrative than she might otherwise have done.  While for some, the long, clause-filled sentences might be off-putting, Kincaid here employs them to great effect, creating mood and establishing plot momentum more quickly and efficiently than if she had attempted to tell a similar story through dialogue.  The reminisces of Mrs. Sweet, as seen the scene quoted below, blend the personal and the universal, the real and the irreal, adroitly:

That little jerk almost killed me again, said Mr. Sweet to himself, and it's not the last time, he said again to himself, and he was reminded of that time, not so long ago then, he was coming down the stairs and Heracles was going up the same stairs and they met in the middle and by accident collided and by accident Heracles, to steady himself from this collision, grabbed Mr. Sweet's entire testicles and threw them away and he threw them with such force that they landed all the way in the Atlantic Ocean, which was Then as is so Now hundreds of miles away.  The testicles then fell into that great body of water but did not produce typhoons or tidal waves or hurricanes or volcanic eruptions or unexpected landslides of unbelievable proportions or anything at all noteworthy; they only fell and fell quietly into the deepest part of that body of water and were never heard from again.

Oh, the silence that descended on the household, the Sweet household, as it lived in the Shirley Jackson house:  on poor Heracles, who paused for a very long time at the top of those stairs; on his sister as she curled up in her bed and went to sleep like a single bean seed planted into the rich soil of a treasured vegetable garden; Mr. Sweet removed his fingers from the strings of the lyre; on the dear Mrs. Sweet, who froze over her mending, her knitting, the darning needle in her hand, the knitting needles in her hands just about to pierce the heel of some garment, just about to make complete some garment.  And then gathering up herself, surveying what lay in front of her, Mrs. Sweet sorted among the many pairs of socks she had been mending over and over again and removing a pair, she fashioned a new set of organs for her beloved Mr. Sweet, trying and succeeding in making them look identical to the complete set of testicles that had belonged to him and had been destroyed accidentally by his son, the young Heracles.  And when Mr. Sweet fell into a sweet sleep of despair after not knowing what to do regarding his lost testicles, Mrs. Sweet sewed the mended socks into their place, the heels of the socks imitating that vulnerable sac of liquid and solid matter that had been Mr. Sweet's testicles. (pp. 38-39 e-book)
This scene is representative of later scenes (such as that of Heracles playing with Myrmidons that he received as part of his Happy Meal purchases) in which Kincaid carefully utilizes the symbolic characters/places that she has appropriated here (Heracles, however, playing the role of Kronos and Mr. Sweet that of Ouranos) to enliven a tale of a father angry and fearful of his son, of a mother who is ultra-competent and yet has to contend with a husband who views her with derision:

...or building a lovely little cottage in the woods where Mr. Sweet could retreat from the disturbance of those children and the presence of that woman who had absolutely arrived on a banana boat or some vessel like that, for nobody knew exactly how she arrived... (p. 77 e-book)

It is at this point that the repetitive structure of the descriptions, of the Shirley Jackson house, of village that lay on both banks of the river called Paran, reinforce the story in a fashion similar to the ancient epics.  If Aeneas were a man marked by his piety, then Mrs. Sweet becomes a woman marked by her suffering:

Oh Now, oh Then, said Mrs. Sweet out loud, but it didn't matter, it was as if she said it to herself, for no one could ever understand her agony, ever, ever understand, her suffering, her pain, no words could express it, nothing in existence could convey or express her existence just then, now or ever, her husband's voice, her husband had been enfolded in an entity called Mr. Sweet.  I am dying, she said to herself but that was silence; I am dying when I am with you, said Mr. Sweet to Mrs. Sweet, I am dying and that is why I hate you, for I am dying and I can't be myself, my true self, I am dying and you will die when I say this, but I am dying, I am dying, I am dying.  Oh I see, said Mrs. Sweet out loud but even she couldn't hear herself, and all that she saw, then and now, was silent! (p. 122 e-book)
It is at this point that everything crystallizes:  the "seeing," the "now and then," the use of epic metaphors within a contemporary setting.  The suffering of Mrs. Sweet, outlined in passing for the first three-quarters of the novel, now comes into its full blooming, as the husband tries to break away with the selfish excuse that he is "dying," while almost simultaneously expressing the self-centered thought that she will "die" because he shall leave her.  The emotions here are raw and visceral and while buoyed somewhat by the humor of juxtaposing Greek mythology with McDonald's and its ilk, the weightiness of this moment makes for a somber scene.  If this had been merely told as a straightforward narrative, it would have been moving enough, but when presented as a mélange of mythological and horror elements, it takes on an even greater narrative power.  See Now Then's conclusion is devastating because we see it, both the "now" and "then" of it, from the dual perspectives of shared cultural inheritances and personal, emotional connections to those whom we have witnessed (or experienced ourselves) traumatic, violent breakups of loving relationships.  See Now Then is a powerful novel because it utilizes the mythological to reinforce the personal traumas that affect so many of us.  Kincaid is almost pitch-perfect in her presentation and the result is one of the most accomplished and moving novels of this young year.  Very highly recommended.

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