I should have written down my thoughts on Jamaica Kincaid’s See Now Then right after I finished the book but it was a library-borrow and I was literally finishing it as I made my way to the library to return it. Clearly, I’ve lost the ability to read to deadline. But I did finish it and reading it wasn’t a chore at all. But now I’m here not quite sure what to write about it.
I know that once, when I was reading it on the bus, I fell in to the words and looked up and didn’t know where I was for a few beats. I know because of the unending sentences and circular writing, I sometimes had to go back to the beginning of a sentence like when I was a child and lost my place – this was a book that did not tolerate distracted reading. I know that my inner-narrator read the first three lines of the book “see now then” as if I was saying “see here now” in an Antiguan/Caribbean accent – like we sometimes do at the beginning of a story that’s about to get juicy and deep, or as an exclamation of annoyance, or a blend of the two. I know that it is not plot driven or character driven or anything so – it doesn’t play by the standard rules. Oddly it most reminds me of two movies – one (War of the Roses with Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner) in terms of the relationship dynamics and one (Arrival with Amy Adams) in terms of how it plays with time. Throw in some Greek mythology but not just for style – as an integral part of this unravelling, because that is what the marriage of the Sweets does for the duration of the book, unravel. But in a way that probes at larger questions (the nature of time, the nature of us).
The narrative style might be familiar to anyone who’s read Kincaid before; example, the running (but never run-on) sentences that kind of loop back on each other to the point of repetition (which some, I know from my book club’s reading of Mr. Potter years ago, find interminable but I find reads like an old-school letter in its free associative quality); her lyrical use of language which is quite seductive and, see my disorientation on the bus, unexpectedly hypnotic; the references (because no matter what Mr. Sweet thinks, Kincaid is a very erudite writer) that make you want to run to google but you resist; the way idea flows in to idea moment in to moment, scene in to scene like a deluging river.
So, did you catch my reference to Mr. Sweet’s judgment of Kincaid, clearly my intimation that Mr. and Mrs. Sweet – a classical musician and a writer – are stand-ins for Kincaid, the writer, and her ex, a musician. Kincaid never says so, of course, but as with her other works of fiction, this reads as part fiction, part memoir. And what a bitter time in her life – or the life of the Sweets, I should say – it reflects on. There is no hint that Mr. Sweet ever loved his wife – from first page to last he is filled with bitterness and snark. He is a wholly unappealing character (though oddly it was his commentary that bananas “had no taste that I can remember” that was the line in the sand for me. I could say it’s because he forever referred to her as coming on the banana boat, meant as an insult re her class and her right to inhabit the rarefied world he sees himself belonging to, but it’s also because I really like bananas and will tolerate no insult to them).
See Now Then is War of the Roses-ish in my mind – though that movie was, if I remember correctly, a dark comedy – because it captures the inner crumbling of a marriage as a nuclear-level implosion precipitated by ennui and stasis, by restlessness and incompatibility, and the fallout is hate so thick it’s constricting.
The writer gets to make herself the hero or heroine in this case and so though not a wholly sympathetic character – Mrs. Sweet (absent-minded, self-indulgent) fares better in the reader’s mind, even if her children find her ridiculous and her husband can’t stand even the sound of her voice. One of the ways it achieves this is through perspective, what the characters don’t know that the readers do and for the longest while Mrs. Sweet is presented as someone unaware that she is the target of such unspoken venom and broken when it all comes out. She is, authorial bias, saccharine sweet in her devotion to her family. If you feel a bit manipulated by this overkill; I can’t argue with you.
One of the interesting things the novel sets up is that people are not simply themselves, but their histories, and not just their personal histories, but the entire ecological-and-geo-political history branded in to them by time. Example, “But Mrs. Sweet’s eyes were not impenetrable at all to anyone else and everyone she met wished that they were so; for behind her eyes, lay scenes of turbulence, upheavals, murders, betrayals, on foot, on land, and on the seas where horde upon horde of people were transported to places on the earth’s surface that they had never heard of or even imagined, and murder and murdered, and betrayer and betrayed, the source of the turbulence, the instigator of the upheavals, were all mixed up, and the sorting out of the true, true truth and the rendering of judgments, or the acceptance of wrongs, and to accept, to accept and lay still with being wronged will wear you down to nothing so that eventually you are not more than the substance that makes up the sand dunes in the Imperial Valley in California, or the pink beaches surrounding the rising shelf of land mass that is now, just now, the island of Barbuda, or the lawn of a house in Mountclair, New Jersey.” If our history is tattoo’d into our skin, what happens when those histories we carry in ourselves are instinctively in conflict with each other. That is one of the conflicts, perhaps the central conflict, of See Now Then.
But more interesting than the conflict is the book’s treatment of time. In See Now Then, time is as unstable as the marriage. Or perhaps the proper term here is fluid (hence my Arrival reference, as that’s a movie in which, from what I could grab of it, time is not linear so much as experienced at the same…time(?) Past, present, future; now. The author’ experiment with time – as confusing as it can be – is inspired. The sentences refuse to be confined as time does, the narrative refuses to be penned in to this or that simple reading. Beginning – middle – end. Such structures find no purchase here nor do the usual rules of characterization, character and plot arc and such.
It is this (unpindownable time), and the Greek references (most obviously the name of the children – Heracles, the hero, and Persephone, princess of the underworld, one the star in his mother’s eye, the other hidden away for much of the story), the way the tale seems not to settle on the pedestrian details of a marriage disassembling even as it tells that very story, that gives this novel an epic, expansive feel, even within the claustrophobic confines of the Shirley Jackson house. The novel, like resentment itself, is slow boiling; from the very first page, this marriage is not dying, but dead, only it doesn’t know it yet.
Some readers might find this book challenging. I did too at times. If you’re looking for likeable characters – yourself or someone you could see as a friend, clear plotting and easy interpretation; perhaps leave this one on the shelf. See Now Then is not concerned with nice and likeable, nor is it easy. The writing comes in huge uninterrupted waves – imagine, if you will, so many waves in an ocean of waves; it can feel vast and unending, like the ocean itself. But you have to sit with it, allow it to wash over you and potentially wash you away – but maybe not while you’re riding the bus.
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