See Now Then

By Jamaica Kincaid

Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 192 pp. $23

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Reviewed by Susan Balée


See here, readers: See Now Then, the new novel by Jamaica Kincaid, traces the interior history of a (ticked off) black woman whose heart has been broken by her (once beloved) husband. And although she says otherwise in interviews, it sure looks like Kincaid is the woman and her erstwhile ex-, Allen Shawn (son of famous editor William, brother of actor Wallace), is the heartbreaker.

All the external details match up: Shawn and Kincaid's life in Bennington, Vt., where he taught musical composition and she composed prose in their house, possibly the house where the horror writer Shirley Jackson once lived, but certainly a haunted place; their daughter and son; his neuroses (Shawn has written a book about anxiety) and short stature, her middle-aged largesse and love of gardening; his ultimately leaving her for a younger woman. Although the main characters in this book are called Mr. and Mrs. Sweet, the Mrs. quotes from her writings and they are recognizably works by Jamaica Kincaid.

So much for facts. Is this novel any good? It is if you think of it as experimental fiction rather than a traditional novel. There's no plot to speak of, and the writing style is a stream of consciousness rendered in Faulkner-long sentences, many of which take up whole pages. Further, there is something very clever going on with time, and that's worth exploring. Here's part of an early passage (a sentence that goes on for twice this length) about Mr. Sweet:

And he was not a rodent at all, he was a man capable of understanding Wittgenstein and Einstein and any other name that ended in stein, Gertrude included, the intricacies of the universe itself, the intricacies of human existence itself, the seeing of Now being Then and how Then becomes Now; how well he knew everything but he could not express himself, he could not show the world, at least as the world turned up in the form of the population of some small villages in New England, what a remarkable person he was then and had been and in time to come, these people who wore the same socks days in a row and didn't dye their hair after it lost the natural color and luster it had when they were young and they liked to eat foods that were imperfect, foods made limp by natural pathogens and insects for instance, people who worried about the pilot light going out of the boiler and the pipes freezing because the house was cold and then the plumber would have to be called and he would complain about the work of the plumber who came before him because plumbers always found each other's work imperfect; and they worried about all sorts of things Mr. Sweet had never heard because he grew up in a city. . . .

Mr. Sweet feels alienated by the villagers (just like the character who gets stoned in Jackson's "The Lottery"!) and by his wife, a woman who "arrived on a banana boat." She bore him two children, the son he hates and the daughter he loves, and now she's fat and middle-aged and he wants out. Mr. Sweet writes a nocturne titled This Marriage Is Dead, and he so despises his son that he "wished a family of snakes would appear from nowhere and devour him!"

Time's effect on memory underpins the novel, and Kincaid's task is Heideggerian:

See Now Then, See Then Now, just to see anything at all, especially the present, was to always be inside the great world of disaster, catastrophe, and also joy and happiness, but these two latter were not accounted for in history, they were and are relegated to personal memory.

Trapped in time, Mr. Sweet becomes ever more waspish and Mrs. Sweet becomes "almost as big as an average-size garden shed, so she told herself, though Mr. Sweet had said to her that she looked like the actor Charles Laughton when he played the captain of a ship in which the crew mutinied." At last, Mr. Sweet tells her how it is:

I know you are trying very hard but I love someone else and I will not give her up, for she makes me feel like my true self, my real self, who I really am . . . and she is young and beautiful and can bear children who are beautiful and sweet in nature like me. . . .

Mrs. Sweet loves her husband, loves her son, feels dissed by her daughter, and sublimates all her griefs and joys into her writing:

By that time (then, now, and then again), Mrs. Sweet had buried her past in the cement that composes memory, even though she knew quite well that cement deteriorates, falls apart, and reveals eventually whatever it was meant to conceal.

Jamaica Kincaid took 10 years to bring this book out, but now she's decided to reveal it. Mr. Sweet is not very sweet, but the author's revenge will give you diabetes.

Susan Balée regularly reviews books for The Inquirer and the Hudson Review.