Book Review: See Now Then by Jamaica Kincaid

Book jacket: See Now Then
See Now Then
by Jamaica Kincaid
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 192 pp.
CLR [rating:5.0]

Right Now Is Forever

Fans of this prolific writer’s earlier works will be thrilled by her latest effort, a domestic drama set in rural New England. In See Now Then, Jamaica Kincaid showcases her interest in intertextuality, the nuances of interpersonal relationships, the Sturm und Drang of familial minutia, and meta-autobiography. See Now Then is a novel deeply concerned with the timelessness of the epic form, and Kincaid’s writing here is itself truly epic. In sentences that stretch, unbroken, for half a page or more, Kincaid layers her text with a breathless and rhythmically haunting lyricism that self-consciously evokes the Illiad and the Odyssey as referents in a family drama about internal journeys, emotional battles, homecomings, and leave-takings. Through the invocation of epic prose forms and literary allusion, Kincaid elevates the nuclear family drama to a grand level as she draws un-remarked and seemingly sincere parallels between the passions and animosities of familial relationships and the grand scope of literary and mythic history. In doing so, she taps into the reader’s intuitive sense of the way all personal tragedies and triumphs feel epic to those who go through them. Experience is everything.

The novel seeks to draw a straight, unbroken line between the past and the present via the marital troubles of Mr. and Mrs. Sweet. Kincaid identifies her main characters simply by their marital appellations, leaving the reader to ruminate over the way identity changes in the confines of a marriage. The plot develops recursively, looping back on itself as it maps the couple’s shifting and changing feelings. The blue-eyed Mr. Sweet, who is proud to be a person who reads and understands Wittgenstein, is a composer and conductor raised in New York City. He now casts the pearls of his musical repertoire before the swine of a lackadaisical local community who only half-heartedly attend his concerts. Mrs. Sweet, on the other hand, came to the U.S. on the “banana boat,” a detail repeated by Mr. Sweet throughout the narrative as a fact that emphasizes his distance—historical and cultural as well as personal—from the woman he married. Mrs. Sweet loves her husband’s music and learns to appreciate Wittgenstein, but embodies a difference from her husband that is so thorough he can’t see past it. Their children, which in some narratives serve to bring the errant partners closer together, here serve only to drive them apart by crystallizing their differences—rendering them visible in a new way. By naming the children Heracles and Persephone, Kincaid reinforces the blending and non-differentiation in her novel of the literary epic and the quotidian banal.

See Now Then allows for no meaningful difference between the past, the “Then,” and the present “Now,” insofar as the characters’ experiences are always-already structured and, in some sense, pre-determined by the past. While the characters’ specific personal histories and traumas are of fundamental importance, they are also heavily determined by the broader stream of history. For Mrs. Sweet, thinking of the past means dwelling on not only her personal struggles as a child but also the history of post-Conquest America. The narrator describes Mrs. Sweet’s writing room (because of course Mrs. Sweet is a writer) as “the room in which she would commune with the vast world that began in 1492, the room in which lay her mother and her dead brother and her other brothers and all the other people whom she sought even as they had turned their backs on her, that room, that room” (145). Mr. Sweet is similarly taken up with this difference as he filters his life both through his personal experiences growing up in New York and through his knowledge of the Atlantic Slave Trade, “a monstrosity, a distortion of human relationships” of which his wife, through no fault of her own, constantly reminds him (12). Mrs. Sweet represents for him a symbol of disorder, of life being out of whack, of nature and proper human relationships thwarted. “People who come on banana boats are not people you can really know and she did come on a banana boat,” Mr. Sweet reflects (14).

The personal histories of the characters are thus inextricably linked to their sense of cultural and even anthropological past. The title of the novel, See Now Then, functions as an implicit injunction to see the present through the lens of the past, or, conversely, to gaze in the present at the concurrent past. This temporal and dramatic complexity of the novel is perhaps best crystallized in the following passage:

[A] whole life is made up of some small event, fleeting, something so small, deeply buried within itself, a catastrophe, not easily detectable to you or to the careful observer, but visible enough to a lover or a roommate or the person living next door who does not wish you well, the event, which in fact becomes your greatest flaw, occurs when you are most powerless to thwart its occurrence, when you are most unable to make its malignancy benign, when you are most unable to shrug it off, as if it were nothing more than a leaf falling off a tree in October, a change of seasons, a phenomenon that is quiet apparent in parts of the earth’s atmosphere, yes, yes, that is what makes up a whole life, the small event that cannot be seen by you, but can be seen by random people, and that small event makes you vulnerable to the deep and casual desires of these people, random or select, you can never know, really know. (153-4)

Kincaid figures these formative occurrences, these tiny and ubiquitous traumas, as the seeds of a perpetual Now, located in the eternal past, around which all our lives form. As a lovely pun on this idea, the narrator refers on several occasions to Mrs. Sweet’s continuous knitting, purling and purling in some pattern for her children as they themselves are like oysters, forming pearls around their own sadness. She can’t save her children from their tragedies, even though she spends so much time at her desk writing obsessively about her own childhood. Heracles disdainfully remarks about his mother, writing “as if only [her] mother had ever been cruel to her child before” (140). Kincaid thus indulges in some serious and self-reflective laughter at both the inevitability of such memoir-ism and the violence and tragedy of childhood. See Now Then is a masterful tale of a family torn apart by violence that is at the same time intimately personal and epically historical. Kincaid seems to suggest that, perhaps, there is no significant difference between them.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

One thought on “Book Review: See Now Then by Jamaica Kincaid”