See Now Then
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 192 pp., $24
There are two ways to read Jamaica Kincaid’s mesmerizing new novel, “See Now Then.”
The first is the way any work of art should be read: by simply absorbing what’s on the page. This is how I read the first two-thirds of “See Now Then.”
“See Now Then” is Kincaid’s first novel in a decade, and it’s the story of a marriage whose toxicity is killing the two people in it. But more than that, the book reads like an allegory or fable about a doomed family, an effect heightened by its protagonists, Mr. and Mrs. Sweet, having two children with names taken from Greek mythology — Heracles and Persephone.
Kincaid tells the Sweet family story in a series of stream-of-consciousness reveries, as all four of these characters reflect on their lives in a New England town and the garden, the streets, the forest and the mountains beyond.
The Sweet home is a most unhappy one, though Mrs. Sweet finds poetry and meaning in the ordinary objects of domesticity and in the moments of intimacy between parents and children. Making ample use of repetition, Kincaid give us countless exquisitely crafted but free roaming sentences: When strung together, these sentences make paragraphs and pages that describe the beauty to be found even in a loveless marriage.
When Mrs. Sweet looks down on the infant baby Heracles in her arms, Kincaid writes: “oh his mouth was as wide as the sun’s, that very sun that rises up above the universal horizon and then covers the sky for a while, a while being a day, and to witness this event the sun rising up from the horizon and covering the expanse of the sky for the time it does, is a very definition of being alive.”
Each scene in “See Now Then” pulses with so much life that one feels it would be possible to rip all its pages from their binding, toss them in the air, and pick up them up individually and read them in any order and still find joy in simply taking in Kincaid’s wondrous, soaring and brave prose one random morsel at a time.
And, in fact, Kincaid has written this novel in a way that achieves a similar effect. “See Now Then” moves forward in what feels like a chronological spiral, shifting back and forth from “then” to an indeterminate “now” and back to “then” again with the Sweet children of grammar-school age, college age and in utero in various parts of the book in no apparent order.
I was enjoying “See Now Then” in my very conventional reading, taking the pages in numerical order, and losing myself in the imaginary detail of Kincaid’s world, finding special delight in Mrs. Sweet’s visions of her son, Heracles: The boy plays with “Myrmidon” soldiers he’s collected from Happy Meals; while in the womb the imprint of his heel can be seen under the skin of Mrs. Sweet’s belly; and finally he becomes “a young black man, whatever that might be, and even now, whatever that might be is not certain.”
But by the time I reached that last passage, the domestic complications of “See Now Then” began to lose their entirely magical and allegorical qualities and feel more like the nastiness of a real marriage.
I’ll confess to knowing little about Jamaica Kincaid’s personal life. After 130 pages, however, curiosity got the better of me, and thanks to the Internet … well, what follows is not exactly a spoiler, but if you stop reading this review here you’ll probably enjoy the book more.
Kincaid was married for many years to a composer of classical music — just like the fictional Mrs. Sweet. Like the fictional Sweets, Kincaid and her now ex-husband lived in a New England town with their two children, a son and a daughter. Like Kincaid, the Mrs. Sweet of the novel is a writer born in the Caribbean nation of Antigua — and she’s working on a book called “See Now Then.”
All of this is relevant because Kincaid, the author of more than a dozen books, is a public literary figure. And seen through the lens of some basic but widely known facts of her life, reading “See Now Then” becomes quite a different experience.
As fictional characters, the Sweets live in the protective bubble of art: We are moved by their experiences but don’t feel the cringe that comes from seeing real people hurt themselves. But there are enough parallels to the real Kincaid’s life — Mrs. Sweet gardens, and Kincaid has written and edited several books on the topic — that reading “See Now Then” can feel uncomfortably voyeuristic.
Among other things, Mr. and Mrs. Sweet trade insults about each other’s physical appearance that are clearly derived from the actual physical appearance of Kincaid and her ex-husband.
And what is one to make of the author’s portrayal of the monstrous husband, Mr. Sweet? Kincaid imagines Mr. Sweet wanting to drop his son, Heracles, as a newborn baby and see him “fall to the ground, his body intact except for his head, his brains scattered all over the floor of the delivery room ….”
Mr. Sweet keeps their daughter, the beautiful and talented Persephone, away from her mother and Mrs. Sweet rarely sees her. If the novel really is a thinly veiled memoir, the name Persephone (a Greek goddess kidnapped by the king of the underworld) suggests Kincaid created and named her to express a very personal, private hurt.
“See Now Then” deserves to celebrated for its linguistic feats and its vision as a work of art. And one can only hope, for the sake of a real-life family, that art is mostly what it is.