Jamaica Kincaid is annoyed. She spent 10 years writing a novel about the passage of time and everyone seems to think it’s a roman à clef about her marriage — and a vengeful one, at that. At a recent Manhattan reading at Symphony Space, she introduced her new novel, See Now Then, by explaining (among other things) that it was not about a divorce, that none of the characters in her book obtain a divorce, nor do they talk about divorce, nor does the word “divorce” even appear in the book’s pages. Referring to a particularly exasperating review she said, “It is almost as if the person describing the book has read another book entirely.”
I feel fortunate to have read See Now Then before the press feasted on its autobiographical elements. I’ve read almost everything Kincaid has written and knew enough about her life to recognize that Mr. and Mrs. Sweet, the unhappy couple at the center of this novel, were loosely modeled on Kincaid and her ex-husband. I also assumed that the small New England village where Mr. and Mrs. Sweet live was based on Bennington, Vt., where Kincaid lived for many years. But by the time I finished See Now Then, the gossip had burned off and I wasn’t thinking much about Kincaid’s life. Instead, I was in a somewhat altered state as I considered how erratically time passes, with the big slow-moving space of childhood up front and then adulthood rushing past. See Now Then also left me thinking about how strange our conception of the past and future is, how we talk about them as if they are somehow vastly different from the present, when both are made up of the moments we are in the midst of living.
If my impressions sound vague (if not downright pretentious) that’s because See Now Then is a difficult book to write about. It has no plot, there’s nothing to summarize. In some ways it makes sense that journalists have chosen to focus on Kincaid’s biography; it was the only story available. It also makes sense that Kincaid chose to write a domestic novel; she had to anchor her abstract musings in something mundane, like the muck and mire of a failing marriage.
In a recent New York Times profile, Kincaid said See Now Then didn’t come together for her until she thought of the title. The phrase opens the novel, like the beginning of a fairy tale, “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…” What follows is a long description of the view from Mrs. Sweet’s window, a view that includes “the house where the man who invented time-lapse photography lived.”
This early mention of time-lapse photography seems significant. We use time-lapse photography to witness the things we can’t see in real time — the blooming of a flower or a tree coming into leaf. Kincaid uses the form of the novel to illustrate the things that Mrs. Sweet could not see in her own life, flipping through the ordinary moments that make up Mrs. Sweet’s mostly sweet existence — moments spent gardening, moments spent nursing her son, moments spent driving her children to school, moments spent in a little room off of her kitchen, writing — to reveal the larger story: that of a disintegrating marriage.
Mr. and Mrs. Sweet are portrayed as an odd match, Mr. Sweet an aristocratic New Yorker, while Mrs. Sweet is an immigrant from a small Caribbean island, an island Kincaid describes as “so small, history now only records it as a footnote to larger events.” Mrs. Sweet fell in love with Mr. Sweet because of his knowledge and his place in world; Mr. Sweet fell in love with Mrs. Sweet for her exuberance and her long legs. Their marriage, it is suggested, was arranged in part to secure Mrs. Sweet’s citizenship in the United States. But it was the birth of their children that truly pushed them into the traditional roles of husband and wife. In her “marriage story,” Mrs. Sweet observes that “without the birth of young Heracles and the birth of the beautiful Persephone we would not be and so become: Mr. and Mrs. Sweet.”
With their primal attachments, children bring the mythic into daily life, and so Kincaid gives Mr. and Mrs. Sweet’s children mythic names. Mr. Sweet adores his beautiful Persephone but is wildly jealous of his son, Heracles, whose strength and passion outmatch his own. Mrs. Sweet dotes on her children, bringing new meaning to the term “domestic goddess” as she knits elaborate baby garments, prepares three-course meals, and grows an extravagant garden. And yet she also disappears into her home office to write, a room to which the children “had no access, not even if they took a boat or a plane or a car or a hike, not at all could they reach her when she was in that room off the kitchen, and then how they loved her, but she was apart from them and only in the world of those sentences.” That Mrs. Sweet often writes about her own childhood when she separates herself from her children is an irony that Kincaid returns to again and again.
Both Mr. and Mrs. Sweet are beholden to their childhoods — Mr. Sweet’s because his was wonderful, and Mrs. Sweet’s because hers was painful. Mrs. Sweet contends with her demons by writing autobiographical fiction; language helps her locate her “true self.” Mr. Sweet is a musician but does not find the same solace in his compositions. Instead he scores a nocturne titled This Marriage Is Dead (alternate title: This Marriage Has Been Dead For A Long Time Now) and tells Mrs. Sweet that he can’t be his “one true self” when he’s with her, that he loves someone else, someone who understands this one true self better than Mrs. Sweet does.
Do we have “a one true self?” Is “the self” the story of a person over time, a kind of narrative, or is it a like a note of music, fixed and unchanging? What effect does intimacy have on the self? What effect does time have? When the past is irretrievable and the future uncertain, how do we live comfortably in the present? These are just a few of the questions raised in See Now Then, questions that could easily come off as rarified but never do, because Kincaid’s story is so grounded in the material. She makes great use of brand names throughout the novel, but doesn’t wield them ironically. Instead she uses them to fix her characters in time and in the landscape. Mr. Sweet gets his jackets from “the Brooks Brothers outlet in Manchester;” Mrs. Sweet’s Laura Ashley nightgown is from a boutique on Madison Avenue; T-shirts for Heracles are “bought from a store called Manhattan, though it was located in a city far from Manhattan.” Kincaid also refers precisely to cultural objects, local and distant landmarks, and even celestial formations. One passage contains references to Beechnut baby food, the coast of Barbados, the Holland Tunnel, Peter Rabbit, and the Magellanic Clouds. The contrast between the names, some grand and some mundane, some strange and some familiar, is jarring and delightful.
At the Symphony Space reading I attended, Kincaid spoke of her own selfhood as something she created when she was younger “for herself.” By this she meant that the person she had become was someone she wanted to become, not someone that anyone else wanted her to become. Her interviewer was Ian Frazier, a friend who has known her for 39 years. He asked her if she could have written See Now Then when she was younger; her reply was complicated. She said that she was mulling over some of the ideas she approaches in See Now Then in her very first piece of fiction, “Girl,” but that she couldn’t express her thoughts fully because of her limitations as a younger writer. “Not to torture my poor title,” she said, “but what I was doing then in that story is the beginning of what ended up here.” She went on to describe the inspiration for “Girl,” which was Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “In The Waiting Room.”
After the reading, I came home and read “In The Waiting Room.” It’s a poem that describes a young girl’s recognition of selfhood, of having an identity that is separate from others, and one that can also be seen and recognized by others. The speaker is terrified by this revelation and reminds herself of her age — her place in time — in order to stop “the sensation of falling off/the round, turning world.” If there is a plot to See Now Then, it is the story of Mrs. Sweet’s efforts to confront her own fear of the “round, turning world” — a fear that can no longer be assuaged by incantations of age and youth. To say that Mrs. Sweet conquers her terror is too pat a summary but by the end of the novel she has reached a kind of equilibrium. It is marvelous to behold.