"See Now Then"

"See Now Then" -- By Jamaica Kincaid (Farrar Straus Giroux)

With its main character considering the endlessness of death, “the realm of wonder and disillusion so sad,” only two pages in, it is immediately clear that Jamaica Kincaid’s latest novel has taken on a promisingly profound set of themes.  Yet for all its sprinkled insights on destiny and the passage of time, “See Now Then” is a case where the sum of the parts performs better than the whole. Kincaid proves able to characterize subtly if unevenly, to make brilliant observations, and to limit her focus to a comparatively small group of recurring leitmotifs. But despite Kincaid’s technical fluidity, the book’s delivery is marred by a miscalculation on Kincaid’s part that casting time as the focal character could eliminate the need for more relatable human ones; ultimately, her attempts to bolster her characters—inserting mythology, gifting them with elevated description—fail as she is unable to control her own superseding, temporal creation.

The ironically named Mr. and Mrs. Sweet, with their son Heracles and their daughter Persephone, have lived undistinguished and unhappy in a rural Vermont house once inhabited by Shirley Jackson—famous for her horror stories that take place in the innocent American suburbs. Mr. Sweet, a white man and sometime aspiring classical musician, has long hated his Caribbean-immigrant wife and desired to kill her, as well as their son, in various gruesome ways: strangling, beheading, blowing their brains out. His charges against her are small in themselves—failing to appreciate his values, laughing too much, giving birth to his children, being uneducated—but over the years have accreted as innocently and irreversibly as a deposit of snow. A kind of Earth-mother Everywoman, Mrs. Sweet struggles in her unappreciated role as a housewife and eases the pain by writing in a journal.

In keeping with Kincaid’s plan to make time “the main character,” as stated in an interview with The New York Times, the novel begins with Mrs. Sweet looking out the window at the rushing waters of a river, reliving old memories of “then” in the moment of “now.” In the end, Mr. Sweet decides to devastate his oblivious wife by more conventional divorce, and Mrs. Sweet is flooded by an internal river of loss, echoing the famous Pythagoras passage in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”: “Right now will be replaced by another right now: and right now is all there is and all there is over and over again.” Mrs. Sweet’s thought that “my lips that are the shape of chaos before the tyranny of order is imposed on them is where I find myself” suggests Ovid’s cosmogony, where all being is generated from Chaos.

Kincaid has been successful, too successful, in achieving what she wanted with this book: to stylistically subordinate all human identities to the greater presence of time. Kincaid’s style embeds common images from contemporary life (McDonald’s happy meals, Verizon phone bills, Ninja Turtles) in the patterns of ancient history; however,  a third-person narrative voice shifts among the Sweets’ pop-culture-ridden internal monologues with a medieval tone affected through phrases like “benighted” or “in the thrall of.” Enfolded in this bizarre multi-temporal voice,  her characters’ internal monologues become muffled and indistinguishable.  The Sweet family members are too Everywoman-Everyman to be believable as individuals as well, and instead of driving a plot, they passively let the story happen to them. The running gags about Heracles’ Twelve Labors, Persephone’s beauteous beauty, and so on are explicitly and cheesily mythical, and such a mash of past-present is not always effective enough to justify calling it more than cute. Kincaid describes the birth of Persephone:

“Of course, the beautiful Persephone had opened her lungs by crying upon emerging entirely from Mrs. Sweet’s body (she had been living parasitically off Mrs. Sweet as she lay growing contentedly in that dear woman’s womb) and then she fell deeply asleep and in that sleep she became the beautiful Persephone, again and again and forever.”

The parenthetical aside—comparing the daughter to a parasitic worm—underscores the irony of the parallel between Persephone and her Greek mythological namesake, the daughter of harvest goddess Demeter. But the sharp grossness of the image and the hectic, baby-like, singsong quality of the words “again and again and forever” seem to have been selected mainly for shock value, with the result that the words are distracting and gimmicky. The book’s mythical references are often so crudely ironic that the irony frequently dampens, rather than drawing out, the power of their suggested parallels to classical epic personalities. Overall these moments have an irritating smart and fast feel; Kincaid’s run-on sentences, reflecting the book’s central image of a river, rush at us and flow confusedly away without leaving a lasting impression.

The book’s good moments are always scenes peeking into the mundane, devoid of these tacky modern-myth ironies.  The ending passages are notably powerful, with Mrs. Sweet dissolving into despair: “And now Mrs. Sweet turned not into stone but a mound of mud, and sorrow became her middle name if she possessed one but she did not then and not now.” However, even the vulnerable Mrs. Sweet, the best candidate for credibility among the characters, never entirely possesses her own voice and so does not seem consistently real enough to be called a tragic figure—a phenomenon helped along by Kincaid’s hurried sentences.

Ultimately, Kincaid is at war with her own characters. The characters are losing not only the war against time but also against the whims of their own creator; they can only give in and feel less real. The overly fragmentary nature of the book and flattened characters prevent it from being better than a song or ditty, let alone the symphony it has aspired to be.

—Staff writer Victoria Zhuang can be reached at