See Now Then

Jamaica Kincaid’s latest novel, See Now Then, a work of experimental fiction that offers vast rewards in exchange for its challenges, has kicked up a bit of a fuss among some of its early critics. Noting similarities between details in the novel and facts about Kincaid’s well-publicized life, several reviewers have chosen to evaluate what they assume to be the novelist’s ulterior motives. “The Marriage Has Ended: Revenge Begins,” declared the headline for Dwight Garner’s weekday review in The New York Times, while Sam Sacks in The Wall Street Journal complained that “the crude characterization” of the husband in the novel, “obviously modeled on the author’s ex-husband, the composer Allen Shawn, seems motivated by grievance.”

Kincaid is the sixty-three-year-old author of five short and forceful novels, all of which draw on her personal experience. She was born in Antigua, which she left at age seventeen for the United States. After working as an au pair in Manhattan, she fell in with a group of writers for The New Yorker and began to be mentioned in its “Talk of the Town” column. Then-editor William Shawn started publishing her fiction in the late 1970s, and in 1979 she married his son Allen. The marriage, which produced two children, ended in 2002.

Readers may know this much about Kincaid’s life and may appropriately guess that her new novel about the disintegration of a marriage comes once again from her own experience. But we don’t know Kincaid’s reasons for writing the book; nor do we need to know those reasons in order to engage with it; nor, in fact, should we even care what they are. Assigning a motivation such as “revenge” or “grievance” to the author of a work of fiction is little more than a distraction from the harder work of understanding this novel’s considerable merits.

So just what are those merits? Foremost among them is the book’s bold conception as a work of mythography. Kincaid recasts the story of a contemporary Vermont family — Mr. and Mrs. Sweet and their two children — as if it were a heroic legend lifted straight from Bulfinch. The family’s vigorous, sports-loving son is named Heracles, while the daughter, whose attention is often monopolized by her covetous father, is named Persephone. Kincaid goes so far as to bestow Homeric epithets on both children, weaving her invocations of them as “the young Heracles” and “the beautiful Persephone” into the book’s incantatory rhythm.

Subsuming the everyday features of family life within a mythological milieu allows lots of room for surreal comedy. Small things take on an amusing grandeur: of the toddler Heracles, Mrs. Sweet notes that “his fingers so thick and ungainly-seeming were so intelligent they knew how to unlock the cabinets that held the poisonous liquids that a child might swallow and he was so strong that when he, in a fit of running, threw himself against the child-barrier gates, they gave way…” Meanwhile, epic events are downsized to the point of ordinariness. Heracles matter-of-factly powers through all twelve of his legendary labors before he’s a teenager. While still a toddler, he discovers a deadly nine-headed Hydra in his crib and promptly kills it, whereupon Mrs. Sweet laments the mess on her just-cleaned kitchen floor. “Oh god, she said to herself, that kid is always up to something…. And she picked up the nine snake heads and put them in a bag, wiped the floor clean, and she asked Mr. Sweet to please come and put out the garbage.”

More seriously, the language of myth allows these characters to express fierce emotion that’s otherwise hidden under the veneer of superficial domestic conventions. Annoyance and resentment arise here with fantastic violence, often in the form of body parts exploding and then regenerating or with House of Atreus–style murders, after which the corpses calmly restore themselves to life. Parental love and protectiveness receive similarly hyperbolic treatment, while every domestic activity carries a fraught emotional burden, even knitting — a hobby Mrs. Sweet enjoys as much as her husband and children revile it, much as they disdain her love of gardening and gourmet cooking.  

Because Mrs. Sweet’s is the primary point of view, the reader has more access to the nuances of her emotional life than to those of the other characters. It’s the fluidity of her identity that plays out most expansively and affectingly here: her self-love and self-criticism; her maternal triumphs and failures; her feelings about her body as it ages; her insistence on maintaining a private imaginative life, despite her family’s complaints; her pain and anger when — yes — her husband declares he’s leaving her for a younger woman. Through mythography, Kincaid dismantles these familiar aspects of a woman’s life and reconstructs them on an outlandishly heroic playing field, using a lyrical run-on style that evokes the modernist experimentalism of Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein.

Talking with his mother at one point about a fondly remembered NBA championship game, the young Heracles asks Mrs. Sweet: “[A]re you going to do that, Mom, are you going to say, oh, it was so Homeric, the way Scottie and Dennis played, and Malone was such a Hector and Stockton was so Paris; oh the whole thing was so Homeric, and you would say this over and over until I wanted to throw you overboard but we were not in a sea or anything, we were just in the house…” Yet what Heracles finds so profoundly irritating is precisely what is most useful about mythology: that it tells particular stories as a way of opening a door to the universal. “All mythology,” Karen Armstrong has written in A Short History of Myth, “speaks of another plane that exists alongside our own world, and that in some sense supports it.”

Thus Kincaid’s myth making gives her a Janus-like way to look backward while creating something new. Artful and moving, See Now Then is Kincaid’s most ambitious novel to date, and her most successful. To those who might mistakenly approach it as thinly veiled autobiography by an author who’s merely out for revenge, I beseech you (to paraphrase Samuel Beckett): Read again. Read better.