Until the publication of the long-awaited See Now Then, Jamaica Kincaid’s stories and novels had met with almost unqualified praise. When it appeared last year her latest book was almost unanimously trashed for what its reviewers saw as inappropriate and excessive rage directed at Kincaid’s former husband Allen Shawn. But reading the novel as a roman à clef about the couple’s failed marriage in Bennington, Vermont, misses the larger colonial history See Now Then inscribes and contests, and the deep continuities that bind it to Kincaid’s larger oeuvre.
From At the Bottom of the River (1983) to Among Flowers (2007), Kincaid’s stories, novels, essays, and memoirs have been fueled by rage—at the dispossession of people of Carib and African origin; at the conquest and the progress of empire; at white Europeans and North Americans who benefited from the enslavement of Africans and still benefit from its legacies; at canonical writers such as Wordsworth and Milton who shaped her language and education while leaving non-Europeans like her out of their work; at her mother and the imprisoning constraints of family and conformity that her mother represents.
In My Garden (Book) (2001), Kincaid tells us about how she reads botanical history: “There is always a moment when I feel like placing an asterisk somewhere in its texts and at the end of the official story making my own addition.” This practice might describe every one of Kincaid’s books, each of which has inserted missing voices and neglected stories into the texts of an official history that for her begins in 1492 and demands continuous revision and correction.
The pleasure of reading Kincaid has always been that of sharing her rage, an anger expressed in mesmerizing poetic language that draws us in, only to expose us to the discomfort of often finding ourselves its target. “What makes the world turn against me and all who look like me?” she asks in The Autobiography of My Mother (1996). Reading this novel, I have wondered how someone as disempowered as Xuela can find such a powerful voice in which to speak her abandonment and dispossession:
This account of my life has been an account of my mother’s life as much as it has been an account of mine, and even so, again it is an account of the life of the children I did not have, as it is their account of me. In me is the voice I never heard, the face I never saw, the being I came from. In me are the voices that should have come out of me, the faces I never allowed to form, the eyes I never allowed to see me. This account is an account of the person who was never allowed to be and an account of the person I did not allow myself to become.
Xuela’s answer may be the unrelenting rage turned outward toward those who inhibit her—her father, her employers, her lovers, the children she did not have—and turned inward toward herself. Rage suffuses the very texture of Kincaid’s writing, motivating her plots and sculpting her narrative voice. No one is immune from this rage, least of all the reader.
See Now Then initially seems a radical departure from much that makes Kincaid’s oeuvre distinctive. Here her persona, Mrs. Sweet, is enmeshed in material possessions, even if it is sometimes hard to pay all the bills. As the novel begins, Mrs. Sweet looks out the window of her home, the historic Shirley Jackson House in a small New England college town and sees mountains, the river, a man-made lake, neighboring houses, the volunteer fire department—all traditional accoutrements of US middle-class life. She has a room off the kitchen where she writes on a desk made especially for her “by Donald,” she has a garden of her own, as well as a husband, Mr. Sweet, and two children, the “young Heracles” and the “beautiful Persephone.” The respectable Mrs. Sweet who “loves her life so very much,” who darns socks, picks out her husband’s suits, does the laundry, and makes dinner, is a far cry from Kincaid’s earlier characters Annie, Lucy, and Xuela.
Rage suffuses the very texture of Kincaid’s writing, motivating her plots and sculpting her narrative voice.
As a longtime reader of Kincaid, I did not quite know what to do with the poisonous sweetness and calculated naiveté of this narrative voice and its nostalgic, repetitious meditations on the passage of time and the loss of love. The story of the Sweets is no asterisk: it reads like propaganda for middle-class domesticity, which would make this Kincaid’s first post-postcolonial novel. Or is it? The book turns out to be full of rage, of course. It tells the story of domestic harmony unraveling and turning sour, of what lurks beneath the surface of the Sweets. If one listens to the audiobook version of See Now Then, read by Kincaid herself, her voice reveals not only the beauty of her prose but the layers of irony that unfold page by page. Ominous objects are on view in the very first paragraphs—the raging river, the fire trucks (will something burn down?), the house of Homer, who recently died loading the biggest deer he ever shot unto his truck. The vantage point from which Mrs. Sweet surveys her life and her surroundings, that of Shirley Jackson, invokes a renowned writer of horror stories that explore the uncanny undersides of domesticity and of New England village life. Actually, Kincaid and Shawn lived across the street from the Shirley Jackson House, not in it: the transposition of perspectives in this novel aligns See Now Then more directly with the horror genre and tells us that Kincaid is skewering domesticity as much as she is celebrating it.
Much of the rage in this novel is directed at the protagonist herself, and at the life she is complicit in creating. Where, in Kincaid’s novel Lucy (1990), family is “the millstone around your life’s neck,” here Mrs. Sweet herself wants to hang on to family life. Where, in The Autobiography of My Mother, Xuela violently chooses not to have children, conjuring children into existence only to decide, again and again, not to have them—“I would cover their bodies with diseases, embellish skins with thinly crusted sores,”—here Mrs. Sweet is an abject mother dripping with love yet hated by her husband and children. To Mr. Sweet, Mrs. Sweet is that “beastly wife of his,” “that bitch of woman born of beast,”; “the sound of her voice … made him want to kill her … chop off her head and then the rest of her body into little pieces.” Those insults are viciously returned: Mr. Sweet “carried himself not as a man but as a rodent from that era, the Mesozoic, when the first mammals took that shape.”
Though the point of view in this novel seems to shift back and forth between the two spouses, and eventually also the children, the case can be made that it remains that of Mrs. Sweet looking out the window and projecting hatred liberally all around. Rage is applied as thickly as Vermont maple syrup. The context of family domesticity and the absence of plot make this voice, with its self-hatred and abuse, increasingly wearing, especially given the predictability of the novel’s generic treatment of marriage and divorce: they were happy then, but hate each other now. Or have they always hated each other, was it preordained that things would turn out badly as Mr. Sweet’s mother predicted? Or is it that after a divorce past love is contaminated by present hatred and “[a]ll that is to come will change the way right now is seen”?
Rage is applied as thickly as Vermont maple syrup.
In place of plot development, the novel offers implosion. The death of a marriage unfolds in the present past tense, as if it has always already been, and the novel follows the contrapuntal repetitions of the fugue form Mr. Sweet adopts when he composes a piece entitled “This Marriage Is Dead.” See Now Then is a stream-of-consciousness novel with little psychology and no interiority. Instead, emotions can be found all through the house, in the clash between the mythic and the quotidian. Mrs. Sweet’s nightgown “could so easily be transformed into a noose.” Mythical creatures, the “shy Myrmidons,” are toys found in McDonald’s Happy Meals. Heracles’ chores are to clean up his toys so no one slips on the stairs. It’s all very Homeric, but here, Homer is the neighbor who died from the weight of the deer he shot. The Sweet house is full of bloody body parts, as each family member is fantastically dismembered by the others with satisfying malice: divorce tales are never far from revenge fantasies. “Heracles … grabbed Mr. Sweet’s entire testicles and threw them away and he threw them with such force that they landed all the way in the Atlantic Ocean … [they] did not produce typhoons or tidal waves or hurricanes or volcanic eruptions or unexpected landslides of unbelievable proportions or anything at all noteworthy; they only fell and fell quietly into the deepest part of that body of water and were never heard from again.” In the economy of the Sweet household, Mrs. Sweet can repair “that vulnerable sac of liquid and solid matter that had been Mr. Sweet’s testicles” with her knitting needles and the socks she happens to be mending. When she knits him an orchestra, though, members just happen to be missing the arms they need to play their instruments.
But See Now Then is not just the story of marriage, divorce, and parenthood. It is a meditation on time and, as such, reveals its continuities with Kincaid’s earlier work: not post-postcolonial at all. Time has multiple dimensions here. It is the present past of the dead marriage and the reality of loss. It is the mythic eternity in which the shy Myrmidons will always be fighting each other. Time is also cyclical, as every gardener knows, and it is planetary and elemental, as in the periodic table charts Mrs. Sweet buys for the beautiful Persephone, who is interested in chemistry. Primarily, however, time is historical, the repetition of disaster and catastrophe that intrudes even in small New England towns with their volunteer fire departments. Even, or especially, here, history is, as in My Garden (Book), “a long moment that begins anew each day since 1492.”
Can the Vermont fire trucks put out the fire that burned down Thornfield Hall in Jane Eyre? That is where the narrator imagines that Mr. Sweet would place his wife, “for she did emerge from a boat whose main cargo was bananas, and she is strange and should live in the attic of a house that burns down.” Marriage cannot bridge the differences between someone who came on a banana boat and someone who grew up in a New York apartment building with a super who could repair everything.
By inserting her past into her New England adulthood, Kincaid creates a multiply
layered present in which divorce is but one in a series of losses and
continuities that have shaped her and her work.
Like several of Kincaid’s novels, See Now Then is an immigrant story, and specifically the story of an immigrant writer. Mrs. Sweet is “interred in all the people she was descended and ascended from.” Thus she is never really present in her New England home but away in her room off the kitchen, in another world she conjures in her writing, the world of her childhood in which she will always feel abandoned and powerless and where she “knew nothing at all.” Her humiliation is historical, not circumstantial, and the rage Kincaid, as Mrs. Sweet, wields is compounded by that earlier history, which See Now Then introduces through long quotes from or alluding to Kincaid’s earlier writings. There is nothing merely personal or familial for the colonized and disempowered subject of slavery and empire, and there is no escape. By inserting her past into her New England adulthood, Kincaid creates a multiply layered present in which divorce is but one in a series of losses and continuities that have shaped her and her work.
But the colonial world is not just in the past, on the island Mrs. Sweet left on the banana boat; it is also now, here, in the world she surveys out the window. Who, after all, named the mountains and river, who made the lake, who named the trees and the elements, and the myriad varieties of tulips she plants in her garden? This novel exposes the site from which Kincaid has been writing all her books, the room off the kitchen, and it is a New England world as shaped by colonization as the Caribbean islands of A Small Place and Annie John. Reading See Now Then as an autobiographical story of divorce does it an injustice. Its many narrative and political layers and its multiple acts of accusation and provocation exceed the domestic and the personal. This is a version of pastoral horror that reveals the violent erasures and the eruptions of the past in the present of a New England college town whose apparent perfection only intensifies the rage we feel when it fails to realize our dreams.