Dwight Garner reviews ‘See Now Then,’ Jamaica Kincaid’s New Novel for The New York Times.
When Dorothy Parker drank too much, Gore Vidal once reported, she sometimes suffered from what she ruefully called “the frankies”: the inclination to tell people, as if for their own good, what she really thought of them.
There’s something about the men of the Shawn family — William, the longtime editor of The New Yorker, who died in 1992, and now his son, Allen, a composer — that seems to give women the frankies while sober.
In 1998 Lillian Ross published “Here but Not Here,” a memoir of her 40-year affair with the married William Shawn. She outed this famously private man, while his wife was still living, as an enthusiast for pornography who “longed for the earthiest and wildest kinds of sexual adventures,” among many other things.
Now comes Jamaica Kincaid with “See Now Then,” her first novel in 10 years, about an ugly divorce in which the main characters bear a striking resemblance to Ms. Kincaid and to her former husband, Allen Shawn. Ms. Kincaid has denied that the book is strongly autobiographical, but then what was she going to say?
The adverb-heavy titles of the Ross and Kincaid volumes are weirdly similar. A generation from now a publisher will be able to issue them under one cover and combine their titles into something like “Not Here Now, But Here Then, See?”
Ms. Kincaid’s novel is set in Vermont, the Vermont of the cartoonist Ed Koren, at any rate, where people are fuzzy and semi-adorable and drive old Saabs; their sweaters smell faintly of peat and wood smoke. NPR simmers in the background like fish stock.
In real life Mr. Shawn left Ms. Kincaid for a younger woman, a musician. In “See Now Then” a man named Mr. Sweet leaves his wife, Mrs. Sweet, for a younger woman, a musician.
Mrs. Sweet has her revenge in the retelling. The acid she drizzles upon Mr. Sweet makes “See Now Then” bubble and squeak like an adaptation of “Medea” devised by Harold Pinter. It’s vicious, and it’s relentless.
Mr. Sweet, short, balding and ugly, is compared to a mole. He’s a racist who considers his wife “that horrible bitch who’d arrived on a banana boat.” He’s a snob, a wimp and a lech. He’s a bad father. When he performs his music in public, no one comes.
He is the product of a morally suspect family. Mr. Sweet’s mother, we read, condescended to the maids. There is this unveiled clouting of William Shawn: “In the pocket of the navy blue corduroy jacket was the note from his father, the note that told him how to lead his life: two households, two wives, two sofas, two knives.”
This material frequently peels away into baroque fantasy. Mrs. Sweet imagines that Mr. Sweet hates their son, here named Heracles, so much that he imagines killing him and presenting him for supper. These dishes might include “a soufflé of a young baby with no name; poached new baby with no name; a saddle of Heracles with lemon and thyme.”
Mrs. Sweet takes aim, it must be said, at herself as well. She’s allowed herself to get fat: “her upper arms were the size of the pig’s tenderloin on sale at the Price Chopper.” She sometimes neglects her family to hide in her study, writing novels that sound like Ms. Kincaid’s own.
These books are harshly described here, from the perspective of her family, as being about “her goddamn mother” and the “stupid little island” on which Mrs. Sweet was born, “full of stupid people whom history would be happy to forget.” (Ms. Kincaid, whose birth name was Elaine Richardson, was born on the island of Antigua.)
But mostly, Mrs. Sweet is depicted as “so substantial, so vivid, so full of the thing called life” that “she was her soul and her soul was herself.” She was a groovy mommy too. She knew all the words to Eminem’s “Stan.”
“See Now Then” has run-on sentences, few paragraph breaks, no real plot and little in the way of dialogue. It is flecked with coy references for New Yorker obsessives, who will recognize “George” and “Sandy” and “Veronica” as the New Yorker writers George W. S. Trow; Ian Frazier, known as Sandy; and Veronica Geng.
In a recent interview Ms. Kincaid maintained that her book’s primary subject was time itself. This is painful to absorb, because “See Now Then” becomes self-consciously clotted and grandiose whenever the subject of time heaves into view. You will have to back up and reread many of the sentences here just to be certain that she isn’t, in some regard, attempting satire.
Here’s one snippet: “She was thinking of her now, knowing that it would most certainly become a Then even as it was a Now, for the present will be now then and the past is now then and the future will be a now then, and that the past and the present and the future has no permanent present tense, has no certainty in regard to right now.”
Here’s one more: “Every morning is the next morning of the night before: and the night before is Now and Then at the same time is the morning after the night before.” Now and Then toddle through this book like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, quite often bumping into one another and falling over but never laughing about it.
This bipolar novel is half séance, half ambush. “See Now Then” is the kind of lumpy exorcism that many writers would have composed and then allowed to remain unpublished. It picks up no moral weight as it rolls along. It asks little of us, and gives little in return.
For the original report go to http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/13/books/see-now-then-jamaica-kincaids-new-novel.html?_r=0