Look Back in Anger

See Now Then: A Novel Jamaica Kincaid. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 192 pages. $23

The title of Jamaica Kincaid’s See Now Then is one variation on the modus operandi of any novelist who takes up the passage of familial time as subject matter. (À la recherche du temps perdu could be translated as See Then Now.) The intensity of the imperative title is crucial (think of Francisco Goldman’s wrenching Say Her Name, memorializing his young wife, killed in a swimming accident) but also a little misleading, because this is not a novel that wants to illuminate the past for its own sake. Indeed, quite the opposite: In See Now Then memories appear and reappear with a hypnotic, furious regularity, and the novel exhausts itself trying to control them—as if stanching a hemorrhage, or cauterizing a wound.

It’s probably best to say right away that the family depicted in See Now Then is Kincaid’s own family: her former husband, Allen Shawn—a composer and professor at Bennington College, and son of the New Yorker editor William Shawn—and their two (now adult) children. The resemblance isn’t just a matter of biographical details in the public record: See Now Then represents Mr. Sweet, the father of the family, as the agoraphobic, intensely limited, and solitary man Shawn has described himself to be in his own memoirs. It refers to Mrs. Sweet as the author of novels about the Caribbean including Mr. Potter (the title of Kincaid’s own 2002 novel), and describes her virtuosic gardening and her conversion to Judaism—that is, it represents Kincaid exactly as the public figure she has become over four decades of writing.

All of this puts Kincaid’s devoted readers in an interesting and difficult position. Kincaid is capable of writing incisive, even incendiary, autobiographical nonfiction, including A Small Place (1988), her indictment of the colonial and postcolonial treatment of her native Antigua, and much of her fiction grows out of her childhood and adolescence under a domineering mother, represented indelibly in her early short stories and in Autobiography of My Mother (1996). But See Now Then isn’t a fictionalized memoir. It’s a group portrait in the omniscient third person, similar to To the Lighthouse, in which the point of view passes seamlessly from one family member to another. Many of the novel’s most noticeable features—such as the anodyne names of the protagonists—seem designed to encourage us to view the narrative with the kind of dispassionate precision we find in late-modernist masters like Muriel Spark, James Salter, and Evan S. Connell (whose Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge are obvious touchstones).

At the same time, however, we simply can’t feel about Mrs. Sweet the way we feel about Mrs. Ramsay or Mrs. Bridge—not when her son Heracles waits for her to pick him up at the school-bus stop, thinking, “What the hell could she be doing?”

Oh, she just sits in that room writing about her goddamn mother, as if people had never had a mother who wanted to kill them before they were born in the history of the world . . . and the fucking stupid little island on which she was born, full of stupid people whom history would be happy to forget but she has to keep reminding everybody and no one cares and she can’t stand it.

A novel—particularly the variety See Now Then models itself on—doesn’t recover from this kind of intrusion from life. More and more, as the novel’s gaze wheels around from Mrs. Sweet to Mr. Sweet, through the children, and back again, we begin to see that its imagery is focused obsessively around a single theme: the unwanted, the inconvenient, the dissonant and asymmetrical, ranging from her son’s collection of toys from McDonald’s Happy Meals to her daughter’s ruinous singing voice to, above all, Mrs. Sweet’s own existence, as a too-tall, “primitive” black woman who spends exorbitant sums on her garden and endures the winter by lying in a warm bath drinking ginger ale. The arbiter of this dissonance is, not surprisingly, Mr. Sweet, who, having married Mrs. Sweet and fathered her children, hates all of them with an implacable, helpless fury.

Because Kincaid makes the autobiographical material so explicit, so early on, we experience these details as arrows leading off the page—as authorial commentary, perhaps even authorial revenge. In a more expansive, ragged novel, this might work as just one strand among many, but See Now Then is so tightly compressed that it comes to seem like the book’s single purpose.

If it were possible to appreciate a novel exclusively for its prose, See Now Then could be called a kind of masterpiece for its spellbinding long sentences and (despite Mr. Sweet’s imprecations) sonorous tone. But Jamaica Kincaid is the last writer on earth to want her work judged that way. “Everything I say is true, and everything I say is not true,” she once said in an interview. “The people that I really want to say anything about are people at home, and even so, I muddle up characters.” In a sense, then, the problem with See Now Then is that it’s insufficiently muddled. As a memoir-like attempt to preserve the vanished life of a family, it’s overwhelmed by the cool equanimity of the omniscient narrator; as a novel, it tries to preserve the surface gloss of a modernist text while turning a lacerating eye on the personality of the author, her former husband, and—most disturbingly—her children. The pain here is so fresh, and the impulses so self-contradicting, that it’s hard to know what we’re supposed to be seeing.

Jess Row is the author of Nobody Ever Gets Lost (FiveChapters, 2011).