Tuesday, October 22, 2013

See Now Then, by Jamaica Kincaid

See Now Then has left me somewhat flummoxed. Written in a stream-of-consciousness and highly repetitive style, the book is a portrait of a family where hate is as prevalent as love. The family lives in a small town in Vermont, where Mrs. Sweet writes, gardens, knits, cooks, raises her children, and struggles to pay the bills while Mr. Sweet teaches, composes music, and thinks about beheading his son. While Mr. Sweet freely admits to hating his wife, she claims to love him--though her descriptions of him suggest there is little to love (e.g., he is small and reminds people of a rodent). Their children--the "young Heracles" and "beautiful Persephone," essentially always referred to in that way--are a source of additional conflict. Persephone, her father's favorite, is no more than a cypher. Although a bit better developed as a character, Heracles is essentially a stereotypical boy at various stages of male maturation.

In addition to probing what she sees as the closely linked familial emotions of love and hate, Kincaid is clearly playing with the idea of time and the blurring between past and present, but her treatment of this topic did not move me. (Sample passage:  "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 os 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."  Is that so?)

Kincaid includes many odd details, particularly details regarding where Mrs. Sweet bought various household items. Some of the details are repeated over and over  (I would love to see the results of a text search revealing the number of times Kincaid reminded us that the family lived in the Shirley Jackson house); I"m sure the author had some purpose in this repetition, but for me it served only as a trigger for tuning out.

I'm not sure if I would have liked this book better if I had read it in print, but I found Jamaica Kincaid's reading of the book strangely ill-suited to the content. I realize this is about my ingrained biases (many reader reviewers on Amazon and other sites disagree with me) and doesn't make any logical sense, given that Mrs. Sweet was Caribbean, but Kincaid's lilt seemed much too upbeat and calm for this story of family dysfunction.

 See Now Then was reviewed twice in the New York Times; one was a rave, the other a pan. So, while willing to concede that I may simply be too unsophisticated a reader to appreciate its post-modern greatness, I don't feel too bad saying I would not recommend this book.

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