How might a Hollywood movie pitchman capture the tone and pith of "See Now Then," a new novel by the intense and lyrical novelist Jamaica Kincaid about the disintegration of a modern marriage? Chaucer's Wife of Bath meets Virginia Woolf!
The Sweets, fictional stand-ins for Kincaid and her former husband, live in the (real-life) village of North Bennington, Vt., in a house formerly owned by (real-life) eccentric novelist Shirley Jackson and her (real-life) husband, the brilliant literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman. Mr. Sweet is a modernist composer, and Mrs. Sweet, born in the Caribbean, is a housewife, mother and lay philosopher when it comes to the large questions of time and language.
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Despite all the brilliance, as the novel opens, the Sweets have gone sour. Their marriage, once a wonderful romance, has turned into a disaster of warring attitudes, a battlefield on which their children play among the wreckage.
All of this is presaged by the immediate reference to the death of their handyman neighbor, Homer, who had a heart attack while out hunting the biggest deer of his life. (Homer is dead — get it? Epic is over; the domestic novel rules.) Mr. Sweet, as the angry Mrs. imagines him, wants only to stay in his study and write difficult music (a symphony for 147 lyres, for example) that no one wants to hear, while wishing her dead with every second thought.
Despite the pleasures of raising her son and daughter, Mrs. Sweet finds — like the Wife of Bath — only the woe that is in marriage. But with the intensity of Virginia Woolf, Kincaid creates a palimpsest of time past, time present and time future, reminding us that what we take to be the present will immediately become the past, yielding to a new present, which we in the moment call the future.
Children, toys, weather, gossip, music, myth and meals at McDonald's make up the texture of ordinary time. Kincaid's narrative renders all this in an extraordinary way, swirling about all such moments into a melange of wonderment, mixing in memories of childhood — both Mrs. Sweet's, spent on a Caribbean island, as well as her husband's. It ranges from the prehistoric past, when Africa was "just a landmass emerging from billions of years of the earth's relentless restiveness" to the immediate past when Mrs. Sweet watches her son "watching Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman defeat Karl Malone and John Stockton."
If you're looking for plot, none of this will seem easy to read. Yet despite often ironic laments about the difficult work of her composer husband, Mrs. Sweet in these pages makes a verbal symphony, akin to what Kincaid depicts as Mr. Sweet's own best composition, "a piece of music that brought together many different and even conflicting modes of sound: melodies sung by occupants of a cloister, an abbey in the middle of the Middle Ages … riffs that Mrs. Sweet did not quite understand played on the piano by the descendants of slaves … a coda from Mozart and Bach and Beethoven … and then the whole thing (ending) in a calamity of sounds and melodies and emotions and the audience hearing it would rise up from their seats and clap and cheer."
Kincaid's attempt to capture living itself may just be, as she puts it, "always just out of reach," but her talent for trying remains palpable on every page of this brief novel. Connoisseurs will find it delicious, and everyday readers will see it as difficult and always just out of reach.
Alan Cheuse, National Public Radio's longtime "voice of books," is the author of five novels, four collections of short fiction and the memoir "Fall Out of Heaven."
"See Now Then"
By Jamaica Kincaid, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 192 pages, $23
Jamaica Kincaid will appear at a Printers Row Live event on Feb. 21. Visit printersrowjournal.com for details.