SEE NOW THEN is one of the most beautiful nasty novels I have ever read. In her first work of fiction since 2002’s MR. POTTER, Jamaica Kincaid uses her considerable poetic gifts to chronicle the dissolution of a marriage between two artists. The result is an exquisite but unsettling hybrid: a 180-page poem that is also a painful and bitter portrait of a family on the verge of collapse.
Mr. Sweet, a classical pianist and composer, hates his wife, who, like Kincaid, is a writer born in the Caribbean. The Sweets met in Manhattan and lived there in the early years of their marriage before they moved to rural Vermont. When he isn’t composing difficult works of modern music, Mr. Sweet performs piano recitals in half-empty theatres patronized by supposedly unsophisticated Vermonters, people who, he complains, smell like wood-burning stoves and know nothing “of adagio and B flats and boogie-woogie.”
The Sweets have two children. Their daughter, Persephone, was born in Manhattan, and Mr. Sweet loves Persephone from the moment he sees her. After the move to Vermont, Mr. Sweet begins keeping Persephone with him in his studio above the garage whenever he composes his difficult pieces. She is his inspiration, even for his current piece, a nocturne entitled “This Marriage Is Dead.”
"...one of the most beautiful nasty novels I have ever read.... SEE NOW THEN may or may not be a wronged spouse’s revenge against her partner...but you’ll never read a more poetically written jeremiad."
But Mr. Sweet detests their son, Heracles. Mr. Sweet cuts the boy’s umbilical cord but hates him on sight. “[H]e had the strongest desire to drop him out of his arms, see him fall to the ground, his body intact except for his head, his brains scattered all over the floor of the delivery room…” He feels that Heracles’s hands are better suited to holding a javelin or a spear than handling the delicacy of a piano or flute. Whereas Mrs. Sweet imagines their son’s “greatness in the world that was to come,” Mr. Sweet wishes “that a family of snakes would appear from nowhere and devour” him.
Mrs. Sweet has nothing but love for both of her children. She is devoted to them and is away from them only when she has to give readings of her work. Mrs. Sweet is a gentle woman who likes to knit and surround herself with catalogs of flowers and their seeds. For much of the novel, she is unaware of her husband’s hatred of her. She does all she can to support him as he composes his nocturnes and fugues. Yet despite her kindness, or perhaps because of it, Mr. Sweet considers “that horrible bitch who’d arrived on a banana boat” to be “a virus, the cold that brought you low in summer,” and fantasizes about strangling her with her nightgown.
There’s not much plot to SEE NOW THEN. The novel is told in a stream-of-consciousness style, with run-on sentences that often last for a page or more. Kincaid uses lots of repetition, similar to the work of feminist writers such as Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf (or, it’s worth noting, the not-especially-feminist Alain Robbe-Grillet). A typical sentence: “[T]hey were only now, and it is only just right now in speaking of them that they become Then, as if the past only becomes past when you render it Now.” The rhythm Kincaid establishes with these sentences makes it difficult to stop reading once you’ve begun.
The examples I’ve cited illustrate the harshness of the book’s tone, most of it directed toward Mr. Sweet. And that leads to the book’s main flaw. Mr. Sweet is a relentlessly unsympathetic character who frequently imagines the death or dismemberment of Mrs. Sweet and Heracles. Mrs. Sweet is a saint by comparison. Some reviewers have wondered to what extent this novel parallels Kincaid’s divorce from the composer Allen Shawn. The answer is, or should be: It doesn’t matter. What matters is whether the drama between the book’s covers is balanced and believable. And it’s hard to believe that one member of the relationship could be so evil and the other so saintly. Philip Roth is often criticized for his portraits of needy, often shrewish women. The same criticism applies here, but with the gender reversed.
One can’t deny, however, the power of Kincaid’s writing. SEE NOW THEN may or may not be a wronged spouse’s revenge against her partner (like Roth’s I MARRIED A COMMUNIST, which many consider retaliation against his ex-wife Claire Bloom), but you’ll never read a more poetically written jeremiad.
Reviewed by Michael Magras on February 15, 2013
See Now Then