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See Now Then

January 15, 2017

seenowthenStanley Fish would love Jamaica Kincaid’s new novel, See Now Then. Five years ago, Fish wrote How To Write A Sentence & How To Read One in which he proclaimed:

“Some people are bird watchers, others are celebrity watchers; still others are flora and fauna watchers.  I belong to the tribe of sentence watchers.  Some appreciate fine art; others appreciate fine wines.  I appreciate fine sentences.  I am always on the lookout for sentences that take your breath away, for sentences that make you say, ‘Isn’t that something?’ or ‘What a sentence!’”

See Now Then is filled with exquisite sentences, sentences in which words and phrases and clauses pile up on each other like dizzying drizzle towers on a colossal sand castle constructed throughout a long summer’s day by a cadre of 4 foot tall budding engineers.

Like much of Kincaid’s work, See Now Then has autobiographical roots. It’s the story of a marriage (Mr. and Mrs. Sweet) and a family (with their children, Persephone and Heracles) coming apart, and was written in the aftermath of Kincaid’s own divorce.

If there’s magical realism in See Now Then, it’s a hard, exposed, flinty magical realism, wrestled from the stony soil and unforgiving climate of Kincaid’s adopted New England home. There’s nothing lush, dense or overgrown about her language, even when sentences stretch on for over 100 words, and a single paragraph goes on for pages.

As Mrs. Sweet (and the rest of her family…but mostly Mrs. Sweet) lives through the disorienting trauma of her disintegrating marriage, time becomes distorted, winding and wrapping around itself so that past moments are “now” and the present can end up “then” with a future Mrs. Sweet looking back on what is now “now”.

And all this happens with language that Kincaid uses the way hard bop musicians like Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane used notes—running changes and improvising scales so that dissonance becomes its own kind of harmony, filled with anger, beauty, mystery and an unyielding integrity and artistic purity.

See Now Then is the kind of book that can linger in your head weeks after you finish reading it, as the phrases and sentences reverberate within your soul, vibrating at your nerve synapses, keeping you alive…not only to the story it tells, but to the stories you’re living.



From → Books

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