Jamaica Kincaid, See Now Then (2013)

February 7th, 2013 § 1 comment § permalink

See now then, the dear Mrs. Sweet who lived with her husband Mr. Sweet and their two children, the beautiful Persephone and the young Heracles in the Shirley Jackson house, which was in a small village in New England.  The house, the Shirley Jackson house, sat on a knoll, and from a window Mrs. Sweet could look down on the roaring waters of the Paran River as it fell furiously and swiftly out of the lake, a man-made lake, also named Paran; and looking up, she could see surrounding her, the mountains named Bald and Hale and Anthony, all part of the Green Mountain Range; and she could see the firehouse where sometimes she could attend a civic gathering and hear her government representative say something that might seriously affect her and the well-being of her family or see the firemen take out the fire trucks and dismantle various parts of them and put the parts back together and then polish all the trucks and then drive them around the village with a lot of commotion before putting them away again in the firehouse and they reminded Mrs. Sweet of the young Heracles, for he often did such things with his toy fire trucks; but just now when Mrs. Sweet was looking out from a window in the Shirley Jackson house, her son no longer did that. (p. 5 e-book)

Lyricism in prose can be tricky for both writer and reader alike.  The writer has to navigate between the shoals of florid prose and non-specific description.  The reader, particularly those unused to prose that differs in form and structure from dialogue-heavy content, has to learn to trust the writer more, to abandon her own preconceptions of what a novel should be and try to understand what the novel in front of her actually is.  Sometimes, the writer cannot navigate through the shoals; the reader cannot learn to trust in the writer.  But then there are those times when the writer does manage to achieve her aims and the reader’s faith in the text is rewarded with a deeper, richer experience than if the story had been constructed along more conventional lines.  Jamaica Kincaid’s just-released novel, See Now Then, is one of those works that will captivate the readers early on before it concludes with a devastating denouement that will linger with readers long after the final page is turned.

See Now Then has been interpreted by many critics as being an autobiographical story of a dissolving marriage and certainly there are elements in common between the slow dissolution of the Sweets’ marriage and Kincaid’s own situation several years ago.  But it is too facile to see some elements in common and conclude that Kincaid transfers her experiences whole cloth to the printed page; she mines her life’s experiences well, but she rarely, if ever, engages in the sort of fiction/non-fiction blurring that an Annie Ernaux, for example, does in her quasi-non-fictional novels.  Instead, it would be better to approach See Now Then as a melding of the personal with something that is more universal, more “epic” in its tone and metaphors.

Take for instance the excerpt from the novel’s first paragraph which I quoted at the beginning of this review.  From the very first “see now then” it is made clear that this novel will be presented from some removed perspective, akin to a “pan out” shot that lays out the field of action from a bird’s eye view.  We are introduced to the Sweet (if only!) couple and their children, named after figures from Greek mythology.  Then we see the house referenced, Shirley Jackson’s house, a house which in fiction has an ominous history to it.  So already the story has shifted from the purely personal to one in which the symbolism of the house, the family name, and the children’s names appear to play a role in the narrative.  It is an effective combination, both of the names and of the looping sentences that follow, that slowly but inexorably draws the reader into peering more closely at the narrative than she might otherwise have done.  While for some, the long, clause-filled sentences might be off-putting, Kincaid here employs them to great effect, creating mood and establishing plot momentum more quickly and efficiently than if she had attempted to tell a similar story through dialogue.  The reminisces of Mrs. Sweet, as seen the scene quoted below, blend the personal and the universal, the real and the irreal, adroitly:

That little jerk almost killed me again, said Mr. Sweet to himself, and it’s not the last time, he said again to himself, and he was reminded of that time, not so long ago then, he was coming down the stairs and Heracles was going up the same stairs and they met in the middle and by accident collided and by accident Heracles, to steady himself from this collision, grabbed Mr. Sweet’s entire testicles and threw them away and he threw them with such force that they landed all the way in the Atlantic Ocean, which was Then as is so Now hundreds of miles away.  The testicles then fell into that great body of water but did not produce typhoons or tidal waves or hurricanes or volcanic eruptions or unexpected landslides of unbelievable proportions or anything at all noteworthy; they only fell and fell quietly into the deepest part of that body of water and were never heard from again.

Oh, the silence that descended on the household, the Sweet household, as it lived in the Shirley Jackson house:  on poor Heracles, who paused for a very long time at the top of those stairs; on his sister as she curled up in her bed and went to sleep like a single bean seed planted into the rich soil of a treasured vegetable garden; Mr. Sweet removed his fingers from the strings of the lyre; on the dear Mrs. Sweet, who froze over her mending, her knitting, the darning needle in her hand, the knitting needles in her hands just about to pierce the heel of some garment, just about to make complete some garment.  And then gathering up herself, surveying what lay in front of her, Mrs. Sweet sorted among the many pairs of socks she had been mending over and over again and removing a pair, she fashioned a new set of organs for her beloved Mr. Sweet, trying and succeeding in making them look identical to the complete set of testicles that had belonged to him and had been destroyed accidentally by his son, the young Heracles.  And when Mr. Sweet fell into a sweet sleep of despair after not knowing what to do regarding his lost testicles, Mrs. Sweet sewed the mended socks into their place, the heels of the socks imitating that vulnerable sac of liquid and solid matter that had been Mr. Sweet’s testicles. (pp. 38-39 e-book)

This scene is representative of later scenes (such as that of Heracles playing with Myrmidons that he received as part of his Happy Meal purchases) in which Kincaid carefully utilizes the symbolic characters/places that she has appropriated here (Heracles, however, playing the role of Kronos and Mr. Sweet that of Ouranos) to enliven a tale of a father angry and fearful of his son, of a mother who is ultra-competent and yet has to contend with a husband who views her with derision:

…or building a lovely little cottage in the woods where Mr. Sweet could retreat from the disturbance of those children and the presence of that woman who had absolutely arrived on a banana boat or some vessel like that, for nobody knew exactly how she arrived… (p. 77 e-book)

It is at this point that the repetitive structure of the descriptions, of the Shirley Jackson house, of village that lay on both banks of the river called Paran, reinforce the story in a fashion similar to the ancient epics.  If Aeneas were a man marked by his piety, then Mrs. Sweet becomes a woman marked by her suffering:

Oh Now, oh Then, said Mrs. Sweet out loud, but it didn’t matter, it was as if she said it to herself, for no one could ever understand her agony, ever, ever understand, her suffering, her pain, no words could express it, nothing in existence could convey or express her existence just then, now or ever, her husband’s voice, her husband had been enfolded in an entity called Mr. Sweet.  I am dying, she said to herself but that was silence; I am dying when I am with you, said Mr. Sweet to Mrs. Sweet, I am dying and that is why I hate you, for I am dying and I can’t be myself, my true self, I am dying and you will die when I say this, but I am dying, I am dying, I am dying.  Oh I see, said Mrs. Sweet out loud but even she couldn’t hear herself, and all that she saw, then and now, was silent! (p. 122 e-book)

It is at this point that everything crystallizes:  the “seeing,” the “now and then,” the use of epic metaphors within a contemporary setting.  The suffering of Mrs. Sweet, outlined in passing for the first three-quarters of the novel, now comes into its full blooming, as the husband tries to break away with the selfish excuse that he is “dying,” while almost simultaneously expressing the self-centered thought that she will “die” because he shall leave her.  The emotions here are raw and visceral and while buoyed somewhat by the humor of juxtaposing Greek mythology with McDonald’s and its ilk, the weightiness of this moment makes for a somber scene.  If this had been merely told as a straightforward narrative, it would have been moving enough, but when presented as a mélange of mythological and horror elements, it takes on an even greater narrative power.  See Now Then‘s conclusion is devastating because we see it, both the “now” and “then” of it, from the dual perspectives of shared cultural inheritances and personal, emotional connections to those whom we have witnessed (or experienced ourselves) traumatic, violent breakups of loving relationships.  See Now Then is a powerful novel because it utilizes the mythological to reinforce the personal traumas that affect so many of us.  Kincaid is almost pitch-perfect in her presentation and the result is one of the most accomplished and moving novels of this young year.  Very highly recommended.

Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss

February 3rd, 2013 § 1 comment § permalink

On the road to the market, the trees were hung with the limbs of enemies-which side and whose enemy? This was the time to make anyone you didn’t like disappear, to avenge ancient family vendettas. Screams continued from the police station though a bottle of Black Label could save your life. Injured men, their spilling guts wrapped in chicken skins to keep them fresh, were rushed on bamboo stretchers to the doctor to be stitched up; a man was found buried in the sewage tank, every inch of his body slashed with a knife, his eyes gouged out…

But whole the residents were shocked by the violence, they were also often surprised by the mundaneness of it all. Discovered the extent of perversity that the heart is capable of as they sat at home with nothing to do, and found that it was possible, faced with the stench of unimaginable evil, for a human being to grow bored, yawn, be absorbed by the problem of a missing sock, by neighbourly irritations, to feel hunger skipping like a little mouse inside a tummy and return, once again, to the pressing matter of what to eat…. There they were, the most commonplace of them, those quote mismatched with the larger-than-life questions, caught up in the mythic battles of past vs. present, justice vs. injustice-the most ordinary swept up in extraordinary hatred, because extraordinary hatred was, after all, a commonplace event.

The past is something that none of the characters in Kiran Desai’s Booker winning second novel, The Inheritance of Loss, are able to escape. Taking place in the eighties primarily in a West Bengal that still bears the scars of the English occupation, they all find themselves at odds with the rising tide of history and the violence that it bears in its wake. Set against a revolutionary uprising, Desai’s novel is about the role of identity in a post-colonial India, and the difficulties that conflicting feelings about both the self and India create.

The novel is structured on the juxtaposition of Sai and Biju, two young people connected with the rural community close to Kalimpong where the novel is set. Sai is an orphan and has been sent to live with a grandfather she has never met, a retired Judge, at his estate. Raised in convents, she speaks English and has become rather Westernized, which suits her misanthropic grandfather, a former student of Oxford and admirer of the English. While she does not see the Indians, Nepalis, and other inhabitants of the state as being almost subhuman like the Judge does, she struggles because she speaks very little Hindi, and through her social position has privilege. When going to visit her boyfriend, Gyan, she learns he and his family live in relative poverty and is repulsed, despite the fact she feels terrible about acting that way. She is also unable to understand the Nationalist movement, the GNLF, and the violence carried out in the name of Gorkhaland for Gorkhas, that Gyan becomes entangled in.

Biju, on the other hand, is the son of the Judge’s cook, and has managed to get to America on a tourist visa. Despite attaining the dream of many poor Indians by making it, he finds himself no better off than he was in India, being taken advantage of by his employers due to his illegal status, and living in a flophouse with other immigrants. Unable to acquire a green card, he soon learns to that those who have come to American and made it have done so by exploiting young men like himself, and through the commodification or abandonment of their own culture. He sees this in himself, when he realises that he has to be willing to cook beef in able to get a job and promptly gives up his aversion to doing so, despite his religious belief. His shame is compounded by the lies he has to tell his father, who lives vicariously through the belief his son is a success in America. Faced with poverty and racism on a daily basis, he soon learns that the so called civilized West is not as wonderful as he originally believed.

In Ulysses, Joyce’s Dedalus says “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake“, and similarly, so are the characters in The Inheritance of Loss. Whether or not they manage to awake is up to the reader to decide, but this reader suggests comparing Sai and Biju to their actual and metaphorical predecessors in the Judge and the cook. Sai’s privilege may be undesirable, but compared to the hateful loathing of the Judge, it shows a willingness to reconcile with a culture those on the side of Empire found disgusting. Biju toils in the service class as the cook does, but whereas his father prostates himself before the Judge demanding to be beaten like a slave, Biju chooses to walk away from servitude and finds freedom. In the face of exploitation, racism, hatred, violence, and corruption, it is a novel not only about young people trying to find their way, but also a country that still suffers a loss so profound the term colonialism does not even begin to describe.

Flannery Friday: Wise Blood (1952)

February 1st, 2013 § 2 comments § permalink

It is almost impossible to write about Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, especially her 1952 novel Wise Blood, without addressing the issues of religiosity and the depiction of the grotesque.  For O’Connor, the two were often intertwined.  In her 1960 essay, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” O’Connor opines that:

Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.  To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological.  That is a large statement, and it is dangerous to make it, for almost anything you say about Southern belief can be denied in the next breath with equal propriety.  But approaching the subject from the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.  The Southerner who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God.  Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive.  They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature.  In any case, it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature. (pp. 817-818)

A half-century later, there is certainly much truth still to this observation.  Walk (or rather, drive, as the roads are not conducive for walking any more) down the streets and by-ways of almost any-size Southern town or hamlet and you will likely see signs advertising the upcoming revival or tent meeting.  Perhaps some of the old general stores that were shuttered in the 1970s and 1980s as Walmart invaded like the Zebra Mussel have reopened as storefront churches, with canvas signs stretched over the remains of old mobile electric signage (with the arrowheads, no longer flashing in the night, serving as a relic of a more secular past), advertising a new “man of God” who has come to lead the wayward home before the Rapture comes and the Elect are swept up en masse, leaving the sinners behind to grovel for mercy from an unrelenting Lord.  There is no appearance of joy in places like “The Word Chapel” (former home of a used car dealership) or “The Holiness Fellowship” (where ten years before was a men’s clothing store).  Instead, there is an air of expectant apocalypse hanging in these dark and cheerless former cathedrals to American small business.   The sinners have congregated here in hopes of having the Christ-ghost exorcised from them in meeting halls that are part PTA meetings and part sanitariums where the collective guilt is expiated through thunderous “AMEN!s” and the trembles and shakes overwhelm those who seek a connection, no matter how tenuous, with the luminous.

For those who live outside this environment, such happenings would be beyond strange; they would seem to herald a sort of mass psychosis that perhaps represents a threat to a whole host of social and cultural causes long championed as being just and right for human society.  When one sees the world as a sort of quasi-Manichean struggle between an omnipotent (yes, he saw you sneaking away with that pilfered cupcake!) God and a clever, temptatious Devil who embodied all of our desires and lusts, anything that appears to favor proscribed behaviors is viewed with deep suspicion, if not outright fear and hatred.  Yet this “Christ-haunted” soul (and “soul” is the appropriate word here) rejects the banality of existence.  If there is a God (and by presumption, an Enemy), then it bears consideration that humanity is more than the sum of its Egos, Ids, and Superegos.  It may not be a comfortable worldview for many to consider, but if one is going to understand Hazel Motes and the characters that populate O’Connor’s 1952 novel Wise Blood, then this worldview has to be at least considered on its own terms.

Wise Blood centers around four individuals, each of whom have become disillusioned with life and the faith that imbues local life:  a recently-discharged WWII veteran, Hazel Motes, who has become an atheist in the wake of a crisis of faith; the prostitute/boarding house owner Leora Watts; an 18 year-old zookeeper, Enoch Emery, who has been kicked out of his home by his abusive father; and a local con-artist, Hoover Shoats, who takes Hazel’s ideas and turns them into a new antireligious church movement.  Each of the characters is presented as being at once a modern form of a (heretical) holy person and a fool, with wry observations and black comedy often employed to underscore the (in)sincere craziness of their (dis)beliefs.  Take for instance this passage in Chapter 3, where Hazel speaks of his vision for a church that has no Christ in it:

“My Jesus,” Haze said.  He learned forward near an old woman with blue hair and a collar of red wooden beads.  “You better get on the other side, lady,” he said.  “There’s a fool down there giving out tracts.”  The crowd behind the old woman pushed her on, but she looked at him for an instant with two bright flea eyes.  He started toward her through the people but she was already too far away and he pushed back to where he had been standing against the wall.  “Sweet Jesus Christ Crucified,” he said, “I want to tell you people something.  Maybe you think you’re not clean because you don’t believe.  Well you are clean, let me tell you that.  Every one of you people are clean and let me tell you why if you think it’s because of Jesus Christ Crucified you’re wrong.  I don’t say he wasn’t crucified but I say it wasn’t for you.  Listenhere, I’m a preacher myself and I preach the truth.”  The crowd was moving fast.  It was a large spread raveling and the separate threads disappeared down the dark streets.  “Don’t I know what exists and what don’t?”  he cried.  “Don’t I have eyes in my head?  Am I a blind man?  Listenhere,” he called, “I’m going to preach a new church – the church of truth without Jesus Christ Crucified.  It won’t cost you nothing to join my church.  It’s not started yet but it’s going to be.”  The few people who were left glanced at him once or twice.  There were tracts scattered below over the sidewalk and out on the street.  The blind man was sitting on the bottom step.  Enoch Emery was on the other side, standing on the lion’s head, trying to balance himself, and the child was standing near him, watching Haze.  “I don’t need Jesus,” Haze said.  “What do I need with Jesus?  I got Leora Watts.” (pp. 30-31)

In plain yet impassioned words, Hazel lays out a vision in which those who feel guilty over not living up to the high call of Christ can find cleanness through their rejection of an ideology that has segregated them from any possible communion with God.  It sounds ridiculous on the surface and the more one contemplates it, the dafter it becomes.  Yet for those souls who desire peace from the worries of damnation from a divinity that they consciously reject yet subconsciously suspect is hovering right over them unseen yet felt, this is like manna from heaven or water flowing from the rock struck in the desert.  O’Connor here has sympathy for these benighted fools even as she shows, through scenes such as the purportedly blind preacher, Asa Hawks (who supposedly put quicklime in his eyes as a testimony of his faith), removing his shades to reveal that his eyes were not in fact damaged, that there is a hollowness to these new religious movements that seek to grasp the essence of faith without understanding just what it was they were trying to seize.  Her characters, metaphorically (and later, literally) blind to what it was they were reaching for, turn to con games, to meetings that temporarily assuage guilt before despair drives them to acts of lust, greed, and violence.  It is not hard to see these characters as desperate fools, but desperate, sincere fools can generate sympathy from both the author and the reader and for the most part, the sympathies that are engendered through actions late in the novel touch us because we have come to see these acts as extensions of the misplaced yet fascinating (non)faith that the characters have come to embody.

Wise Blood is a strange novel in that black comedy is used to accentuate the foibles of the characters yet the main effect is an odd sort of tragic nobility that envelops (devours?) the characters before their arcs conclude.  It is a shrewd social commentary of a region that even today is viewed askance by outsiders for its peculiar social customs and seeming hostility to modern cultural and social advancements.  Yet the deeper the reader tries to understand the worldviews of Wise Blood‘s characters (and by extension, those of O’Connor’s characters in her other stories), the more moving and disturbing the work becomes.  There is no simple denouement, no easy, pat conclusion to the story.  Instead, the issues raised early in the novel about matters of faith and desire are left suspended in front of the reader, awaiting for us to consider them at our own leisure in our own ways.  That is the subtle beauty of Wise Blood and 61 years after its initial publication, it still is one of O’Connor’s most widely-discussed stories.

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