Quinn Dalton’s recent collection Bulletproof Girl contains eleven stories about women in peril. Not physical peril in the tied to the railroad tracks “save me Indiana Jones” way, but social and emotional peril. Each story is a snapshot, a day or two in the life of a woman who has come up against something in her life that is big and hard to move. My favorite story was “Lennie Remembers the Angels” about an elderly woman who is paranoid about her neighbors but turns a blind eye to her son’s transgressions. There is a physicality to her language in this story: damp heat, dark apartments and overpowering food smells. Like “Lennie,” several of the stories in the collection could be mistaken for chapters in a novel; they aren’t self-contained. Dalton is very good at fleshing out her characters, and we know their individual histories. As she leads her protagonists through their hard times, we are given stories that are as character-driven as they are plot-driven. The long title story broadens the themes the Dalton explores in the rest of the collection. Instead of one woman, we have three: Emery, May and Celeste, three generations from the same family, all at difficult crossroads and alternately comforting and pitying one another. Emery is smarting from the loss of her boyfriend, her mother May has been driven to odd obsessive behavior ever since her husband moved out, and old Celeste the grandmother is vibrant, but will not sympathize with her daughter, and instead takes them all on a macabre errand.
Just a few days before I embarked on Colum McCann’s new novel Let the Great World Spin, we had a movie night at the Magee household. Lauren made some ice cream and our neighbors came over with Man on Wire, the 2008 Oscar-winning documentary about Philippe Petit and his walk on a tightrope strung between the two towers of New York City’s World Trade Center in 1974, in hand.While the film portrays Petit as a roguish eccentric (as anyone with his “hobby” would have to be), it also captures his famous walk as not so much a stunt as a sublime gesture – a graceful figure, clad all in black, impossibly high up, framed by massive towers and set against the huge morning sky. The film builds to this impressive, balletic payoff, a beautiful counterpoint to the antics of Petit and his cohort as they plot out and set into motion their daring plan.Petit’s personality is larger than life and so was his act. So it is perhaps no surprise that in centering his novel around Petit’s walk, McCann makes the walk the book’s gravitational center and ignores the voluble Petit almost entirely. In an author’s note at the end of the book, McCann writes, “I have taken liberties with Petit’s walk, while trying to remain true to the texture of the moment and its surroundings.” And anyone who has watched Man on Wire will also find that with his few descriptions of the Petit’s preparations, McCann has invented for him a new, if thinly sketched, backstory.A tightrope walker graces the cover of the book and though many reviews (as this one has) will likely devote ink to the famous act, it is little more than a backdrop to a disparate cast of characters. If Let the Great World Spin were a play, the action would take place in front of a painted backdrop showing the towers and the speck-like walker bathed in the morning light. The backdrop would sometimes be alluded to, but the action it depicted would never be a part of the foreground. The book traces a number of lives, ranging from mother and daughter hookers to a judge to an Irish priest of a particularly ascetic order. The priest is Corrigan, who, as a peculiarly selfless child, wandered from home and gave the blankets from his bed to homeless drunks. As an adult, he entered the priesthood and got himself posted to the Bronx where he lives in a housing project and becomes a sort of den mother and mascot to the complex’s many prostitutes. Among them are Tillie and Jazzlyn Henderson, the mother and daughter pair, deeply jaded, scarred by heroin, but still irrepressible. These three, Corrigan’s brother, and several others form one of the book’s poles, and they are tied by a car accident to the novel’s other pole, a couple living on Park Avenue, Solomon and Claire Soderburg. He is a judge, she an heiress, devastated by the loss of their only son in Vietnam. Claire has joined a support group with other mothers who have lost sons. She is painfully self-conscious, on the morning of the tightrope walk, about having the group – all hailing from the outer boroughs – into her status-signifying Park Avenue penthouse. There are a number of other characters as well, all tied to New York City in the 1970s in one way or another.To string his line between the towers, Petit shot fishing wire across the gap with a bow and arrow, and then he and his helpers tied progressively stronger and heavier ropes together until his heavy, steel wire could be hauled across. In the same way, McCann’s characters are at the outset connected by only the thinnest of filaments – proximity and shared experiences and not much else – but through the machinations of the plot and by dint of mishap and employment and chance they become more connected, sometimes tragically.McCann’s mastery of character and voice is on full display in Let the Great World Spin, especially the Claire Soderburg’s fragile inner monologue and the mournful, staccato prison diary of Tillie Henderson. The novel is a bit shorter on plot, with much of the narrative energy devoted to the car accident at the center of the action and prizing out its impact on the lives of the characters. Some readers may wish the novel had more narrative to it, but McCann’s well-sketched characters and sense of place may be enough to satisfy.
Jamaica Kincaid is annoyed. She spent 10 years writing a novel about the passage of time and everyone seems to think it’s a roman à clef about her marriage — and a vengeful one, at that. At a recent Manhattan reading at Symphony Space, she introduced her new novel, See Now Then, by explaining (among other things) that it was not about a divorce, that none of the characters in her book obtain a divorce, nor do they talk about divorce, nor does the word “divorce” even appear in the book’s pages. Referring to a particularly exasperating review she said, “It is almost as if the person describing the book has read another book entirely.”
I feel fortunate to have read See Now Then before the press feasted on its autobiographical elements. I’ve read almost everything Kincaid has written and knew enough about her life to recognize that Mr. and Mrs. Sweet, the unhappy couple at the center of this novel, were loosely modeled on Kincaid and her ex-husband. I also assumed that the small New England village where Mr. and Mrs. Sweet live was based on Bennington, Vt., where Kincaid lived for many years. But by the time I finished See Now Then, the gossip had burned off and I wasn’t thinking much about Kincaid’s life. Instead, I was in a somewhat altered state as I considered how erratically time passes, with the big slow-moving space of childhood up front and then adulthood rushing past. See Now Then also left me thinking about how strange our conception of the past and future is, how we talk about them as if they are somehow vastly different from the present, when both are made up of the moments we are in the midst of living.
If my impressions sound vague (if not downright pretentious) that’s because See Now Then is a difficult book to write about. It has no plot, there’s nothing to summarize. In some ways it makes sense that journalists have chosen to focus on Kincaid’s biography; it was the only story available. It also makes sense that Kincaid chose to write a domestic novel; she had to anchor her abstract musings in something mundane, like the muck and mire of a failing marriage.
In a recent New York Times profile, Kincaid said See Now Then didn’t come together for her until she thought of the title. The phrase opens the novel, like the beginning of a fairy tale, “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…” What follows is a long description of the view from Mrs. Sweet’s window, a view that includes “the house where the man who invented time-lapse photography lived.”
This early mention of time-lapse photography seems significant. We use time-lapse photography to witness the things we can’t see in real time — the blooming of a flower or a tree coming into leaf. Kincaid uses the form of the novel to illustrate the things that Mrs. Sweet could not see in her own life, flipping through the ordinary moments that make up Mrs. Sweet’s mostly sweet existence — moments spent gardening, moments spent nursing her son, moments spent driving her children to school, moments spent in a little room off of her kitchen, writing — to reveal the larger story: that of a disintegrating marriage.
Mr. and Mrs. Sweet are portrayed as an odd match, Mr. Sweet an aristocratic New Yorker, while Mrs. Sweet is an immigrant from a small Caribbean island, an island Kincaid describes as “so small, history now only records it as a footnote to larger events.” Mrs. Sweet fell in love with Mr. Sweet because of his knowledge and his place in world; Mr. Sweet fell in love with Mrs. Sweet for her exuberance and her long legs. Their marriage, it is suggested, was arranged in part to secure Mrs. Sweet’s citizenship in the United States. But it was the birth of their children that truly pushed them into the traditional roles of husband and wife. In her “marriage story,” Mrs. Sweet observes that “without the birth of young Heracles and the birth of the beautiful Persephone we would not be and so become: Mr. and Mrs. Sweet.”
With their primal attachments, children bring the mythic into daily life, and so Kincaid gives Mr. and Mrs. Sweet’s children mythic names. Mr. Sweet adores his beautiful Persephone but is wildly jealous of his son, Heracles, whose strength and passion outmatch his own. Mrs. Sweet dotes on her children, bringing new meaning to the term “domestic goddess” as she knits elaborate baby garments, prepares three-course meals, and grows an extravagant garden. And yet she also disappears into her home office to write, a room to which the children “had no access, not even if they took a boat or a plane or a car or a hike, not at all could they reach her when she was in that room off the kitchen, and then how they loved her, but she was apart from them and only in the world of those sentences.” That Mrs. Sweet often writes about her own childhood when she separates herself from her children is an irony that Kincaid returns to again and again.
Both Mr. and Mrs. Sweet are beholden to their childhoods — Mr. Sweet’s because his was wonderful, and Mrs. Sweet’s because hers was painful. Mrs. Sweet contends with her demons by writing autobiographical fiction; language helps her locate her “true self.” Mr. Sweet is a musician but does not find the same solace in his compositions. Instead he scores a nocturne titled This Marriage Is Dead (alternate title: This Marriage Has Been Dead For A Long Time Now) and tells Mrs. Sweet that he can’t be his “one true self” when he’s with her, that he loves someone else, someone who understands this one true self better than Mrs. Sweet does.
Do we have “a one true self?” Is “the self” the story of a person over time, a kind of narrative, or is it a like a note of music, fixed and unchanging? What effect does intimacy have on the self? What effect does time have? When the past is irretrievable and the future uncertain, how do we live comfortably in the present? These are just a few of the questions raised in See Now Then, questions that could easily come off as rarified but never do, because Kincaid’s story is so grounded in the material. She makes great use of brand names throughout the novel, but doesn’t wield them ironically. Instead she uses them to fix her characters in time and in the landscape. Mr. Sweet gets his jackets from “the Brooks Brothers outlet in Manchester;” Mrs. Sweet’s Laura Ashley nightgown is from a boutique on Madison Avenue; T-shirts for Heracles are “bought from a store called Manhattan, though it was located in a city far from Manhattan.” Kincaid also refers precisely to cultural objects, local and distant landmarks, and even celestial formations. One passage contains references to Beechnut baby food, the coast of Barbados, the Holland Tunnel, Peter Rabbit, and the Magellanic Clouds. The contrast between the names, some grand and some mundane, some strange and some familiar, is jarring and delightful.
At the Symphony Space reading I attended, Kincaid spoke of her own selfhood as something she created when she was younger “for herself.” By this she meant that the person she had become was someone she wanted to become, not someone that anyone else wanted her to become. Her interviewer was Ian Frazier, a friend who has known her for 39 years. He asked her if she could have written See Now Then when she was younger; her reply was complicated. She said that she was mulling over some of the ideas she approaches in See Now Then in her very first piece of fiction, “Girl,” but that she couldn’t express her thoughts fully because of her limitations as a younger writer. “Not to torture my poor title,” she said, “but what I was doing then in that story is the beginning of what ended up here.” She went on to describe the inspiration for “Girl,” which was Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “In The Waiting Room.”
After the reading, I came home and read “In The Waiting Room.” It’s a poem that describes a young girl’s recognition of selfhood, of having an identity that is separate from others, and one that can also be seen and recognized by others. The speaker is terrified by this revelation and reminds herself of her age — her place in time — in order to stop “the sensation of falling off/the round, turning world.” If there is a plot to See Now Then, it is the story of Mrs. Sweet’s efforts to confront her own fear of the “round, turning world” — a fear that can no longer be assuaged by incantations of age and youth. To say that Mrs. Sweet conquers her terror is too pat a summary but by the end of the novel she has reached a kind of equilibrium. It is marvelous to behold.