In Shirley Jackson's world, your house was either your refuge or your ruin. In We Have Always Lived in the Castle, two girls close themselves off from sinister villagers in their fortress-like abode, refusing to abandon it even when their neighbors set it on fire. In The Haunting of Hill House, some malicious spirit in the eponymous structure calls to the mousy little Eleanor, dooming her to remain on its grounds forever. In The Sundial, a family holes up in their home to wait out some unknown calamity–armageddon? a plague? an asteroid?–believing they will be safe as long as they never open the door to the begging and pleading and endless knocking of those left outside.
So it's fitting, then, that Jamaica Kincaid chose to set her novel of marital animosity See Now Then not only in Shirley Jackson's New England, but in her very house. Kincaid has set Mr. and Mrs. Sweet to live in the house that Jackson herself wrote in, the one that Shirley Jackson practiced witchcraft in. The house from which she suspected her neighbors of harboring ill will towards her and her family. The house that she eventually refused to leave, becoming a shut-in who wrote nasty little stories of great power. It's fitting because Mr. Sweet is introduced to the reader as he is imagining coming home to discover his wife's severed head. So if we are in Shirley Jackson territory, we are in one of the stories where the house confines you with your antagonist, the house in which no good is allowed in.
Mr. and Mrs. Sweet do not have a successful marriage. Mr. Sweet wishes Mrs. Sweet dead, and Mrs. Sweet carries on obliviously. They have two children, the energetic little Heracles and the beautifully tragic–and father's favorite–Persephone. And in that house, the Shirley Jackson house (because every time Jamaica Kincaid mentions the house she uses its full name) Mr. Sweet composes music that he names "The Marriage Is Dead," and considers the state of things. "What's the essence of Love? But that was a question for Mr. Sweet, for he grew up in the atmosphere of questions of life and death: Hiroshima, Nagasaki; the Holocaust."
"She's not a particular influence on me," Jamaica Kincaid says about Shirley Jackson as we spoke over the phone. Picking the name of the house has more to do with the New England village setting–a village that Mr. Sweet, built for urban life and swank hotels, resents–and "the way the name sounds" than any symbolic gesture. "I think she is a great writer, but it resonates because of the weight of the syllables,” Kincaid says. “The Shir Ley Jack Son House. It has a weight to it, sort of like a liquid that collects. In collecting, you begin to examine the content." When I outlined some of the similarities between her novel and Jackson's work, she was thrilled to find there was perhaps an unconscious motivation she had been unaware of.
Which is how it goes with reading See Now Then. Kincaid repeats certain phrases over and over again. Mrs. Sweet isn't just an immigrant, she came over "on a banana boat." "The shy Myrmidons" are mentioned so frequently I expected them to crawl out of their graves bodily and lay siege to the Shirley Jackson house. Certain words and names become like incantations, like a black magic ritual conjuring up things the reader can't totally understand. It is dense material despite the seemingly simple storyline of a husband and a wife who wish each other harm, and it keeps the reader on her toes as it flows back and forth through time. It's not just the story of a bad marriage–a marriage Kincaid describes to me as "a discordant note." It's an existential investigation into the nature of time, the nature of relation, the nature of home.
The prose is perhaps best described in musical terms, the way it flows and recedes, the way it builds and moves. I asked Kincaid if she had musical training, and she says no. "I love music, I've never studied it. I was asked to leave my piano lessons by an old English woman because I stole one plum from her bowl of plums." (She speaks the way she writes, with absolute precision and striking imagery.) But she writes to music, she says. "Glenn Gould, operas, Schoenberg...I like to listen to things I don't understand."
I did not understand See Now Then. I put it aside in frustration more than once. But I would wake up thinking about it, the way opera fills your ears the days after a performance, and down from the shelf it would come again. Its complications might be a barrier between the reader and the novel, but Kincaid is resigned to that possibility. She does not expect the critical establishment to declare her the essential reading of the season. "I'm a woman," she explains. "And black! And foreign!" But I imagine that the people who do find her book will be haunted by it for ages, and one day the Ja Mai Ca Kin Caid House will resonate with a particular tone.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.