Jamaica Kincaid -- punishing, gorgeous

May 05, 2002|By BEN NEIHART | BEN NEIHART,Special to the Sun

Mr. Potter, by Jamaica Kincaid. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 195 pages. $18.

I know it's a thuggish thing to ask, but I wonder how many readers there are, in 2002, for Jamaica Kincaid's prose. Let's start with the first sentence of Mr. Potter, her new novel: "And that day, the sun was in its usual place, up above and in the middle of the sky, and it shone in its usual way so harshly bright, making even the shadows pale, making even the shadows seek shelter; that day the sun was in its usual place, up above and in the middle of the sky, but Mr. Potter did not note this, so accustomed was he to this, the sun in its usual place, up above and in the middle of the sky"

That's not the whole sentence, but it is more than half, and I wonder how many readers there are, in 2002, for that brand of lyricism, that repetition, in rhythm and word choice, with which Kincaid attempts to re-create consciousness itself, and resurrect her dead father, the titular Mr. Potter, whom she never knew.

Jamaica Kincaid does not write in the contemporary literary vernacular. She does not write in scenes, with dialogue and the traditional dramatic niceties. If she takes any pleasure in moving characters through time, she shows it in the frozen moments when she stops time, turns her characters 360 degrees, annotates them, and sets them on their way again.

What she's writing, one could argue, isn't fiction at all. Or it just doesn't feel like fiction; it feels like a memoir -- of Mr. Potter, the father she never knew. Kincaid is much more scrupulous than many "nonfiction" writers as she re-creates the interior lives of her father, his father, her mother and other family members. More scrupulous because she tells us that she wasn't present, tells us that she is a writer imagining the interior lives of her real family.

What she's written, really, is a meditation on Antigua, the island where she was born, on fatherhood, motherhood, emotional cruelty. And the pleasures of almost-emptiness, of barely perceptible awareness. She captures moments of pure consciousness, isolating her characters, for emphasis, as only an artist can, stripping them of context, and then rebuilding their world before our very eyes: adding weather, color, song, pain and memory.

This is a punishing, gorgeous book that gives life to the island, to its Middle Eastern refugees and its black business class, to its poor mothers and abandoned children -- and, despite the occasional misfired lyrical moment, it's a defiantly unpretentious book.

By the end, Kincaid has, magically, transformed the reader's consciousness, so we realize with a shock that we've moved, with the narrator, from a coldhearted contempt for Mr. Potter to a kind of purified, unsentimental sympathy.

"How sad," she writes, "never to hear your name called again; how sad never to look up again and see the face of someone you recognize, someone you love or thought you loved, someone really dear to you, or someone you know to be dear to you because her nose is shaped exactly like your own "

Someone like your daughter, writing your life story.

Ben Neihart's first novel was Hey, Joe. His second, Burning Girl, has just been published in paperback by Harper Perennial.

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