And it may be foolish to speculate whether expat Antiguan Jamaica Kincaid's new novel, Mr. Potter, might have worked better as a novella or longish short story; but there it is. And, there it is in novel form, in a style highly reminiscent of Gertrude Stein's Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which is not an autobiography of Alice B. Toklas at all but is, rather, Gertrude Stein's autobiography of Gertrude Stein and, like Gertrude Stein's autobiography, Mr. Potter is not primarily the story of Mr. Potter, but it is the autobiography of Jamaica Kincaid, whose earlier work, The Autobiography of My Mother, was also really the 1996 autobiography of Jamaica Kincaid, who has now written another kind of autobiography, a too-long novel that might well have worked better as a compact novella in the way Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness works or a longish short story in the way, say, Alice Munro's longish short stories work.
And Alice Munro and Alice B. Toklas are not related, of course, but in her new novel, Mr. Potter, Jamaica Kincaid strings words and sentences and paragraphs and chapters together in such a way that one is almost compelled to think sideways and backward and forward and to stop thinking when the thinking one is thinking becomes too tangential and fragmentary to represent thought or thinking about thought when thought becomes too intense to think about its capriciousness.
Jamaica Kincaid is a virtuoso when it comes to stopping thinking when it becomes too intensely painful thinking about it, when it becomes so intense it becomes nothing but a pressure that opens into a blank space, a lacuna, a not-thinking about thinking about thought and what happens when not-thinking is dominant in the capricious life of a not-thinking man who happens, by the way, to be Jamaica Kincaid's father and himself a virtuoso at not thinking about anything, really, about anything or anyone, really, especially his daughter, one of many whom he never thinks about thinking about, but there it is and there is his story:
And here is Mr. Potter with the enforced wallowing in his childhood with the innocently cruel group of people, the family Shepherd, his father Nathaniel passing him by coincidence in an alley in the village of Table Hill Gardon without saying hello, without any sign of recognition whatsoever, and here is Mr. Potter meeting Mr. Shoul, who has so recently been disenfranchised from the Lebanon and the road which led to the Damascus and back, and Dr. Weizenger and his wife May, passengers in his taxi (Mr. Shoal's car, it was then), whose presence remained vivid in Mr. Potter's mind and he could remember, up to the moment he died, Mr. Shoul and Dr. Weizenger more perfectly and more accurately than he could his mother Elfrida, who had walked into the sea, and his father Nathaniel, who had never acknowledged him at all.
And it may be foolish to speculate whether the gospel according to Jamaica Kincaid is the truth of her life or the truth of her life plus the element of confabulation, but it is one truth and this truth of the one truth is in its exquisite rendering, its gorgeous recounting, its telling interstices and artful interweavings incrementally revealing the heartbreaking story of the grown daughter who did not even know she had a father in Antigua — where she was born and christened Elaine Potter Richardson in 1949! — who could not read and write and who did not even know her father had impregnated her mother and made the daughter who later changed her name to Jamaica Kincaid who could read and write just fine and Jamaica Kincaid would certainly prove exactly that in this autobiographical novel, her novel, Mr. Potter, which might have worked better as a novella but which Jamaica Kincaid has written as a novel which is nothing if not beautiful, compassionate, and entirely too moving to bear too much thinking about thinking about it, so awe-inspiring and gut-wrenching are its contents:
"And Mr. Potter grew old and I remained a child and my mother remained my mother and these three things, my father, me, my mother, remain the same into eternity, remain the same now, which is a definition of eternity," and there it is and it is very fine, very fine indeed.
"Whatever It Is, It's Exquisite" originally appeared 1 June 2002 in The Globe and Mail. © 2002-2009 Judith Fitzgerald and The Globe and Mail. All Rights Reserved.