photo by Annie Spratt via Unsplash
You could hardly imagine two more different artists than the ones you meet in the opening pages of Katherine James’s debut novel, Can You See Anything Now? [Paraclete, 2017].
There’s Margie, who paints vivid canvases, attributing personal characteristics to still lifes, sketching nudes, and doing a grand scale work featuring ovens that make her daughter think of Sylvia Plath. Margie, who explores and struggles with depth and negative space in her attic studio, her life, her family, and in Trinity, her small, upstate town. Margie, who chooses drowning as the method for her latest suicide attempt because it is “metaphorically appropriate in light of the lungs filling with liquid and air bubbling upward like packets of life that pop at the surface” (5).
Then there’s Etta, her churchgoing neighbor, whose painting tends toward tomatoes and rooftops. Her work is folky, adorned with rusty nails and wire, accessible, and easily reproducible. She has a front porch with a Cracker Barrel rocker and she reads popular Christian books to help strengthen her marriage. Her cooking tends to Crock Pot recipes and hot dog casseroles.
The artist behind these artists is Katherine James, who has fashioned a richly-textured, sharply-observed book that deserves to be in the hands of everyone who grieves over the divides of our day, longs to feel God’s presence in the land of living, and who imagines unlikely friendships.
Margie and Etta are not the only characters in this book, but their friendship is emblematic of James’s vision. It begins when Margie, fresh off an MS diagnosis, canoes out to a swimming platform in the lake on a crisp, fall morning, ties a rock to her leg, and slips into the waters only to find that the lake is more shallow than she expected. After several hours of floating with her head above water, she is rescued from her humiliating predicament and returns home. Etta drops by the house with a basket of bran muffins a few days later and over the course of time Margie finds that she has many more chapters left, not only with Etta, but with her therapist husband, Nick, and college-aged daughter, Noel, as well.
James’s strangely hopeful book drops in at a difficult time in our American narrative. It’s not that her many well-defined characters don’t have struggles. They do. Opioids, family dysfunction, cutting, and a horizon of lowered economic expectations—they’re all here. The inescapable cultural and political divide of Trumpian America is always in the background. And the threat of death returns in another incident in the waters, when Noel’s troubled roommate, Pixie, visiting during the Thanksgiving break, slips beneath the ice of the town’s river.
Even so, things are being restored in Trinity. Noel and her on-again-off-again boyfriend, Owen, find their way past old divisions and emerge from a day (at the lake) as lovers. Pixie’s odd father, Pete, comes to town to care for her, and finds a kind of faith. When he shares with Nick and Margie his simple trust in God to raise his daughter, Nick resorts to his rationalist reservoir. “There’s a lot to be said for religion,” Nick says, though he himself can’t say much for it.
Yet the whole exchange takes place in a warm kitchen over beer and fettuccini, hinting at a kind of communion all the characters are longing for.
“I’m homesick,” Noel says as she watches her mother paint through her pain. “Even when I’m home I’m homesick.” (282)
Katherine James, the painter, uses her artist’s eye to give her work shifting perspectives, moving deftly between characters in each of the short chapters. She brings us up close to sensual details, which we pass each day. The sad, “gray plastic fountain [in the nursing home] that had a stream of water over a shelf of yellow-stained plastic and then emptied into a little pond with a rock in the middle, and then pumped back up to do it again” (285)? I’ve seen that fountain.
James can also soar into the heavens to see the world with the eyes of God, nowhere more effectively than in the climactic vigil that ends the book. When the skeptics and the true believers gather in a nursing home parking lot, they bring their coolers and pick food from aluminum trays that sit atop folding tables. Even their greatest attempts at spiritual connection are surrounded by the trappings of American consumer culture.
And yet “view the town like an eagle,” and you see a great river of people on a quest. “The trees are pine near the water and into the air they emit a nostalgic smell, a backwards whisper reminding people that they can’t get at something they know is important…The day is still and hot and the people are waiting. The people are like grasshoppers and they wait.” (305-6) Like God, you can’t help but love these troubled, searching people.
Don’t come to Can You See Anything Now? with the expectation of composed piety. Katherine James has seen hard times and her writing displays the searing quality of those experiences. There is beauty, but whether you can see it now is always an open question. God and faith are here, but they appear in the way they do in real life, in quiet, unexpected ways and always on the provisional ground of the present day.
This is a deeply Christian book, and it is excellent Christian fiction. It’s also just plain, unqualified, excellent fiction approached with real heart. Go, see what you can see.
My interview with Katherine James is up now!.