Figures In The Distance by Jamaica Kincaid, 1983
The magic trick:
Creating a fiercely individual protagonist/narrator
Last year we looked at Jamaica Kincaid’s At The Bottom Of The River collection, a set of stories rich with poetry if not plot. “Figures In The Distance” has a lot more traditional narrative elements even if it isn’t a straight-ahead story story. Its parent collection/novel, Annie John, demonstrates far more plot-driven narratives than its preceding collection.
“Figures” reminds me a bit of Mary Lavin’s “The Living,” a story in which two boys crash a funeral parlor in hopes of seeing a dead body. “Figures In The Distance” sees its girl protagonist doing something similar, though the connections end there. Where Lavin’s piece touches on broad life lessons of the so-called human experience, Kincaid’s “Figures,” as would seem to be the case with most of her work, is very much in its own headspace.
The narrator here, Annie John, is so fiercely an individual. This is not a story for you to relate to your own life. This is a story about her. And I like that. It’s part of what makes Kincaid’s work so unique and so dynamic. I could see where it also might be a bit of a turnoff, but there is no denying that the narrator’s singular approach to understanding mortality in this story is nothing less than fascinating. And that’s quite a trick on Kincaid’s part.
I began to go to funerals. I didn’t actually go to the funerals as an official mourner, since I didn’t know any of the people who had died and I was going without my parents’ permission. I visited the funeral parlors or the drawing rooms where the dead were laid out for viewing by the mourners. When I heard the church bell toll in the way it tolled when someone had died, I would try to find out who had died and where the funeral was to be – home or funeral parlor.
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