It is not by happenstance that the two significant events of Katherine James’s new, beautifully spare novel Can You See Anything Now? involve water.
In the first, Margie Nethercott, an artist who has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, paddles a canoe into a lake, ties herself to a rock, and drops the rock into the water. The lake turns out to be too shallow, the attempt at suicide fails, and Margie has to call to people on the shore to rescue her. That means the entire town of Trinity, upstate from New York City, will know of the failed attempt.
Margie’s husband Nick is the town’s psychologist. He didn’t know his wife intended suicide.
In the second water event, a young college student, the Columbia University roommate of Margie and Nick’s daughter Noel, falls into Trinity’s river. Her name is Pixie. She regularly cuts herself, sleeps around, and takes various drugs – none of which is done by Noel.
Water becomes a kind of baptism, pushing the people of this novel into new understandings and new lives.
The Nethercott family is the center of the narrative, but no one really assumes the role of lead character. Noel’s high school friends – Miriam, Jason, and especially Owen – move as much through the story as the Nethercotts. We meet Etta, a Christian and artist who is known for painting tomatoes, until Margie begins to teach her how to paint other things. And Pete, Pixie’s somewhat estranged father, who should probably be on meds.
But we more than meet these characters. We find ourselves inside their heads and hearts, inhabiting the interiors of people before we realize what’s happening. They tell themselves things they don’t tell the other characters; they make decision and judgments about themselves and each other. And we come to understand that we are witnessing a group of people in a small town slowly breaking through what confines and almost stifles them, to find something as unexpected as redemption and grace.
James is a writer of both fiction and narrative non-fiction. Her work has been published in various literary journals and anthologies. She received an MFA degree from Columbia University and taught undergraduate classes in fiction there. This is her first novel; a memoir, Notes on Orion, about heroin use in the Philadelphia suburbs and how it affected her family, will be published in 2018. She lives in Pennsylvania.
Set in a small town, Can You See Anything Now? is a story about inhabiting the human heart.
Top photograph by Cristina Munteanu via Unsplash. Used with permission.