July 2010

Lauren Smith

nonfiction

A Lesser Day by Andrea Scrima

In Andrea Scrima’s A Lesser Day, the narrator describes walking city streets and taking one daily photograph. Sometimes she waits too long for the right image, and she ends up with a dark, smudgy picture of “nothing.” The lab refuses to develop these photos, but the narrator insists. This drive to collect, and therefore to know existence, lies at the center of this personal nonfiction.

A Lesser Day shows a woman artist building her craft and struggling to comprehend the world around her through objects. She likes tables and dryer lint, patches of floor and drinking glasses. She wants to capture life through things because things, not memory, endure. Artists often obsess over perception and its feebleness, but Scrima brings to the subject a painter’s sustained and graceful attention. Although aloof in tone and somewhat hollow, A Lesser Day is a dense museum of personal consciousness.

Many of Scrima’s images -- a puddle swirled with oil, a house cat carrying a sock in its mouth, unwieldy canvases tied to a moving truck -- are exquisite, and they gather force when she pairs them with meditations:

That one moment, that one detail which has remained in my memory, but why, it was nothing of importance, nothing occurred, a shaft of light falling obliquely across a sidewalk, a rustling of leaves. And all of it burned in my mind with a brilliance and a clarity, every detail branded upon my inner eye like the crisp letters of a printed word I do not understand. I say light, leaves, yet none of it can convey the mythical significance it holds for me. And does some larger thing lie concealed within it, and why have I forgotten it -- forgotten the sudden instance of self-betrayal for instance, there, then, with this sidewalk, these leaves -- or is it a random product, jettison caught up in the craggy recesses of a mind.

In this passage, the narrator ponders the small and finds the transcendent; Scrima is a Romantic poet at heart.

Scrima also does a skillful job connecting her personal story to the global. Close to a remark about the reunification of Germany, she recalls searching for a childhood building that no longer exists -- even its street number has vanished. “How I took [my brother] around the corner to see the parts of the Wall being dismantled,” she tells the reader later, “and how I tried to describe to him what it was like before, when the geography ended there, when the map of the mind ended there and the gray zone began.” In the same section, she mentions family events she has stopped attending. Spare, unfussy prose allows these moments poignancy; they never grow overwrought.

One of A Lesser Day’s jacket blurbs calls it a memoir, and I’m not sure this is the best label. Fans of prose poetry, the lyric essay, and other experimental writing may find more to admire in it. Conventional memoir has two recognizable traits: some sort of progressive narrative (although it doesn’t have to be linear) and a knowable “I,” a persona with whom the reader gets comfortable and friendly. A Lesser Day doesn’t seem interested in offering either of these. I can follow some trends in the narrator’s life: her career, the death of her father, and a few romantic relationships. I can’t follow them easily, though -- for the sake of metaphysics, Scrima avoids story and character. She creates just enough of a narrative persona to make me look for more of one, leading me to ask, “Who is talking, and why should I care?”

Some of Scrima’s stylistic choices grate. She begins sections with the names of streets she lives on, and if the names are supposed to anchor the reader in time, they are not heavy enough to do it. She uses sentence fragments with –ing verbs, a technique that evokes the visual but pushes the reader away: it reminds her she’s reading someone’s memories, not experiencing them. The narrator’s repetition of the phrase “but that came later” puts the reader at an interesting remove -- it suggests the storyteller is withholding something. But the remove stays interesting; it doesn’t become engaging. As compelling as Scrima’s material is, I don’t know if I want my narrator, my partner in crime, to play this hard to get.    

With its shimmering pictures and elusive narrator, the pleasure of A Lesser Day stems from how it invites readers to see and to think. Even as Scrima keeps us at a distance, she shows us a singular view of the world.

A Lesser Day by Andrea Scrima
Spuyten Duyvil
ISBN: 1933132779
290 Pages