A Lesser Day
(Spuyten Duyvil, 2018)
Andrea Scrima’s brilliant debut novel, A Lesser Day (Spuyten Duyvil), creates a realistic psychological portrait of an artist’s life by describing vivid fragmented “snapshot” memories of five settings the artist once inhabited. Three of these settings are in New York, and two are in Berlin. Narrated in the voice of the artist, the novel captures the artist’s interiority by examining the exteriors of her life—the rooms, the walls, the halls, the objects, the city streets, the window views, the paintings, and the photographs. Neighbors, pets, acquaintances, and family members sometimes inhabit these settings, but the narrator is often alone, carefully examining details that make up the background of a life lived in the pursuit of creativity.
Lingering in miniscule details, the implied narrative embodies gritty realism. The novel invites the reader to contemplate what is lurking behind the remembered rooms and objects and faces of places left behind—the forgotten. In the presence of so many specific details, there is always the sense of unspoken absence, despite the abundance the artist has preserved. The narrator and the reader are haunted by the unseen, the unspoken, the uncaptured, the unconscious forgotten details lurking in the vivid portraits of the artist’s memory.
Because the novel creates such an intimate portrait of the narrator’s life by revisiting places she has lived, the reader becomes close to the narrator, close enough to experience the sense of a remembered life that isn’t the reader’s own. In this memory life, the potential forgotten, the possible repressed, is dazzling subtext to the graceful layered realism in each location revisited. Scrima’s artistry in crafting such a subtle psychological novel comes through her quiet use of tension.
A delicious unease slowly builds through the pages, suggesting that in every described detail there is a hidden meaning—a meaning often hidden even to the narrator. The fact that the narrator can remember so many minor details and the fact that even such a reliable careful memory could be wanting is as terrifying to the reader as it is to the narrator. One of the delicate disturbances of the novel is the sense that if one’s memory can’t be fully trusted, no one can be trusted, even the self.
If repression is the mystery where memory is a conscious act for the artist narrator, art is the ultimate act of remembering. The novel defies traditional notions of narrative structure and of plot. Even though the conflict and motivation are not explicit, or clearly linked, or clearly defined, a strangely haunting tension absorbs every page.
Where does the tension come from? In all the smaller details of a life lived, questions arise as the reader, like the protagonist narrator, becomes engaged in a quest to find and create meaning in even the most ordinary of details. The novel seems to suggest that our memories create our sense of self and those memories have meaning, and yet the novel takes this logic a step farther, revealing that memories need to be preserved if one hopes to preserve the self with the history that has created it.
Furthermore, the act of remembering is a conscious struggle because memories have quality and character and must be kept and maintained over time. Finally, if the memories have meaning to the self, then the objects and places and people and animals that inhabit the memories have meaning. This logic leads the reader on a journey with the protagonist to uncover the meaning in each and every small detail, even in the narrator’s “lesser days” as the artist attempts to find the narrative thread connecting all the remembered settings where moving on is a tiny death, since living each day means abandoning a day and a part of oneself.
At times, this logic seems to transform the narrator into a hoarder of details and of objects. If preserving a memory is preserving the self, how does one let go of anything, even dryer lint, which the narrator collects along with orange peels and stored items from her childhood home. And yet, holding on doesn’t stop time. As the novel evolves, it becomes clear that the conflict of the novel lies in the power of a relentless antagonist, Time.
Time is what changes the faces and places and objects. Time is what makes memory fade, and time is what the narrator is ultimately struggling to understand. Time is moving through each place, estranging the narrator form her former selves and the places she inhabits, along with the people who become lost to her. The lost loved ones she addresses as “you” create some of the most powerfully emotionally resonate moments in the novel. As the novel moves on, the reader begins to understand that part of the protagonist’s motivation to create art is to attempt to stop time, or at least to fight against the effects of time. The paintings and the photographs do what the novel attempts aesthetically—capturing moments and places, freezing them in time. In a sense, each short chapter is like snapshot, the snapshots the narrator takes with the camera in her hand and the camera in her mind, wanting to capture some specific detail of each and every day—even the “lesser days,” when the washed-out details are so challenging to capture that even the most carefully framed photographs are unlikely to develop a vibrant image.