A Lesser Day

Kevin T. S. Tang
Book Review

In A Lesser Day, Andrea Scrima's first novel/memoir, each of its short chapters is urgently scrawled out from a new loft studio in New York or Germany, each of them addressed to a constantly shifting ‘You.' In form, it resembles a collection of private letters; in tone, it reads like a retrospective diary. One gets the sense of eavesdropping on a mind straining to unravel its most stubborn existential tangles.

A Lesser Day borrows it title from the narrator's habit of taking a photograph each day, no matter how unremarkable the occasion. And as its central conceit suggests, the novel focuses on the metaphysical significance behind the quotidian. Its mission is awareness, seeing, and in her devotion to this goal Scrima resembles an urban Annie Dillard. The tenements of New York City and Germany are her Tinker Creek, and the narrator's galaxy of reclaimed objects her Appalachian wilderness. Like Pilgrim to Tinker Creek, the author seems to strive for a Thoreauvian “meteorological journal of the mind.” A difference in setting, but a striking similarity in mood and mission.

And like Dillard, Scrima novel is valiantly mundane and eerily quiet. There is little (if any) direct dialogue in the book. Though much of the novel is addressed to the narrator's deceased father, the book is remarkably unpopulated. Scrima is a consummate people watcher, but doesn't seem to allow many characters to linger for more than a few pages. She occasionally casts her languid gaze at her eccentric neighbors — a boy hurling a severed cat paw across the hedge, an elderly shut-in setting fire to her apartment — but these vignettes come as detours from an often non-narrative contemplation on time and mortality. The narrator is often alone, surrounding herself with a Dickensian tableau of dusty books, foreign newspaper clippings, and cast-off possessions from her family. And from this strange bohemian domesticity, she observes the paint peeling and cockroaches hatching from under her books, all the while taking stock of her emotional furniture, communing with her grief by proxy of inanimate objects.

At times the sensitivity feels a little too fey and deliberate, the voice straying too far from a sociable, conversational wavelength. Especially in the short interlude chapters, the soliloquies sound too much like despondent journal writing — e.g.:

How many times has my mind circled around a certain word, an expression that passed over a face and vanished, around and around, trying to get closer, but to what. That feeling of something being there, circling around and around; but what. That uneasy feeling of something about to be revealed, the quiet panic. And then, the moment of realization, its anaesthetizing effect. I see this, understand this, yet I don't see, I don't understand.

Perhaps the point is that this is what the inside of a yearning mind looks like, but it's rather little help to readers who wish to gain insight into Scrima's universe and the people who populate it. And if memory is “the past rewritten in the direction of feeling,” Scrima too often allows that feeling to be the object of her attention. The narrator at one point remarks that she "hated everything dramatic, everything theatrical," but Scrima is at her sharpest when she focuses on brisk narratives and concrete observations. My heart went out to Michael, the narrator's self-neglecting poet friend who drunkenly shambled her apartment, declaring her his “only friend.” 

And my blood boiled when her Norwegian-American neighbors pointed at her father's casket “as though to tickle a small furry animal” and discussed how they took the greatest care of themselves so “this wouldn't ever happen to them.” She also brings her considerable descriptive talents to bear in reconstructing a bygone New York bohemia — one that required burning coals in open ovens, scrimmaging food from the trash of Chinese takeouts, and boarding up your loft apartment windows at night. Even her most stratospheric musing benefited from her eye for concrete imagery. In explaining her obsession with cast-off objects and urban detritus:

To be no more than this one physical entity carrying its memory around inside a fragile skull, like an egg on a spoon . . . this body which will be outlasted by everything I see around me, everything I touch: the chair I am sitting in, the paper I am writing this on, none of it is as ephemeral as I.

Lines like these hit the mark and ring beautiful and true. Given her talent for disquieting visual detail, it's little surprise that Scrima's primary life-long craft is painting. And it's at these brilliant passages that I wish A Lesser Day anchored itself in more concrete images, characters and narratives. I wish more attention was given to introducing readers to the narrator's friends and family, whom she obviously misses and adores. It's not until the latter half of the book, for example, that the reader learns much about the narrator's father, to whom most of the novel's chapters are addressed. We learn that her father visited his brother at a sanitarium every week, and we're with the narrator when she speaks with her sequestered uncle for the first time.

We're with the narrator when her frustrated grief inexplicably turns into petty shoplifting, and we're with the narrator when she suffers the company of glib coworkers who banter over muffins as she wrestles privately with news of her father's death. It's in these small, poignant encounters that Scrima achieves her mission of deep existential awareness and feeling. In the end, it is hard not to cheer on a mind so intent on reclaiming meaning from the abandoned, the forgotten, and the mundane. The novel works on an anti-glamorous and proudly traditional wavelength – its credo of finding insights and stories in seemingly drab tableaus of still-lifes feeling somehow very Old World, even like a Chardin painting. Though parts of the book suffer from narrative stasis and abstruse navel-gazing, A Lesser Day is couched in noble ambitions towards deeper awareness, and Scrima demands that her readers follow her and share in her sense of quiet wonder.


Kevin T. S. Tang

Kevin T. S. Tang recently graduated Dartmouth College with a honors degree in English, a post-bac in saying hi when you're actually waving at the person behind him, and a M.A. in retracting his greetings awkwardly and running away. Besides his short stories and book reviews, Kevin has also published a translation of Huang Fan's short story on Words Without Borders. He is now an MFA student at Columbia University. You can also find Kevin's design portfolio at: http://kevintstang.com/

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