On occasion, into this marketing-shaped reality comes a work whose writing is matched by the originality of its form.
Walk into your average bookstore and you’re asked to choose what it is you would like to read by genre: fiction (short stories or novels), poetry, non-fiction… You’d be forgiven for thinking of these genres as hard and fast molds that writers simply pour the seeds of ideas into, tending them as they grow to the appropriate shape. On occasion, into this marketing-shaped reality comes a work whose writing is matched by the originality of its form. Along with that comes the realization that a genre label like “experimental” is just a ghettoizing term for a narrative that oversteps its bounds.
Perched above the prologue for Nona Casper’s new work, Little Book of Days, is a quote from Mina Loy: “Consciousness has no climax.” Caspers fleshed out this concept by tracking her days – 400 of them, to be exact – and delving deep into the consciousness of everyday perception.
It’s hard to imagine making interesting material of the ins and outs of your days, but then, maybe Caspers’ days are a little different from our own. I once took a class with her and walked in late one day to the sight of Caspers standing on a chair singing an operatic song about how “the baby needs changing.” A bit jarring without context, but the point of her ongoing song and dance was that there is creative material to be mined from what she called the “small upheavals” in our days. Focusing on writers like Lydia Davis, Grace Paley, Christopher Isherwood, Bernadette Mayer and Frank O’Hara, you start to see how the baby needing changing could very well be the heart of a great piece of literature.
The opening of Little Book of Days sets the stage:
The radio says arctic grounds squirrels live underground for eight months a year. They lower their body temperature below freezing without freezing themselves, and they lie underground and no one expects anything of them. They are not asleep, they are frozen without being frozen.
Caspers then shifts to the exhausting need to move her body “through millions more minutes.” We’re led, intuitively, to thoughts of the body as machine, the body in repetition, unable to pause or hibernate. “I am beginning to think we’re all going to die,” she writes, flirting with mortality and mocking her self-seriousness. She then circles back, ending with the squirrels: “When they wake up, everyone wants to eat them.” There’s this kind of constant gut punch throughout the entries: insights hilarious and terrifying in equal measure. We move from seemingly banal information – what Caspers lets in from the radio, or picks up from dialogue – to the ongoing recognition of mortality or poignant beauty that are like meat on the bones of daily routine. After you finish reading the book, you wonder if her focus on the stuff of days is the art of making mountains out of molehills, or possibly the reverse.
Caspers has a history of exploring this realm of dailyness – her first book of short stories, Heavier Than Air won the Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction. Heavier is rooted in a Midwestern town where the characters’ dramatic upheavals (death, emotional breakdown, discovering sexual identity) are crystallized in a deep stillness. Revelation in Caspers’ work rarely comes through high drama or action, but are bound up in the weighted gesture or observation – the man who will not sing, even when his wife tilts the hymnal toward him; a wedding kiss where the groom is “forced to catch” the bride’s lips when she leans ever near him. It’s this language of observation – the kind that leaves room for the reader to reckon with the characters’ needs and failures – that we see further distilled in Little Book of Days.
Rooted in the narrator’s mind is a constant flirtation with possibility. In a characteristic passage, Caspers writes:
In the middle of listening to someone, X, telling me a sad story about her life I start fantasizing that my mother, who is happily square dancing in Minnesota, has suicided, that I am telling a roomful of people about how much I love my mother and then I start to cry, real time, not in the fantasy. Tears creep up in my eyes and X makes a face like Oh, Nona, she’s so compassionate. My neighbor is stomping above me. Then I have this Old Testament-like instinct in my gut or maybe in a bone to make sure god knows I don’t want my mother to die, and I think about the likelihood of that—she would never take such action. And then I imagine myself telling people I’m also proud of her; she was always so passive.
It’s hilarious, and yet uncomfortable to see such thoughts laid bare. With honesty, the narrator explores those often uncharted spaces of empathy, self, and other. Bending down on a train to stretch, our narrator straightens back up, and sees herself through the eyes of an onlooker, a transference of perception: “Someone glances at me, a swimmer coming up for air.”
While Caspers initially started off with some 400 days of raw material, she honed the entries down to 100. This is partly to do with readability (As she put it, “I thought that’s what someone could tolerate –100 days — without it getting completely yuck), but it is also to do with constructing a narrative. There is no well-defined plot, but there is a tension that builds with the repetition of images and sounds – cars at certain hours (“Big orange school bus rounds the corner off Dolores down 15th Street—that doesn’t usually happen”), the needs of a kitten (“The skinny one walks across my face to get to the water bowl”), and the push and pull of relationships (“Even though V is gone, I picture her with a cigarette in her mouth, glaring at me. Why would I miss someone glaring?”). We see the mind processing and moving forward without standard conventions of linearity.
Reading Little Book calls to mind Eileen Myles’ novel Cool for You. As a writer, it’s the kind of work you hold on high with one hand, while slamming a fist to your desk with the other, wondering how the hell they get away with it. It forces you to rethink what material has a right to be a story, and how it evolves to take its own shape.
Caspers worked on and off for years on Little Book of Days, at one point even deeming it a failed project. “I didn’t know what it was, what it wanted to be,” she explained in a recent interview. “It wasn’t this, it wasn’t that. To me, it’s the not-book.” But after much encouragement from her friends and colleagues, she set about revising, cutting, and weaving together story lines from different entries, a process she likened to creating a quilt. The result combines reflection and immediacy. It’s part of the writing process Caspers developed while working on the dailyness project – taking inspiration from what’s out the window, allowing real-time events in and giving space to the subconscious to pull in the right thing.
The final product is the redemption of “now” – a space so often overlooked by writers. It’s not undigested, but there’s a rawness, or present tense “–ing” to it, offering the photo negatives from a literary mind. Woven throughout are strange factoids about animals, including the ancient Archaeopteryx that “may well have run, leaped, glided, and flapped all in the same day.” The same could be said of Little Book of Days.