Renewed, Transfigured

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Like boxes in storage, Andrea Scrima’s memories are itinerant. Wherever she resides, nothing seems to be in the right place.

In Andrea Scrima’s A Lesser Day, the narrator recollects a life in a continual state of unrest. Her unfinished paintings hang on walls in Berlin or Brooklyn; her belongings move from lofts to sublets, or remain behind in storage. Like the boxes, her memories are itinerant, traveling to the places she once lived—to the coal oven, to the exposed plumbing, to the heat pipes that clank, to the rain that pools beneath the skylight in a windowless loft. Wherever she resides, nothing seems to be in the right place: How to make sense of a life lived when its contents are scattered across countries and continents?

A Lesser Day is a restless book. On the first page, the narrator recalls entering her Berlin apartment after a two-week absence: “The sudden strangeness of the space, the strangeness of the plasterboard wall, so familiar and yet somehow too long, too high now.” That unhinged feeling is the book’s dominant mood. The narration switches frequently from past to present tense, and at the end of long sentences dangle modifiers such as “… but I didn’t know that yet.” These techniques enhance the book’s restive quality, allowing Scrima and her readers to experience the flow of images in something closer to real-time than hindsight. As a result, there’s plenty of uncertainty, the narrator’s memories remaining as much a mystery to her as they are to us.

Yet, those memories are full of detail and imagery. Here she is remembering a summer when she and her brother were children:

We spent all our free time together, glued to each other’s side, entire summers under water in the pool out back, the skin on our feet shriveling, our finger tips shriveling, jumping up and down wildly in the water and making waves, higher and higher, pulling ourselves up onto the edge of the pool and throwing ourselves back in, laughing and shrieking and jumping wildly and pretending we were at high sea, shipwrecked, exhilarated, the water splashing over the edge of the pool and flooding the ground below.

The details are lush, and the passage moves. The excess of verbs—shriveling, jumping, laughing, shrieking, splashing—lend the writing a sense of excitement and change. Yet, the memory lacks a conclusion. There isn’t a hint of sentimentality. There’s no circling back to admire the image of the shriveled feet and fingertips. There’s no lesson learned, only other stories, other memories. However lush, the memories aren’t made to cohere.

As the narrator of A Lesser Day strives for a connection, the purpose of the book remains unsettled. What’s clear is that the narrator is a middle-aged woman, an artist, who has lost a father some time ago, maybe years and years ago; the book, a novel or a memoir or both, is an attempt to connect, somehow. Despite their open-endedness, her memories gather momentum through direct address to an unnamed “you,” which comes and goes like a leitmotif. Her dead father, a lost lover or two, a former version of herself—the “you” takes on many personalities. Memory, as it turns out, is a form of conversation, like a prayer to the lost or the dead, who never talk back.

So, why strive to make sense of it all, when the subjects in her memories are elusive? Maybe memory is like the layers and layers of paint brushed on her unfinished canvases, or the loops and loops of telephone-hold music begun at different points, “but always the same celestial symphony, chopped into segmented sequences and pieced together again imperfectly.” Or maybe memory is like carrying an Instamatic camera for days,

anticipating the moment when I would find what I was waiting for and press the little red button, once each day, one photograph each day… On some days I found nothing at all, having waited too long and the light having grown too dim, but I always took the picture anyway, even though the film couldn’t record much more than a murky blur; a lesser day.

Or maybe memory is what T.S. Eliot describes in “Little Gidding,” a portion of which appears as the book’s epigraph:

… see, now they vanish,

The faces and the places with the self which,

as it could, loved them,

To become renewed, transfigured,

in another pattern.

Maybe it’s more about the process than the progress. Though she circles around the memory of a dead father, reads his old journals, stares at his old pictures, the narrator of A Lesser Day may never know enough. But all isn’t lost. Maybe memory’s ability to renew and transfigure is more its allure than its curse. Maybe the effort and the concentration remind her of what matters most: people are the places she wants to go.

Kevin Evers writes essays, reviews, fiction and nonfiction. His work has previously appeared at The Millions. He lives in Somerville, MA. More from this author →