in review: Not One Day
Not One Day by Anne Garréta Publication Date: April 11, 2017 Publisher: Deep Vellum
The English translation to Anne Garréta’s Not One Day was published to low-key fanfare in April following widespread acclaim for Sphinx, Garréta’s groundbreaking gender-free romance. Much was made of that book’s technical accomplishment and of Garréta’s status as the first female member of the literary collective Oulipo, a group dedicated to experimentalism in language. I grow circumspect when books are praised for their formal achievements, wary of stumbling into novels more concerned with stroking the reader’s ego than constructing a compelling narrative, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that, at its heart, Sphinx was a straightforward romance, and Garréta’s detached, observational tone provided the perfect lens to examine the construct of gender through one couple’s experience. The novel’s lack of gender pronouns was impressive for the seamless way it dissolved into the fabric of the story, never coming across as awkward, forced, or even noticeable.
Emma Ramadan provided the masterly translation for that work, and she serves as the translator for Not One Day, which won the prestigious Prix Médicis upon its publication in 2002 (why it took so long for these works to be translated is a great mystery). Not One Day, as to be expected, is also built upon a formal premise: the allocation of five hours per day to writing about a woman who was the target of, or targeted, the author’s affection. This was to go on for one month, with each day’s essay exploring a different woman, a different experience.
In the hands of a male author, such an experiment would prove insufferable, an unnecessary addition to the bottomless trough of men’s sexual exploits. Even in Garréta’s hands, the premise is treacherous. However, her intelligence and self-awareness helps the collection expand beyond the confines of its roots. Garréta crafts her personal essays with a wink: “The irony delights you before you’ve even written a line,” she writes. “You will play at a very old game that has become the hobbyhorse of a modernity balking at radical disenchantment: confession, or how to scrape the bottoms of mirrors.” Years before Ben Lerner and Sheila Heti made waves pursuing such a style, Garréta had already more or less perfected the post-modern confessional, doing so with a self-awareness that many authors fail to accomplish.
As with those novelists, mileage with Not One Day will vary, but Garréta’s language is ever-engaging and her insights impressive (and at 95 pages, the book is an easy afternoon read). Each woman is marked by an initial—A, B, C, and so on—and each offers a different insight into the narrator’s romantic proclivities. “How can you feel such a pressing, devastating desire for a woman you don’t even find attractive?” she wonders of C. Her attraction for D, meanwhile, lies in “secret grasping of signs which, in the middle of a society both blind and supercilious, permitted the initiatory recognition of desire”—a desire that stemmed from “the paradox of this desire’s parameters… A social setting, a straight woman.” The clarity with which Garréta is able to deconstruct her yearnings and identify different strains of attraction is remarkable. That she is able to do so in such compact narratives without sacrificing the integrity of her characters is a feat. Although some passages are overly dense, others sparkle with clarity, as when she remarks of one woman, “All her mannerisms, even her way of sitting are of a perfect femininity. Or: how to occupy the least possible amount of space in the world.” If the writing is at times didactic, it is always thought-provoking without sacrificing the elegance of a finely turned phrase. Her chapter on the letter I, an unexpected recount of an American road trip, is particularly noteworthy. “Your car seems to surf on the surface. Chesapeake Bay swallows up body, lane, and soul. Spiraling ramps and arching suspension cables, a thin strip of steel and concrete surfaces and plunges anew into an endless vertigo. The cliff against which the Tappan Zee Bridge seems to want to throw itself, the elegant swerve of its deck skirting the abyss.” Nouns become verbs and verbs dissolve into the landscape of Garréta’s impressionistic prose, leaving the reader with an image, a feeling of a woman traversing the country under the night sky, solo but not alone.
Like Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be?, Garréta’s novel is built upon the premise of a project that never reaches completion. N jumps to X, Y, and Z, the last completed, as the author notes, on night 12 of her 30-day endeavor. The book ends with a Post Scriptum wherein Garréta berates herself for having been unable to finish her project. She then jumps into a meta-analysis of the work that adds some depth to the essays, but mostly feels like an obtuse and off-topic ramble. Still, Garréta is a writer of immense talent; if she suffers from occasional over-indulgence, this is a small price to pay for the joy of even a single essay of this collection, and the singular insight that she provides. Not One Day is a casual revelation; a delight.