Garréta is best known for her debut novel, Sphinx, a love story between two characters whose genders are never revealed. The novel, published in French in 1986 and translated into English last year, helped her become the first female member of the OuLiPo, the French collective of writers and mathematicians who work within self-imposed constraints. While the constraint of Sphinx (and most OuLiPian texts) is never stated outright, in Not One Day Garréta lays out a series of rules for herself in the opening pages: She will sit down at a computer for five hours a day—“no more no less”— every day for a month, and write about a woman she has desired or who has desired her. There will be no drafting, no erasing, and no revisions. She will write the memories as they come to mind, then order them not chronologically but alphabetically, after an initial somehow related to the central figure of each. As she puts it, she will “subject [herself] to the discipline of confessional writing.”
“The stammering alphabet of desire” that follows is sweeping in scope and style. Each of the 12 stories, just a few pages long, can be read as a reflection on a different kind of desire. In “B*,” the author is made indecisive with yearning, “sketching out [a] virtual night” as she debates whether to invite a woman over for drinks. In “C*” she grapples with her sudden unreasonable attraction to a woman in a club that she’s long found repulsive. “D*” is mostly comic digression; to delay writing about a series of uncomfortable sexual encounters, Garréta muses about her failure to live a spartan life (her mother lavishes her with teaspoons and dishtowels—family heirlooms—that she cannot refuse). In a slew of different styles, her stories explore feelings that are acted upon or repressed, requited or not, protean or fixed.
This translation of Not One Day makes it the latest in a string of genre-bending books by female authors that defy a common assumption about confessional writing: that it is, more often than not, an unrestrained spewing of emotion, lacking craft or consideration. (This is precisely why, as Leslie Jamison wrote in the pages of The Atlantic, a number of female memoirists——who, not coincidentally, are far more likely to be assigned this label—have rejected the term.) Perhaps most memorable is Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, published in 2015, which catalogues her partnership with the fluidly gendered West Coast artist Harry Dodge through the seamless blending of autobiography and theory. By placing her own stories on the same plane as philosophy, psychology, art theory, and more, Nelson asserts the instructive value of her own experiences.
At around the same time, Chris Kraus’s cult novel, I Love Dick, took more mainstream flight. In this book, a 39-year-old experimental filmmaker (also named Chris Kraus) becomes infatuated with a man named Dick and, egged on by her husband Sylvère, begins to write him letters. What starts as an arousing couple’s activity that reignites the passion in Chris and Sylvère’s marriage becomes a solo one that threatens their union. Meanwhile, Kraus’s letters become longer and more confident in voice, playfully weaving in discussions of art, criticism, and history.