The Narrow Door by Paul Lisicky
Review by Bailey Kimbell
Vulnerability spills from Paul Lisicky’s memior The Narrow Door. An atmosphere of exposure hovers over work, relationships, and homes and leaves us with the distinct impression that our emotions and motives are being scrutinized, even as the writer exposes his own. And it’s not entirely comfortable. Lisicky summarizes this startling vulnerability while reliving a Tilt-A-Whirl ride on the boardwalk: “We’re not meeting our deaths, oh no. No imaginary confrontation with the angel or monster. I’m just reminded that I have a body that’s capable of being shaken.”
Lisicky’s memoir spans decades, following two main relationships in his life. One, his friendship with fellow writer Denise Gess, dominates the narrative as we are first told she dies of cancer. The rest of the memoir retraces this friendship, which fluctuates in intensity when both writers’ careers force them to separate and, ultimately, rediscover one another. The second relationship, in contrast to Denise’s wild turbulence, is a slowly crumbling romance between Lisicky and the poet M, who admits to seeing someone else after being together for over fifteen years.
The Tilt-A-Whirl with its jerking motions reflects the memoir’s pace. There are moments where his diction mechanically jolts, but those moments are left behind to give way to greater sensations. Lisicky moves his narrative between the years 1983 and 2012 and breaks his memories into small, bright pieces. Among the memories are prayers, poems, and sermons that reveal the fragmentation of human memory, while the writer himself questions it with subtle fury: “Why is my memory so patchy? Why can’t I remember better from those times? It infuriates me. All I have are fragments, bursts of sound and taste and color.”
These fragments save the narrative. When choosing to write in this disjointed manner, Lisicky threatens to leave the reader behind with his tidal wave of emotions and impressions, which chronologically pull backwards and forwards. But the beautiful familiar images in this text kept me grounded, invited me to commiserate and feel his pain and confusion, and the disjointed series of memories forces us to engage with his emotions. In doing so, the memoir reveals both the community and individual struggles of grief, inviting us to understand Lisicky’s turmoil and our own.
In the middle of awaiting the inevitable death of Denise, Lisicky creates disorientation through more than just jumping chronologically. He also describes a seemingly endless series of homes. He has many settings: his parents’ home, his apartment in Manhattan, the home he and M share in Springs, Iowa City, Florida. So much geographical movement makes the reader feel as uprooted as Lisicky over the years. The constant spatial shifts ask the question, what makes a home and how can we hold onto it? Because in the midst of finding a home and settling, Lisicky shows us that homes cannot always be the comfort we want them to be. He ponders how homes change and begin to trap us, showing Denise in her final months in her apartment:
But the apartment couldn’t be a more tranquil space, and as a result Denise seems calmer to me than I’ve ever known her, in spite of the shoulder-length wig she takes off and on and off.
Yet weeks later, Lisicky writes of that ideal space: “And the apartment that had seemed like a tree house just a few days before will seem a little like a punishment, just one more thing that she’d succumbed to.” Homes are constantly lost, changing, and succumbing to emotional impressions, illustrated by the suffocating apartment that Lisicky and M share. This shifting impression of “home” suggests that our safe spaces fluctuate. Once again, we feel vulnerable in even our most intimate and controlled locations, where we thought we had power. Then, Lisicky surrounds these personal spaces with glimpses of large environmental and natural disasters, such as the BP oil spill and volcanic eruptions, which both expands the emotional tension in the novel and impresses on us how small we really are.
And over all of these sensations is Denise, whose strong presence is the backbone of the narrative. The way Lisicky describes and relives memories with her suggests that he both wants to honor this spirit and complicate it. He wants to capture his impressions of Denise in that moment, and, at times, Lisicky’s frustration while trying to do that emerges: “Of course I’ll speak for Denise. But words—what words could I say to make Denise, all the Denises, real to those people in the church?”
His relationship with Denise is full of doubt and wonder, a much more positive and forgiving description than the one he provides for the poet M, which shows a relationship falling apart so slowly that it fades into a void. Lisicky tries to capture the pain of looking back on a relationship and feeling only a sense of inevitability and sorrow:
To learn that your attention is doomed. Unwelcome, better having been put to other uses: helping the poor, working for the environment, for animals. To learn that you are only a pale winter sun, when you once thought you could have made the hillsides green.
By paralleling two relationships, both of which are heading towards an end, Lisicky interweaves painful human experiences into a mixture of vignettes and poetry.
Lisicky’s memoir is a burden, the kind you carry long after you thought you were done with it. Subtitled A Memoir of Friendship, the narrative covers topics that echo in every life. Death, grief, friendship, and frustration cling to the book’s memories and hold a mirror up to the reader in the most uncomfortable way. While it may not always be pleasant to encounter these themes, The Narrow Door drags these concerns out into the light, where their exposure is beautiful and unnerving all at once.
Bailey Kimbell is a recent graduate of the MA program in English at Florida State University