Grief and Transformation
By Joselyn TakacsFebruary 9, 2016
The Narrow Door by Paul Lisicky
IT SEEMS an unremarkable epigraph: “He rested there a little while to recover from the effort involved and then set himself to the task of turning the key in the lock with his mouth.” However, if you pause to remember this moment in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, the selection’s ingenuity becomes clear. Gregor Samsa awakens one morning as a giant cockroach helplessly arrested on his back; after trying — with much agony — to turn himself over, to find an explanation and a remedy, he’s wrecked with exhaustion; still, despite further pain, he’s determined to open his bedroom door.
The Narrow Door is a memoir about how grief transforms us: it’s not unlike waking as a cockroach, the way loss renders us alien to ourselves, unsure of how to carry on when someone we’ve loved is gone. Subtitled A Memoir of Friendship, The Narrow Door recounts Lisicky’s longtime relationship with the writer Denise Gess, from their meeting as aspiring writers at Rutgers in 1983 to Gess’s untimely death from cancer in 2010. Lisicky calls this “the book that wants to bring back my friend”, but it’s also about the dissolution of his marriage six months after Denise Gess’s death, when Lisicky’s husband admits he’s seeing someone else:
And just when you think all is balance and equipoise (see my straight posture, my neutral face? There I am, halfway across the balance beam), a hand from nowhere pushes against your back. You think you’ve already endured your test, just when it might only be beginning.
Rather than a sustained, straightforward narrative, The Narrow Door is a nonlinear series of vignettes. These fragments, stories, and meditations (many of which are stand-alone and have been excerpted in various journals), beginning in 1983 and ending in 2012, straddle poetry and prose and are shuffled like a deck of playing cards. The structure risks jarring the reader, but Lisicky manages to sidestep the greatest pitfall of a nontraditional narrative: that is, readerly confusion or impatience with the author. The beauty of his prose — his acutely attuned voice and sense of rhythm — allows him to bridge scenes that are decades apart, weaving Denise Gess’s descent into illness with the turbulence in his personal life, thereby titrating the tension, as well as the grief.
Lisicky’s decision to tell his story this way seems natural, as if this is how it unfolded for him, and the form begets an ongoing commentary on the elusive nature of memory (a central focus in the book) and his role as an elegist, which makes him uneasy. How do we remember those we’ve loved? In moments, says Lisicky — moments partially fabricated; “myths we’ve made of ourselves.” He draws attention to the failure of memory, the deception of memory, the allure of memory.
In the opening passage, it’s 2008 in Gess’s apartment, and she is in the midst of aggressive chemotherapy for cancer that has metastasized to her brain. As they sit together on her couch, Lisicky notes how the physical boundaries between them have dissolved:
A book in my hand, her legs over my legs: how light the weight of her […] Funny it took us twenty-six years and cancer to get here. Ease with each other’s body. It doesn’t matter anymore that she’s straight and I’m not. See how we’ve been a little bit in love all this time, and not able to say it?
At this point, Gess rises from the couch, frail from the treatment that has ravaged her body, rendered her incapable of climbing stairs, and begins to dance. Even as her mother pleads with her to stop, Gess will not stop dancing.
In this way, Lisicky’s portrayal of Denise Gess reveals her charisma, her remarkable intelligence, and her wit, without censoring her insecurity or her possessiveness: “Her old plea,” he writes, “the old accusation, ‘Nobody loves me.’ Or worse: ‘You don’t love me.’” When the two meet as graduate students, Gess, a rising star, is an inspiration to Lisicky. Her first novel, Good Deeds, shows promise of literary celebrity that her second book fails to achieve. Here, Lisicky touches on the “hell of wanting [that] has no cure.” He surmises that Gess, more than longing for the Famous Writer who dumped her, longs to be him.
Which brings me to Lisicky’s decision to abbreviate his own famous husband’s name to M. It’s an odd choice. Surely, Lisicky knows that a quick Google search will reveal M’s identity. Nor does he downplay the fact that his husband is the celebrated poet. In his acknowledgements, there is even the final line: “And to M, of course.” After 18 years together, when M takes a lover, S, Lisicky writes, “To think you can love someone so well that he’d forget the dead, forget his pain […] To learn that you are only a pale winter sun, when you once thought you could have made the hillsides green.”
But why S? Does it stand for “Someone else,” perhaps? Did he feel it would be incongruous to abbreviate one name and not the other? Is it out of respect for M’s privacy that he abbreviates both names and none of the others in the book? Whatever the reason, Lisicky is otherwise candid; and his lilting prose enthralls, allowing this decision, which might have been distracting, to fade into the background as the story undulates between future and the past.
Earlier in the book, Gess and Lisicky sit in Gess’s kitchen as she weeps for the Famous Writer who has left and broken her heart, and Lisicky asks, “Can Denise already see I’ll be with another Famous Writer in eleven years?” He wonders if she knows that their roles will change — that he will achieve the greater success. He doesn’t shy away from exploring the discomfort of competition between friends. Describing the bitterness that creeps between him and Gess when he attends a prestigious writing conference in Vermont, and is accepted into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop MFA program. Of jealousy, he writes, “I still don’t allow myself to think of that word, as if it’s beneath us, the dirtiest word in our lexicon. I need to hold on to the belief that our love for each other comes first.”
In one of his more daring narrative decisions, he writes several times from the perspective of famous artists — Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye, Van Gogh, and Gauguin — and continues to explore the theme of envy through the lens of the friendship between Van Gogh and Gauguin. The two painters are collaborating in Arles, France, when competition poisons their relationship.
“They’ve gotten the notion that one person’s success is another person’s failure,” Lisicky writes.
As much as [Gauguin would] like to be brothers with Vincent, equally recognized by some hard but loving mother, the mother will always love one better. Currying the favor of the invisible mother: isn’t that the essence of competition? And so Gauguin pulls away, which is why Vincent cuts his own earlobe.
Similarly, in Lisicky’s view, Gess “begins to spell out an equation: Paul is the lucky one. Paul gets everything I don’t get.” In these scenes — part biography, part fiction, part allegory — Lisicky underscores what occurs in the surrounding personal narrative. For example, he turns to Joni Mitchell, Gess’s favorite musician, to relay Gess’s fear of failure; her longing for escape and for fame. “For Denise,” he writes, “Joni is longing perfected.”
This sort of structural risk, among others, mostly works in Lisicky’s favor as he experiments with the genre, questioning what memoir can do and how it can function. Young writers will find it instructive and heartening to read about his writing life and process; that he began as a graduate student “pretending to mock and shatter narrative, to make fun of story convention, but the truth is that [he had] no control over what the hell [he was] doing.” He does not hide disappointment over his career — that his books have not been as well-read as he’d hoped, that his husband’s success overshadowed his own; and yet he avoids sounding blameful or bitter. The memoir brims with insight, showcasing his talent for inquiry into the everyday:
We need this night. We need to pass Nick and Lili’s baby back and forth, not just for the weight of her — feel her between your hands, lighter than a bag of sugar — but for the wonder of looking into another face. Isn’t that why people lean toward babies and dogs, after all? We want to look into a face that isn’t going to judge, dismiss, or hurt us, but one that looks back at us with amusement, a face that makes us wide awake.
The book’s title — as if to personify his loss and the nature of grief — comes from a prayer Lisicky recalls hearing after Gess has died: “You lead us to salvation through the narrow door.” He tells us, “sunlight might be on the other side of that narrow door, but I have no clue what that sunlight might be.” In an earlier chapter he’s described a mixtape he made for Gess that perhaps encapsulates the memoir itself:
The arc of the disc doesn’t promise hope where there might be no hope […] There’s no neutrality, no sense that romance is anything but a life-and-death proposition. [The songs] don’t step lightly in the world; they’re not afraid of leaving a mark on wet concrete, or turning off the listener with the force of personality. They don’t want to sound like other people. They say yes and yes and yes to love, in spite of all the evidence against it.
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