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Book review: The Narrow Door explores friendship in a way that few other memoirs have

Paul Lisicky has produced an honest, frustrating, and worthwhile read.

Graywolf Press

I've been having trouble making up my mind about The Narrow Door. It was not all pleasurable to read, although I liked it. I was irritated throughout, although I think it has accomplished something new. My notes, in margins, are all exasperation and difficulty. But a week’s distance and I miss it, feel that it was onto something that I missed.



The basic facts of the book: In 2009, the writer Denise Gess, most famously of Good Deeds (1985) and Firestorm at Peshtigo (2003), died of lung cancer in Philadelphia. Paul Lisicky was her best friend of 20 years. In 2009, Lisicky was recently married to the poet Mark Doty. In 2013, they divorced. The Narrow Door is an account of both losses, an account of the friendship most of all. Lisicky and Gess are sometimes closer and sometimes not. At times they are not speaking. But The Narrow Door only goes back as far as their meeting, only goes on through the consequences of her death. It’s an ambitious task. "A memoir of friendship" deceives by sounding simple.

The Narrow Door succeeds. I will join with every other critic I can find in that. Friendship is a difficult subject, more difficult to write about than love. It resists narrative structure, even with death, and is stretched over years where the presence of the thing is more substantial than the activity. Lisicky does not explicitly lay out the feeling of a long friendship, he does not try to essentialize it to a paragraph or an aphorism — how could he? The Narrow Door brings out his long friendship with Gess over the run of 200 pages, as background, as the mood of the whole work.

The book evokes friendship, in the straightest sense, by craft. Lisicky summons its feeling by the way the text revolves around it. I hate to be reductive, but friendship animates The Narrow Door like a friendship does a life: there, always, sometimes nearer or further away. A reference point, in the way he worries what she’ll think, worries what he thinks of her, makes sense of his own life by way of reporting it back. The day becomes real when he tells her about it; each point of the book becomes real when we know what it meant for the two of them. That is the achievement here.

But I knew that much while I read it. I was certain by the time I was through. Still — I was irritated. Early on, Lisicky writes that he’s wary of any writing that wants to provoke tears, any gesture that has the slightest stink of familiarity about it. Anything that asks the reader to say yes to some received truth. Then: So what is it I’m doing?

I guess what I was uncertain of is how Lisicky makes sense of his own work. When I read this passage for the first time, I went for my pen: "What are you doing, then?" in the margin of a book that was all sentiment so far. Episodes about long walks and beaches and mixtapes, telephone calls each night like reliving adolescence, how vibrant and insistent Gess was, even when she was selfish and needy and mad.

I wrote it over and over — "Isn’t this sentimental?" — so many times that I took to just underlining passages; I knew what I meant. My irritation reached the point of injustice. This was memoir, after all. I couldn't just underline each time Lisicky remembered something and assigned it some positive importance. I was enjoying whole parts and then turning on them, caught up in the same second-guessing Lisicky struggles with. I was getting paranoid about received truths in every passage. Being unfair.

I reread the book this week. The Narrow Door benefits from rereading; knowing what’s ahead doesn’t spoil the work so much as slow it. It lets you sit in the technique and in the details, see where certain conventions are going and appreciate their early iterations. Sentimentality was less worrying, partly because Lisicky’s question to himself strikes, on second pass, less as a denial and more as a warning — it’s unclear, to him, to the reader, to the project of this book, where the line into sentiment is. You’ve only got your memories for reference.

Moreover, it becomes clearer how Lisicky understands sentimentality. It isn’t only undeserved importance or rose-colored glasses or nostalgia — it is, as he says, asking the reader "to say yes to some received truth."

The Narrow Door doesn’t do that. It offers, but nowhere does it demand assent. In its best places, it even tempts the yes to what it’s saying, before saying that the last bit wasn’t truth at all. The Narrow Door can take a "no." But without the worry, I found it an easier work to say yes to.

Still, I have not said yes to all of it.

I have said yes to the center, of course, to the central ambition to portray a friendship more honestly than I have seen before. I accept Lisicky’s talent for distilling the neurotic, too. I want to be in my twin bed in my quiet house on my quiet street across the river, where I can think about the party and review it in my mind, without having to feel any of the queasiness that comes from actually having to talk to a person, especially a person with a bigger personality than mine. To read them, most writers hate parties, but not so particularly or so well.

The second time reading, I found new pleasure in the book’s small, tangential passages. There are paragraphs of The Narrow Door, whole sections, that would be difficult to call essential. But they are lovely, exercises and prose poems in their own right, the kinds of things a too-exacting editor might excise but that we’re lucky to see spared. The book is full of these pockets: just good writing. I’ll say yes to that, too: The Narrow Door is well-written, in the artistic sense, in straight prose mechanics, in the way that’s too rare in American nonfiction now.

But even on a second pass, there are still things to say no to. Lisicky is almost too well-trained. In difficult places, where a point must be made or a plot point advanced, his reflex is technique straight from the workshop. This isn’t a bad thing in itself: Writers acquire their techniques for a reason, and Lisicky is proficient and accomplished in them. But up against the grief and confusion that drives The Narrow Door, there is dissonance in passages where the mechanics are laid too bare, where for all the mastery of execution it’s difficult not to think, I see what you did there. Perhaps these sections wouldn’t be so jarring if so much of The Narrow Door were not about writing itself. When an author puts you in mind of readings and retreats and MFAs, it is difficult not to notice the tricks that writers learn in such places.

No, too, to some of the book’s minor threads, in particular the several times Lisicky delves into the life of Joni Mitchell, only to abandon the thread two-thirds through. I see the idea: They tend to correspond to moods and artistic anxieties Lisicky and Gess have, but the resonance runs thin. It feels like an insistence; Gess loved Joni Mitchell, so Joni Mitchell stays in. The same with The Narrow Door's regular indulgence in lit-world gossip, well beyond what Lisicky requires. If I say no to the reception of anything, it's that, the worst of which concerns a "Famous Writer" Gess is half-involved with.

Lisicky won’t say the Famous Writer’s name. But: the writer who writes big, fat, funny-sad novels with violent accidents in them, Lisicky hints. A page later: She holds up the cover of the issue of TIME on which he appears in a red shirt under a tan blazer. Then: I like his books, especially the one in which the son loses his eye on the stick shift. He won't tell us Famous Writer's name. But it’s John Irving. You knew that. Come on.

One element I’m still uncertain of: Mark Doty, Lisicky’s ex-husband, called "M" within. I don’t know what to say to that. The early dissolution of Lisicky’s marriage occupies nearly as much space as his friendship with Gess. It is almost a parallel plot, but not at all as effective. It is strange that a book so accomplished in discovering the contours of a long friendship should struggle to tell the relatively simple story of love lost. "M" remains inscrutable, inaccessible in a way Gess isn’t. Lisicky’s own thoughts lack the clarity or poetry they take on considering his friend.

Some parts work. Lisicky and M looking at an old photograph; a long car ride while M’s new lover waits at home; a dinner. And it is possible that a marriage with an unsteady ending is just more difficult to make sense of than a friend who’s died, but there are formal troubles, too. After two readings, I still cannot follow the timeline — when they were together and when apart, what time of year these things were happening, despite explicit date marks in the text. Perhaps it is only that Denise Gess exerts too much gravity on the book. Lisicky's marriage cannot achieve velocity in a story about her, and the result is stilted, not quite able to breathe.

One last thing: If The Narrow Door’s mood is a long, diffuse friendship, then what’s lurking, subterranean, is catastrophe. The book returns over and over: Lisicky on the Deep Horizon oil spill in real time, the earthquake in Haiti, an earthquake in Chile, videos he’s watching of tsunamis and volcanoes. What startles me is the clarity of the lava. The lava slides down the mountainside in a silvery wash, with the translucence of saliva, pre-cum, tears. It takes down a side of the mountain with it. It takes down birches, buildings, cabins. It buries tractors, mailboxes, mule deer, though you can’t see any of that from here.

We find the Earth sick in small ways, too, in bad beaches and bad trees, in the putrid smell of fetid water, over and over, throughout. It would be easy to mistake this all for easy symbolism. The whole book concerns catastrophe: breakup, cancer, aging, failure. The earthquakes and oil spills can be chalked up to a parallel, the disaster of the world mirroring the disasters of our lives or some similar bit of book club obviousness. But I don’t think that’s right, nor does Lisicky. I refuse to say the Earth is reflecting my feelings; the story of perception is more complicated than that, he writes. But the Earth is certainly having some trouble with itself. For him, it is less the way our small catastrophes parallel the big ones than the ways the big ones are lurking, poised to wipe aside our concern for smaller human dramas, like lava coming down the mountain.

The Narrow Door is a good book. If that’s what a review comes down to, that’s it. Read it. It’s an exercise in the best sense, in making sense of something that endured over decades and doesn’t lend itself to easy structure. It is better than straight grief, better than straight sentiment. If Lisicky can’t quite keep a handle on it all, he comes closer than most others. The Narrow Door breaks down in places. When it does, it is not the craftsman fraying the edges for effect, nor the composer letting go of every theme in the fourth movement. It’s not so on-purpose. It’s just: Lisicky is a writer struck by grief whose training can nearly handle it. That’s all.

Grief is over, Lisicky writes, I tell myself that. It isn’t. That’s a lot.