Friday, March 18, 2016

"The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship," by Paul Lisicky

Paul Lisicky has written a memoir about a very close friend, a longtime lover-then-husband, and his mother, and how he loses all three of them in the 2000s. In “The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship” (Graywolf, 2016), the author mostly focuses on the period of 2007-2010, but with dips into the past. The three stories of his three losses are interwoven, with the stories of his friend and of his husband paramount. Although his stated main focus is on his friendship with the late novelist Denise Gess, with whom he has an unusually close friendship, and although she is an intense, vivid person, I never felt that I could see her clearly. The stories from her illness (cancer), treatment, and death are heartbreaking, but Lisicky himself still seems to be at the center of the stories. It is somehow easier to know Lisicky’s partner, the poet Mark Doty (known only as “M” in this memoir). Their breakup after more than a dozen years is also heartbreaking, and it is surprising that Lisicky, although devastated, seems to take it without much protest, almost as if, having been the junior partner (both age-wise and in professional status) in their relationship for so long, he feels he has no agency, no equality in the relationship or the breakup. In addition to losing the relationship, he loses the life the two have led together, including an apartment in New York and a vacation house, and financial support; he briefly but poignantly states that he has very little money or property himself after the breakup. The third loss, of his mother upon her death, is quieter and less an element in the story, but nevertheless, a real loss as well. Although the author shows us that he has gradually gained professional status, he does not emphasize his own achievements, except to speculate that Denise may have felt a bit left behind, as she had little success after her well-received first novel. Interspersed with these stories (thoughtfully introduced with the year in which each happened, a real aid in understanding the back-and-forth of the episodes) are stories of, and meditations on, natural disasters and climate change. Lisicky seems to have a sincere fascination with, and worry about, these unfortunate natural events, but the passages about them seem a bit too self-consciously to match the storms and disasters in his own life. Undergirding, and sometimes undercutting, the stories of strong connection and terrible loss is a strong current of ambivalence about the three people he has lost. He loves them all, is fiercely connected especially to Denise and M, yet at times rebels against the connections and even, in Denise’s case, is semi-estranged from her for periods of time. Of course these are normal shifts and fluxes in human relationships, but sometimes they appeared unexpectedly. I found this memoir quite compelling, and I am glad I read it. However, I have to admit that at times I felt that the author was somewhat too self-conscious about what he was revealing to readers, and that added a layer of separation or distance that he may or may not have intended.
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