"WHO ARE WE when we've lost the people closest to us?" asks the writer Paul Lisicky. "How does that affect our sense of ourselves?"
This, he tells me over the phone amid book tour prep, is the question that sparked his new memoir, The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship, which recounts his friendship with fellow writer Denise Gess in associative prose against the backdrop of his disintegrating marriage, and Lisicky's meditations on everything from natural disasters to Joni Mitchell's discography. These narrative strands outside of his friendship with Gess (although some are tangentially linked; they both loved Mitchell) were necessary, says Lisicky, to offset some of the hardship that came with writing about a friend whose recent death he was still grieving.
"I wanted to keep her in my thoughts and record her gestures," he says. But the solace that brought came with dread, because, "I hated admitting—recognizing—the fact that she was dead. I'd need to step away. The first stepping away is the description of the volcanoes early in the book." Joni Mitchell, et al. followed.
While plenty of nonfiction centers on family histories and partnered relationships, there are fewer templates for memoirs of friendship—although, Lisicky points out, citing Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels and Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life, books about friends may be having a moment right now. "I'm wondering if this is a time when our closest relationships are in fact [with] our friends," he says.
About his friendship with Gess: It wasn't uncomplicated, and The Narrow Door doesn't wince away from its darker moments, including Gess and Lisicky's competition over recognition for their writing, periods of radio silence, and the long time it took him to come out to her. But there's a baseline affection that shines through, as when Lisicky writes, "See how we've been a little bit in love all this time, and not able to say it? But that's the story of any friendship that lasts this long. All those hours on the phone, in restaurants, in classrooms, or at the dog park—you couldn't do all that and not be a little bit in love."
In lines like that, Lisicky puts into words something quietly revolutionary: Though there's no socially-sanctioned ceremony to mark the importance of friendship, it can nonetheless be just as sustaining as those other, more codified relationships. Perhaps more so; friendships are allowed to break and change and reform with a remarkable elasticity. Reading The Narrow Door reminded me that I should call up my own Denises and Pauls.
Tellingly, Lisicky allows Gess' own voice to intertwine with his through excerpts from their long-running correspondence braided into the text. The letters are critical in showing Gess' warmth, and also in making sure that Lisicky's isn't the only view we get of her. This is no small thing, since Lisicky's holistic treatment of Gess doesn't exclude her sharp edges. By all accounts, Gess had a performative, magnetic personality, but she could also behave erratically and thoughtlessly. "I wanted to write a book about someone who I was really attached to and loved deeply but could also be kind of difficult and mercurial," says Lisicky. "My hope was that in writing a broader range for her character that even her more difficult sides would be understandable to the reader... I loved her as much for the time she was difficult. She was never boring."
The occasionally joyful, occasionally frustrating communion Lisicky and Gess shared was predicated on their love of writing and reading, and the day-to-day experience of being a professional writer is just as much a through-line in The Narrow Door as Lisicky's evolving friendship with Gess and unraveling relationship with his partner. He recounts a lifetime of teaching gigs, writers' residencies, classes at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, rooms filled with members of his chosen literary community. Lisicky is bold in his clear-eyed descriptions of writerly longing for recognition and success, as when Denise's second novel doesn't sell, or when his own writing is tagged dismissively as "quiet."
I puzzled over that. The word itself isn't wrong, but it is wrongly employed. Lisicky's writing is quiet. I don't mean that as a pejorative, and it's a shame that it's been used as one, because that quietness is exactly what makes Lisicky's writing so appealing. His prose isn't flashy, and his story is a familiar one, but throughout The Narrow Door, Lisicky's voice carries a sense of keen, compassionate observation that can only be described as quiet. This is a book written from the sidelines at a party, about the person standing in the middle of the fray. It's easy to see why Denise meant so much to Lisicky, and he to her, the one needing to be pulled back occasionally from her more mercurial tendencies, the other from his quiet corner into the center of the room.
The Narrow Door
by Paul Lisicky (Graywolf Press)
Reading at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside,
Wed Feb 24, 7:30 pm, free
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