When the Window Becomes a Mirror: Paul Lisicky’s The Narrow Door
By Douglas Ray
JULY 24, 2016
At the point when Paul Lisicky is coming to accept his own queerness, he takes a trip to a gay bar outside Hyannis (not exactly a gay metropolis in 1987). After leaving the desolate bar, Lisicky, then in his twenties, goes to a motel, checks into a room, and lies naked on the bed with the lights on. An older man has followed him there. Lisicky notices the man standing outside the window, watching Lisicky as he jerks off on his motel bed. “I lie there watching the man’s face as he watches me,” Lisicky writes, “until he tires of seeing what might be his own face transposed over mine—has the window become a mirror?” This moment of queer longing, gazing, and desiring is almost Narcissus reimagined, and the notion of window-as-mirror is one of a handful of controlling metaphors in Lisicky’s new memoir, The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship.
Like the window-mirror, memoir itself is both reflective and transparent. Light hitting the glass—and the looker’s relationship to it—determines the image: Are we looking through to something beyond us? Are we staring back at ourselves? Perhaps we also have to determine what the looker (or the writer) wants or needs: Do we want to see out on the world? Do we need to look back on ourselves? To tease this comparison further, what is light in the memoirist’s world? Language? Truth, maybe? Desire, always? And finally, how does the resulting image (or memory written) change us, our seeing, our remembering?
Lisicky’s The Narrow Door maps the difficult terrain of human relationships—romantic and nonromantic—over a time of more than thirty years. Though he explores several relationships, two become the book’s greatest concerns: Lisicky’s friendship with Denise Gess, a writer with a volatile, electric personality, and his romance (and its demise) with M, the “Famous Writer” Mark Doty. But beyond these obvious relationships, Lisicky also navigates his relationship to queerness, to writing, to his family, to death and dying, to the business of writing, and to living amidst constant change.
Lisicky eschews linearity in writing the memoir, instead (for the most part) plotting the Denise story alongside the M story in short vignettes introduced by year markers. The relational dynamism of these two threads, as he tells them, makes the reader see the stories as “friends” (again, for the most part) in the body of his memory. Lisicky certainly does not avoid darkness, the difficult moments of cruelty and rejection. He understands that a “memoir of friendship,” while it may seek some sort of redemption or hopeful resolution, may not realize those outcomes. The truth in the telling, the complicated mess of failures and lies, makes the narrative more compelling than a false, feel-good episode of a melodrama.
The memoir begins with “Volcano,” a section that suggests the explosive nature of what Lisicky explores, that what he is going to tell isn’t completely safe. This is the metaphorical landscape on which Lisicky constructs his memories. He begins in a room in Philadelphia, eager for hope. In Denise’s apartment in November 2008, Denise’s mom, sister, and Lisicky are gathered and avoiding all talk of the difficult treatment for cancer she’s undergoing, instead enjoying each other’s presence and feeling some of the joy from the Presidential election results rolling in. Denise dies in August 2009, some nine months after the opening scene, and Lisicky’s project is to dive into the volcano of a twenty-six-year friendship, to assess its heat and risk, to wonder what’s preserved in ash and what’s destroyed by lava.
Though we first see Denise in her weakened, near-death state, Lisicky characterizes her as a powerful, volatile force of a person. They meet in the early eighties: he a twenty-three-year-old graduate student and she a thirty-year-old teaching assistant with a forthcoming novel. She projects confidence, elan, while Lisicky is shy, reserved, still finding his way. Lisicky watches her closely, and Denise serves as his guide. And she loves the attention: She’s an event in a human body, the sort of teacher who has groupies, the sort of writer who blazes and sparkles through a residency or conference. As they become more and more enmeshed, it becomes clear that, with a friendship such as theirs, there are no clear rules, limits, or guides.
Extremely close friendships queer the lines between “philia” (the love between friends), “pragma” (longstanding, abiding love), and “eros,” (sexual love). Perhaps one way it is clear that Lisicky’s friendship with Denise exists in its own space is that, despite their extreme closeness, he has a difficult time coming out to her as gay. He does so through their shared language of fiction, of support for each other’s work, of letting the work not only speak for itself but also to each other. In this way, Lisicky’s memoir, which weaves a web of writers socially and sexually, reads poignantly (and also somewhat soap-operatically, in that engrossing sort of way) for writers.
Both Denise and Lisicky experience success as writers. Both fall for “Famous Writers” (she for John Irving and he for Mark Doty). Both navigate academia and the tiresome business of writing professionally. Lisicky, however, seems to weather things better, to have less pronounced variances between highs and lows. Take their relationships with their respective Famous Writers: Denise’s just seems strange, pining for Irving while holding up an issue of Time with his face on it. You never get the feeling that there’s a lot of potential for something sustainable. Lisicky, on the other hand, has a fifteen-plus-year relationship with M, whom he calls “Beloved” even when their relationship has clearly reached its end.
The notion of window-as-mirror is particularly apt for a discussion of Lisicky’s relationship with M. They look alike. They’re both writers. They spend enough years together so that the two functionally become one. The degree of sameness that they experience together makes their relationship’s unraveling that much more difficult. At one point, M has to tell Lisicky that their breakup will take longer than one night.
Lisicky draws comparisons between himself and M. And it’s nearly impossible not to draw comparisons between The Narrow Door and Doty’s 1997 memoir Heaven’s Coast, which charts Doty’s partner Wally’s death from AIDS-related complications. Wally plays a spectral role in the relationship between Lisicky and Doty. In terms of the two memoirs, though, both are (to varying degrees) elegiac: Doty’s, while ostensibly for Wally, reaches to mourn a generation lost to AIDS. Lisicky’s relationship with Denise is so complex that his elegizing is equally intricate and not fully resolved. Lynda Hull, a writer with whom Doty is close, is a powerful presence in Heaven’s Coast and runs parallel to Denise in The Narrow Door. There’s also the endearing, abiding presence of dogs in both books, especially as the nature of the human landscape around them is precarious. And, finally, there’s the language: both books are undeniably beautiful, linguistically rich. Doty is known as a poet primarily, Lisicky as a writer of prose. But The Narrow Door is witness to the fact that Lisicky’s sense of rhythm on the page is every bit as good as someone who thinks in stanzas and thought-breaths. He does, after all, send Doty lines from Whitman’s Song of Myself when they break up.
Excellent books leave us with more questions than answers, linguistic resonance like the reverberating sounds in a concert hall immediately after the orchestra plays the last note. They stay with us, and we talk about them, and we think about them, and we talk about them some more. The window of Lisicky’s book becomes a mirror for us, and we have to decide what to do with what we see.
DOUGLAS RAY is author of He Will Laugh, a collection of poems, and editor of The Queer South: LGBTQ Writers on the American South, which was a finalist for Lambda Literary Award. He earned his BA in classics and English and his MFA in creative writing from The University of Mississippi. He teaches English at Western Reserve Academy, a boarding school in Hudson, Ohio.
The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship. By Paul Lisicky. Graywolf, 2016.