The Rumpus Review of The Narrow Door by Paul Lisicky

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I like being able to review a book long after it’s come out. That way I don’t have to rush myself while reading it. I don’t have to watch it come to an end before I’m ready. I think most of us like to put off the ends of things, especially things we love. I suppose we wish we could extend that ability to the end of our loved ones. We can never be ready for that loss. Prolonging the reading of a book, postponing its last pages, is like how we, in that way of pretending they’ll live forever, ask our friends to stay a few minutes more at the diner, while the tiny suds of milkshake hang out at the bottoms of glasses. The waitress has made the change. And still we sit, because who wants to part ways?

That’s how I felt reading Paul Lisicky’s memoir, The Narrow Door, about his platonic-yet-romantic relationship with the novelist Denise Gess, and her death, and his romantic-yet-strained relationship with his partner “M,” and the dissolution of their marriage. I just wanted to keep the book at the diner a few minutes more.

The book oscillates among different years, interweaving fragments, important moments and other ephemeral sentiments, which aptly mirrors the way we process and remember one another. The prose benefits from its experiments in form, and Lisicky’s hat as a poet comes to bear great gifts in this memoir, a genre that is sometimes thought of as a old-hat and formulaic.

Gess is the flickering established-writer flame that the younger Lisicky is inextricably drawn and bound to. When they meet, he’s still closeted, and eventually he is able to be open with her about his life and his loves, and stand with her through a series of bad relationships and then cancer. There’s a push-pull of jealousy over writerly success that comes and goes for both of them.

While fame never comes for many of us, death comes to all of us. Waiting for it and watching what it reveals is one of The Narrow Door’s major themes. Of course we sometimes only figure out how much we love someone when they die. Just the depths and extent of it. Grief makes the love pour out. We spend our lives wondering if those we love, love us back as much, the irony being that we’ll never really know.

Thinking about the depths of love, I remember, as a young woman, someone introducing me to the chronicled love between the writer Calvin Trillin and his wife Alice. Or, to be more specific, Calvin’s love for Alice. He’d written of his life with Alice, and after she died he wrote a book—About Alice—which prompted tears and longing from people (mainly women) everywhere. Many wrote letters to Trillin, and the most quoted one is from a woman noting that when she looked upon her boyfriend she wondered, “But will he love me like Calvin loves Alice?” Many of us hold this kind of marital or romantic perfection in mind. I couldn’t really relate. I still can’t.

If we’re honest with ourselves, the great loves of our lives are often platonic. I think of many of my male friends, who I jokingly refer to as “platonic husbands,” and my female friends as “platonic wives.” Whether gay or straight, the lack of sexual potency infuses the romance with a kind of heightened intensity. I find I can engage in the deep stuff so easily with them. Much of what would normally be fraught is diffused, and what would normally be settled through sex must be rendered in new ways.

Lisicky’s friendship with Gess gets so much of its importance from its contrast with his relationship with “M.” Love that flows between friends has such easy, immediate depth. Gess signs off emails with things like “I love you deeply,” and in one scene, the two are almost mistaken for a happy hetero couple. Love that flows between lovers, of course, is fraught. Where Lisicky writes of the mostly effortless love between him and Gess, the passages of doubt and insecurity between him and “M” are often painful, despite their bond.

When Lisicky began to be involved with “M,” he had to contend with the fact that “M” had lost his great love, whose ashes were kept in their home. Lisicky describes the pain of knowing you’re someone’s lesser love so beautifully and achingly: “To learn that you are only a pale winter sun, when you once thought you could have made the hillsides green.” But perhaps it’s true that “M,” the distant character, was all the while feeling like a pale winter sun in the world between Lisicky and Gess, their love so fertile, making the hillsides bloom.

The Narrow DoorBut desire, platonic or otherwise, can’t really be helped. During a scene in which Gess is crying over a man, Lisicky writes that “her tears seem to be about the hell of wanting, which finds its way underneath your eyelids and fingernails and has no cure.” But it’s okay because Lisicky has Gess, and she has him. Their devotion to each other, even with gaps of not speaking, is unbreakable.

The Narrow Door is also a memoir about what things writers choose to write down, and what things are better left to the analogs of memory and life. Is everything really fair game? When “M” finds another man to be in love with, he says to Lisicky, “You can write about this,” to which Lisicky thinks, “But I don’t want this in my book! I want to cry.” Similarly after Gess’s death, he discovers that a friend wants to gift him Gess’s diary from the year when Lisicky and Gess didn’t talk, and of course he can’t bear the thought. Who wants to see those words?

Two years before her death, they are sitting in her home. Lisicky writes, “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?”

When I closed the book, I thought that instead of asking the question we’re fed, “Will he love me like Calvin loved Alice?,” in my life it’s more realistic to hope for something more like, “Will he love me like Paul loved Denise?” Their love seems something achievable, something mutual, something leveled, something of this earth.

It’s heartbreaking to close the memoir and know that Gess was often fond of saying, “Nobody loves me.” One hopes she was just kidding, being dramatic. One hopes she knew.

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Read The Rumpus Book Club’s chat with Paul Lisicky about The Narrow Door here.


Anisse Gross is a writer, editor, artist and question asker living in San Francisco. Her work has been featured in The New Yorker, The Believer, Lucky Peach, Buzzfeed, Brooklyn Quarterly, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She openly welcomes correspondence, friendship, surprises and paid work. More from this author →