Sex, Death, and Understanding in Paul Lisicky’s ‘The Narrow Door’

Everybody loves an origin story: the loss that fueled Joni Mitchell, for instance, or the difficulties with Gauguin that led to Van Gogh’s undoing. We love to see story of the mud and blood that come together to sculpt the artists we read and idolize. Those stories appear briefly in Paul Lisicky’s new memoir The Narrow Door, but the book tells a story that is in its own fractured way the origin story of Lisicky himself, in so much that he is, with every success or failure, gain or loss, created anew.

More than that, Lisicky manages to craft a boggling, anachronistic portrait of a dynamic artist (himself) who is transformed with each shifting thought, roles morphing and reversed depending on which conversation is at hand, which inkling of an idea decides to grow legs and dominate.

This is telegraphed, primarily, amid loss. The Narrow Door is billed as a “memoir of friendship,” and it is: of friendships in full, from start to finish. Primarily, Lisicky writes about his long, complicated life with novelist Denise Gess. The two meet early, when both are teaching assistants at Rutgers, Denise a bit older and already an accomplished writer. It’s a relationship that seems to exist only in books like this, or sepia-washed films: she reads from her second novel as he listens, lying belly-to-floor, rapt and wrapping the phone cord around his forefinger; he outs himself as gay through a short story, and she says, simply, “Well, that was a nice way to do it.” He coaches her through a tenuous relationship with a Famous Writer (John Irving, playing himself to perfection). There are months and months of silence, followed by quick reconciliation, and then, later, more silence (and reconciliation). Cancer introduces itself.

Lisicky’s secondary, more complicated relationship is with his ex-husband, poet Mark Doty. Lisicky keeps Doty anonymous, calling him only “M,” and while their relationship shares many of the signifiers of artist cohabitation (airing first drafts of poems; judging potential book covers; attending events where both men co-present) it is haunted by the specter of Doty’s former partner, who passed suddenly. Lisicky writes, “Of course, we’re all walking in the steps of the dead, but it’s different to play that role for someone who’s lost another person. Replacements are never as good as the dead.”

And though it seems that the decision to hold Doty to his first initial works to minimize that relationship in relation to the one with Gess, Lisicky says that wasn’t his intention. Doty’s name just held too much weight. He says, via email, “All at once I was writing about the famous poet — and the persona of his work — versus the person I’d spent sixteen years with. His actual name overpowered the material.”

What emerges, intentional or not, is a sense of competition, in both of these relationships. With Gess, it’s the competition between two writers, her presumed jealousy of Lisicky’s bachelorhood, his freedom to attend residencies and fellowships, the fact that he earned an MFA from Iowa. With Doty, Lisicky finds happy artistic matrimony, but in agreeing to an open relationship (“If there were anymore freedom in this house, it wouldn’t be a house”) finds himself unexpectedly caught in the ugly competition implicit in a sexual relationship unfettered by the easy barriers of monogamy:

“If one person is consistently going outside the relationship for sex, then the other probably feels obligated to, what — keep up? It can feel like there’s an imperative in air.” Lisicky tells me. “One member of the couple might expect the other to put himself out there in equal measure so he doesn’t have to feel guilt, right? And if there’s one thing that destroys erotic life, it’s the feeling of an imperative.” But imperative can kill more than erotic life, as is seen in his brief friendship with a woman named Braunwyn. “She’ll want more than I’m able to give. She’ll want so much that I’ll sag under the weight of disappointing her.”

In the beginning of the book, Lisicky uses a well-placed quote from Franny and Zooey that sums up his intention in the writing of The Narrow Door:

Seymour once said to me—in a crosstown bus, of all places—that all legitimate religious study must lead to unlearning the differences, the illusory differences, between boys and girls, animals and stones, day and night, heat and cold.

Implied in the unlearning of things is the willingness to relearn them differently, that real growth — getting from point A to point B (as on a bus) — is found in our realizing that a thing is not what it was before, but also that such transformation does not negate what that thing had been. Sixteen years of love do not go to waste when sex gets in the way, when Lisicky’s “no” “twists M’s face [into a] complete stranger to the face that has made pancakes for breakfast, or tried to start the lawnmower on a hot day in August.” Decades are not calcified, memorialized to nostalgia when the one friend’s face is obliterated by an era of cancerous struggle. “She’s not even the person I knew,” Lisicky writes of Gess, moments before her death. “It’s not even Denise’s face anymore: it’s impersonal, a mask.” And yet still the eulogy, the book.

Even emergency, which Lisicky examines throughout the book via YouTube clips and news reports of natural disasters, becomes something else, not collapsing buildings but “calmness and beauty, well-dressed mothers passing plates of healthy food to their children.” It’s a scene in which he is a player as he receives a phone call that carries news of his mother’s death.

All this is to say that what Lisicky manages best in The Narrow Door is understanding. He understands that Gess is not to be idealized in death, does justice to who she was while acknowledging what she became. He remembers himself as he was, too, insecure in his earning ability, his talent, and, for a time, his sexuality, cataloging his closeted late-’80s years while at the same time remembering the naked stranger who held him as he cried in a Philadelphia spa. Most of all, there is the awareness that understanding is an active practice, that each new epiphany demands a follow-up. Lisicky acknowledges this outright in the spiritual epilogue of the book, by admitting “how tempting it is to do the alchemical now.” But alchemy is no substitute for understanding, and The Narrow Door is all the better for Lisicky’s having avoided it.

Narrow Door