Before I begin this review, I have to admit a huge deal of bias: I don’t like memoirs. And even more specifically, I don’t like memoirs written by writers, about writing. Some of this has to do with my suspicion that, due to the stakes and state of contemporary publishing, the majority of memoirs are neither interesting, revelatory, nor self-reflective—rather they hit fairly low-hanging fruit and are entertaining, “shocking,” and wholly gratuitous, in addition to poorly written. Other parts of my objection deal with doubts about memoir’s ability to use one’s own vision to transcend that vision: to see outside the self, via the self. But I don’t want this review to become a condemnation or argument about creative nonfiction as a whole, or even memoir specifically—this is only to say that I was already in a poor mood when I began Paul Lisicky’s “memoir of friendship,” The Narrow Door. And unfortunately, I didn’t finish in any better state of mind.
If I’m going to pull one emotional reaction from this reading, it’s annoyance: at formatting choices, at MFA program politics, at writers, at Paul Lisicky. Annoyance that I read a “memoir of friendship” and ended up feeling as though I would never want to be friends with either Lisicky or Denise.
A brief overview: Lisicky’s memoir chronicles his ongoing relationship with Denise Gess, the dissolution of his marriage to poet “M,” and Denise’s death to cancer in 2009; all this is paired with references to Joni Mitchell and recent environmental and ecological disasters. The memoir jumps in time and space, circling events rather than choosing forward momentum—perhaps because the reader, and Lisicky, already know the ending: Denise is going to die. So what’s the point, then, of rushing to it? This is in many ways a love letter to Denise, and a complex portrait of a friendship that was volatile, interrupted often by Denise’s emotional demands and personality, but enduring.
It also touches on an interesting aspect of friendship among artistic peers: competition, envy, professional jousting. I found one of the more compelling aspects of the memoir to be the moments when Lisicky reflects on how their similarity as artists—professionals struggling to gain the same fellowships, awards, book deals, grants, teaching positions—was an impediment as well as a bond between them; writing, as a profession, means erasing the boundaries between the professional and personal, and it is harder still to erase the boundaries between friend and coworker, muse and mentor. In this realm, Lisicky pulls the curtain on the real discomfort that exists in writerly friendships, in addressing envy and competition within this particular universe.
But for someone on the periphery, let’s say, of Lisicky’s world—recent MFA graduate, writer-in-training, novelist hopeful—I found it disconcertingly difficult to sympathize with his project. If we want to be painfully reductive, this is the content: Paul and Denise were good friends who sometimes fought about things; Paul and his husband were in love but came to a difficult decision and, like adults, moved on. These are not revolutionary life events, yet one aspect—perhaps—of memoir is its ability to take a stranger’s subjective experience and transcend that subjectivity, make it larger than it is, and more connected to some abstract, objective truth or meaning. And I think this is the biggest failure of The Narrow Door: it’s not interesting because it does not move beyond itself. A man, going through a breakup, experiences loss. A man, going through X, experiences Y. Etc. To be sure, Lisicky no doubt felt that his experiences and relationships were urgent, interesting. After all, he wrote a memoir about it. But to ask the reader to feel those same emotions requires making us understand what his life means to us, and I’m not convinced that Lisicky’s life has anything to really give mine.
It feels distinctly unfair to ask a writer to make his friend’s death more interesting, more urgent. And yet, here we are: I was bored by the content, bored by the relationships. It makes me wonder if genre is the problem—what Lisicky seemed to be doing was chronicling, journaling, recording—memoiring. Writing down his experience, and thinking about it in fairly basic ways. But this is the dramatic question about what we want art and writing to be, to do: hold a mirror up to life? Or show us more than life and reality? I would argue that the latter is a better use of writing, more powerful and—here it is—more interesting to read. The best nonfiction does more than just record, it’s true, but I think that in the case of The Narrow Door, the choice of memoir was wrong: in personalizing Denise, in humanizing that friendship, it became so much less interesting because it was so familiar.
I want to note that much of my displeasure at the content of Lisicky’s memoir wasn’t helped in the least by some of his formatting choices, particularly the decision to forgo pseudonyms in favor of cutesy initials; what does it matter if the reader knows M’s name? Why couldn’t the text just use a different, full name if anonymity were really a problem? (It doesn’t seem to be; a New York Times review baldly names Lisicky’s partner and other initialed characters.) It felt like reading alphabet soup. And in any case, the curious reader can use enough of the information we’re given to out the characters if she really cared to do so; and for readers unconnected to Lisicky’s social and professional circle, a full pseudonym wouldn’t matter anyway. It only draws attention to the pretense of privacy. Why the coyness in Famous Writer or Famous Writers Conference (we know you’re in Vermont, Paul) or the bizarre inconsistency in telling us where and when events took place? This is why people hate MFA people. It adds a layer of preciousness to what is already an insular, academic, out-of-touch community, and the tone it creates is extremely off-putting. If Lisicky was aware of the pretentiousness of this move and was attempting to create irony or self-awareness, it fell totally flat.
As a posthumous love letter to his friend, The Narrow Door is touching. But that isn’t enough, and I think that ultimately Lisicky’s book struggles against its genre, its insularity, and the confines of its normalcy. A normal life, a normal friendship, is often a beautiful thing, as it indicates a certain victory, a survival, over the challenges of any long-term relationship. But that’s in reality—and on the page, we want something more.
Bridget’s Balanced Review: 4/10