The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship

Author: Paul Lisicky
Publisher: Graywolf Press, non-fiction

“2008. Our feet are warm. Our faces shine. The room is getting dark, the night coming a little sooner these days. Should I turn on a lamp? Then the prospect of dinner changes our placement toward that dark.”

So opens The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship, author Paul Lisicky’s meditation on love, life, friendship, death, and former significant others.

The Narrow Door is essentially a snapshot of two people who played an important part in Lisicky’s life: the novelist Denise Gess and his ex-husband, who he only refers to as M throughout his memoir.

Though both Gess and M are important to Lisicky, like all relationships – platonic, romantic or otherwise – theirs proved to be tricky for Lisicky to manage.

Lisicky first meets Gess in the early 1980s, when he is a 23-year-old fresh graduate from Rutgers and a fledgling author.

To make ends meet – and to earn a living a more practical way – Lisicky works as a teaching assistant.

It is in academia that he meets Gess, 30, who has a much-praised novel, Good Deeds, under her belt.

Upon first meeting, Lisicky and Gess are polar opposites: he is introverted, not open about his homosexuality to anyone, and is not very fond of audiences (especially bored teenagers in his classes), while Gess is open, inspiring and able to hold the attention of a classroom of teenagers.

str2_sharildoorR_ev_1_coverDespite their differences, Lisicky and Gess become inseparable best friends. Their friendship survives misguided love affairs and relationships, and career ups and downs. Gess embarks on an affair with a famous writer whose name Lisicky never divulges in his memoir (but from the descriptions of his most well-known work, readers are able to deduce that the famous writer is John Irving), and Lisicky has an affair with a famous writer (M) he ends up marrying.

Though Gess was the one with a published novel when they meet, she has trouble getting her follow-up novel published.

Lisicky, on the other hand, starts to get recognised for his writing talents, with his work getting published in the 25 years that is the timeframe of his memoir.

While Gess fails to hold on to a long-term relationship – it seems her most healthy relationship with a man is Lisicky – Lisicky is, to an extent, able to make his marriage to M work.

One thread of the memoir traces the two mammoth relationships in Lisicky’s life, and a second thread chronicles the death of those relationships.

Lisicky experiences both physical (Gess) and emotional (M) death, and he beautifully intertwines it in his writing.

Gess has lung cancer – and Lisicky does not shy away from the emotions both he and Gess experience as her body betrays her.

Simultaneously, Lisicky experiences an emotional death when it becomes apparent that M had brought a former (now deceased) lover into the marriage, which made Lisicky ponder years after the fact if M chose him because of who he was, if he was merely a replacement for the dead partner.

Lisicky does not try to decipher what losing a friend and a husband is like.

He merely jots his thoughts down: “Losing a lover: You don’t need to be told how hard it is…

“It’s different with a friend. The breaking up is more diffuse, though break-up isn’t even the right word for it.

“Whatever it is, it happens over time, and soon old patterns are breaking: no e-mail in the morning, no phone call at night. A week goes by, silence. Another week, a deeper silence.”

Unlike most memoirs, The Narrow Door is not set chronologically, which gives the narrative a poignant feeling, as thoughts about the past are random and do not follow a linear timeline.

Though The Narrow Door is beautifully written, one of the central themes the tome tackles – physical and emotional death – may not appeal to the mass audience.

However, those who brave this touching memoir would not be disappointed.

The Narrow Door is truly a wonderful read.