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book review

Author Paul Lisicky

Some books seem to swallow the world into them. Others radiate into the world and touch everything outside their pages. You're reading about blue cars and look up as a blue car drives by; someone within earshot says "stupefy" as your eye passes over the same word on the page; a scene in a novel mirrors some concurrent experience of your own – a journey, an adventure, a triumph, a loss. These intersections tend to feel a little more charmed than happenstance, almost as if the book is developing a sentience of its own, or an awareness of you, the reader, as you read it.

Such was my experience, anyway, with Paul Lisicky's The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship. Friendship, both the actual stuff and its literary representations, had been on my mind since reading Here and Now, a collection of letters between Paul Auster and J.M. Coetzee, in which the authors conclude that "the most interesting reflections on friendship come from the ancient world." This seemed a little myopic to me, so I'd been compiling a list of non-ancient books that prove them wrong.

Add The Narrow Door to the pile, along with a novel I read concurrently, James Baldwin's Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone. The similarities between the two books are almost eerie. Both are about a central character's relationships with his best friend and artistic contemporary, a woman, and a recent male lover; both include extended scenes at artist retreats and in hospitals; both thread non-chronological reminiscences around a central sickness and explore themes of sexual awakening and emotional healing; both are passionate and honest and imbued with the melancholy of loss – of innocence, of people from our lives.

The books seemed to be engaged in conversation. Lisicky's assertion that "it must be irresistible, if a little lonely, to be so close to the sound of two people becoming fast friends" applied equally to his relationship with the writer Denise Gess as to the actors in Baldwin's novel, who alienate a third friend when their twosome grows too exclusive. And the ways in which the books dissect "the camaraderie and competition" of artistic friendships is comparable, too: As Paul and Denise alternately celebrate and envy each other's literary successes, so, too, does Baldwin's Leo compare his career on the stage with Barbara's.

But James Baldwin wasn't the only confluence. About halfway through The Narrow Door, I watched the scientology documentary, Going Clear, which inspired me to revisit Paul Thomas Anderson's 2012 film, The Master, in which Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd, a character inspired by, if not based on, L. Ron Hubbard. Joaquin Phoenix is terrific as Freddie Quell, Dodd's underling, but what I found most interesting about their relationship, this time, was its palpable eroticism: I'd forgotten that the pair's final meeting concludes with Dodd singing Slow Boat to China while gazing longingly into Freddie's eyes.

Needless to say, Coetzee and Auster, who ascribe to the old Socratic distinctions of love, don't just resist but deny these erotic elements of friendship. Fortunately, Paul Lisicky's far more sophisticated and honest take scrutinizes such things throughout. "Friendship feels a little light a word for what we are to each other," he says of Denise. "In truth we are a little in love with each other, and we're able to talk about what that might mean. Can there be love without the bodily expression of it? Can one put one's arm around another without persuasion, expectation? Where does it stop? Where should it stop?"

This idea of non-romantic couples being "in love with each other" turned up in an old episode of The Simpsons a day later. An erroneous robo-call informs the family that Grandpa is dead and Homer turns disconsolate: "Sure, I said I loved him," he laments, "but never that I was in love with him." It's a great joke because of the misguided cliché, but also effective, as many of the best bits on the show tend to be, because it speaks to a deeper truth. Who isn't a little in love with those people closest to us – and why does it take losing someone to admit it?

That evening, I had a conversation with a friend about our partners, who both lost parents when they were younger. "That absence never goes away," he said. "It's always there." But it's Lisicky who articulates what we couldn't quite say, which is the delicacy with which we tread around those losses: "I will tune out my light and tune out my light until my fire stays completely inside, maybe unreachable to you," he imagines addressing Denise when her father dies. "It doesn't even occur to me that you might want to warm your hands on that fire."

When I finished The Narrow Door, I felt not only like a fortunate witness to a beautiful elegy, but personally engaged in ways I'm sure the author never intended. There's a certain type of alchemy at work when the right book comes along at the right time, when our minds as readers turn especially porous to certain ideas and experiences such that the book resonates far beyond the page. I have probably done a poor job, here, of writing as generously about Paul Lisicky's beautiful memoir as he does about his friend. But it collapsed everything into itself, a little, and I'm only just beginning to find my way out again.

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