On Writer Envy and The Narrow Door, by Paul Lisicky

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

I have wondered (not infrequently) if envy rankles writers more, deeper, better than it does organic farmers, say, or pastry chefs, or people who build fences. What is it about what we do that makes us, as a category, cagey, needy, whiny—quite sure that whatever success we have is hardly equal to the success we have (surely!) earned?

Why do (too many) teachers step away when their students seem, even for a moment, to out-write them?

Why do (too many) friendships falter in the wake of one person's good news?

And how many writers have felt themselves forced to subsume their own dreams and bury their own gifts, so as not to challenge the presumptive status quo? I shall listen long to you, they say to the Supreme Other, their heads bowed slightly. I shall sing the song of you. I shall see you, always, as the True Talent, and I shall never tip this balance, never hope that you'll read me, never hope that you'll root for me, never hope that you'll truly see me.

Oh, writing. Oh, writers. Why does our blood run green, or thin?

In The Narrow Door, Paul Lisicky takes a devastating, and devastatingly beautiful, look at the two treasured friendships of his life—the one that developed early in his life with the novelist Denise Gess, and the one upon which his marriage to a poet he calls M. is based.

Denise is sexy, consuming, interesting, seductive—and while these two talk of many things, sometimes for hours every day, Lisicky manages (perhaps because Denise does most of the talking?) to keep from her his secret affection for men. Denise will tuck her arm into Lisicky's, take him on novel-building adventures, allow the world around them to imagine that they are a happy couple, read her best lines to him. She will name a character for him in her second, less-successful novel, she will betray him, they will lose touch, and they will enter, again, into each other's orbit—deeply. Lisicky will be there for Denise as she lives the final hellacious months of a deadly cancer. He will love, and eulogize, her.

M., meanwhile, is already famous when Lisicky becomes his lover, then husband—famous and famously grieving for a man who has died of AIDS. M. is the well-paid poet-celebrity. Lisicky is the talented, handsome lover—the one with whom M. has important conversations, and the one whom Lisicky, it is suggested here, is never to overshadow.

Not only that but, perhaps, Lisicky is not to overshadow the long-gone former lover. Lisicky, helpless, tries:

To think you can love someone so well that he'd forget the dead, forget his pain. To think of love as a laser beam of attention. To think you could beam that attention toward him in such a way that he wouldn't even know you were doing it. To learn that your attention is doomed. Unwelcome, better having been put to other uses: helping the poor, working for the environment, for animals. To learn that you are only a pale winter sun, when you once thought you could have made the hillsides green.

This is a book built of slipped time and interweaves. We see Denise vibrant, we see M.'s charms, we see the turns these friendships will take, the toxic releases, the unspoken hurts, the flailed anger, the unstoppable rise of Lisicky's talent and the costs of that said talent. Denise is near death; she is alive again. M. and Lisicky are in love; the love is breaking; the love is new. Propelled forward. Slung straight back. The year is 2010, 2004, 2010, 2012, and what does it matter what order the numbers fall in? And in between, the gnarly earth hurls lava up through volcano spouts, tsunamis speed toward shorelines, hurricanes smash into lives; Joni Mitchell sings. The world may be so much bigger than one man's woes, Lisicky says. But also: the world speaks directly for and of them.

What is Lisicky to do—with the talent he has, the love he feels, the respect he has not just for those in his circle, but for his own abilities (deeply proven here) with language? Can the practiced accommodator at long last be accommodated?

For heaven's sake, let's hope so.


Beth Hoffman said...

Thank you for this, Beth. Without you, I might have missed this book, and because of you, I just pre-ordered.

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