In this post I talk about two books of great beauty — chase cut to, here: Buy (because you’ll want to write in them and read them over and over, refer to them, revel in them, live and love in their pages) Paul Lisicky’s THE NARROW DOOR and Garth Greenwell’s WHAT BELONGS TO YOU. Now, I can return to talking about my life, which these two books — like great literature does — made me reconsider, contemplate, review, and think about deeply, my perspective having been changed, my journey illuminated by the truths told by Mxs Lisicky and Greenwell. Seriously, stop wasting time reading me – GO GET THESE BOOKS!
P.S. NOON FEBRUARY 1, 2016 – AT TIME OF POSTING – READER ADVISORY: Listen, friends, this is OVER 3000 words, and since many of you have subtly and kindly told me already that my posts are too long, let me help you out — I have EDITED OUT huge swaths of quotes from both books – reviewing them is beside the point; they are both beautiful and demand to be read, repeatedly – so no need to go any further – JUST GO GET THESE BOOKS AND READ THEM. I’m heading to the gym to look for some fun with one of my imaginary boyfriends, whose real names I don’t know, but who I have now begun to call – alternately, M and Mitko, thanks to Mr. Lisicky and Mr. Greenwell. Goodbye, dear ones.
P.P.S. 12:30 – Here’s the thing, in one sentence, when writers create from the truth of their souls and allow that Light and Love to flow onto the page, it doesn’t matter whether the shape of their experiences or the labels they’ve been given match your own — it is their TRUTHS that move us, that connect with our own most deeply-felt and deeply-lived experiences, and make us say, “Yes, they too have lived as have I, and loved, and learned, and lost and this is a truthful telling of that story, that truth.” Okay, I’m finished. Really.
It was January 22 when I read Paul Lisicky’s memoir, The Narrow Door, and January 23 when I read Garth Greenwell’s debut novel, What Belongs to You. I have been trying to write about both ever since. That’s a lie. I knew I couldn’t write about them. Both of these cris de coeur opened in me memories like wounds, tearing away the scar-tissue of long years of melancholic acquiescence to a life of less-than, exposing gaping lesions, bruises and lacerations, slashes and gashes I thought I had treated and healed, bringing to light just how many and how damaging were the lies I had told to myself and others, the evasions and fictions in which I was still — far too often and too adeptly — living.
So, I apologize. I apologize for making this about me. But, blame those responsible: Paul Lisicky’s The Narrow Door and Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You are more than reads. By now, reviewers everywhere have rapturized about how these works of a lifetime have been beautifully composed from the raw materials of truth, hard-won loves, devastating losses and heartaches, then chiseled and polished to a lustrous brilliance. You should search for and read those adulatory reviews by practitioners far more skilled at the art of literary criticism and analysis than am I. This, on another hand (or, more likely, foot — in mouth) is a personal testimonial about the impact a book can have on a human being.
In the shape of a book review. Okay: Go.
THE NARROW DOOR: A Memoir of Friendship, Paul Lisicky, Paperback, 192 pages, January 2016, Graywolf Press Mr. Lisicky wrote Lawnboy, a novel lush with longing and the search for identity I much loved. Now, he invites us into his heart as it grows and breaks and mends and mourns through two relationships, two loves. Mr. Lisicky explores the boundaries of romance and self and what effort is required when people are evolved enough to recognize that “Love” doesn’t necessarily fit into the confines allowed and defined by the culture in which we live; sometimes love is smaller, lower-case l, and sometimes Love is larger, capital L, than we have words and rules and understanding for, and we must — as individuals, couples, trios, menages of many sizes, communities, evolving societies — learn to make space, make sense, make okay the shapes our loves and our lives take.
Mr. Lisicky writes with trenchant insight about love, about having a partner with greater earning power, about being an artist, toiling at one’s art and having to make a living in other ways, about making sense by finding peace in the lack of discernible pattern in life, love, energy, the cosmos. Listen:
How tempting it is to do the alchemical now. To turn darkness into light, bread into flesh, tin into gold, wine into blood. It’s what the narrative wants of us, at least this part of the narrative. It wants to comfort, not that we should necessarily link comfort to weakness. Couldn’t there be some rigor to comfort? I’d like to think the story could give it that, to give the hurting in us strength and power. So we will not leave the page without reserving a pasture for darkness, inscrutability. If we don’t acknowledge that pasture, if we don’t respect the secret creature that might be grazing there, those creatures may turn on us.”
That is poetry. That is truth, hard-won, discovered by living through the age, the youth, during which one thinks one knows it all, the innocent era of believing one will find the perfect, ever-after love, will have it all, and then the maturation process of the slogs and slips and sweats and sadnesses of insecurities, suffering the losses and the less-than-loves and enduring the experience of watching the everything you thought you had turning into all the things you know you’ve lost, growing up and old enough to recognize that those things about which you were most certain were the doorways to the worst of your mistakes, and the worst of your mistakes were the doorways to the most important of your lessons, and where you are now is only a step in where you are going. Mr. Lisicky writes from the perch of wisdom grounded in knowing that there is much knowing in the un-knowing that comes after good-byes.
It is not a spoiler to say The Narrow Door is framed around the deaths of a friend and a relationship. Mr. Lisicky shares details of the intricate, delicate, sometimes agonizingly difficult, sometimes one-brain/one-heart euphoric relationship he shared with fellow writer, Denise. Her death derails him, as deaths do, and it is shortly after this when his marriage with the husband he calls M, disintegrates.
One of the marvelous things about this memoir is Mr. Lisicky’s use of emotional resonances as organizing framework. Rather than a linear narration of “this happened then that happened in this order at this time”, The Narrow Door is palimpsest, a layering and a tessellation of memories, events, conversations, a conflation of emotional impacts and experiences, the sum of which equal more than eulogy. While elegy is always an element in the complexity of a life — because love and living, after all, both require again and again choosing one thing over another, and what one doesn’t choose is lost — it is what comes after loss, the mystery of enduring and abiding, the choice (there’s that word again) to keep going, to remain open and alive and continue wondering, that defines a life. Mr. Lisicky travels in beautiful, evocative prose through choices he has made, continues to make, and interpreting the wider world through his personal, private lens, this being the story of how he has maintained purchase in a world where reality can too often be calamitous, catastrophic, and wretched. Listen, here as he describes how he maintains foundation of self while working a soul-sucking job in order to make a living:
It helps to set the alarm for five every morning, pull out my legal pad, prop the legal pad on my bent legs, and write in bed for an hour. Sometimes I can’t even read the sloppy penmanship when I get home that night. It looks like the penmanship of someone with a personality disorder. Still, the act of writing give me permission to do that eight-hour day. It is a ritual, an act of stillness, of saying here I am to myself. No, I haven’t joined the ranks of former artists, though my coworkers might not exactly be aware of that.
How blessed are we that Mr. Lisicky never surrendered to the disappointments of the artist’s life along the way, sacrificing his writing for the world of mortgages and notes. Perhaps I am even more moved by this memoir because, in many ways, I did surrender. Too, there are other of Mr. Lisicky’s experiences that resonate with me. We are roughly the same age and we grew up in an era where it was still the norm to hide parts of who we were even from those to whom we were closest. He was not, at first, out as a gay man to Denise, and I too, being of that generation, had some very dear friends with whom I was not open and out early on. And, like Mr. Lisicky (and, I suspect, most people who have lived five or six decades) I have loved badly and been badly loved by people I believed I could forever trust, people whose leavings and betrayals left within me empty spaces where once that believing lived. It is a constant battle not to let those spaces fill with bitterness and anger, which means, sometimes, I must allow sorrow to seep in, filling the empty, otherwise hate might rush in.
That struggle, that task, is what growing older and aging is for me. In The Narrow Door, Mr. Lisicky penetratingly addresses such questions and, rather than leaving us with formulaic, pat answers, he introduces us to better ways to ask the questions of “why” and “how did I get here” and “what might moving on look like” and he does it all with leapings through time, magnificences of prose, and intensities of truth and heart that will make you gasp, laugh, weep, recognize, and rejoice.
Simply brilliant. And he admires Jane Bowles. And is friends with Elizabeth McCracken, either of which, let alone BOTH, would have been enough for me.
Now, from memoir to debut novel, another book that touched me so deeply I don’t think I can do it any more justice than I just did Mr. Lisicky, but I have claimed I am a book blogger, so, well, I will do my best.
WHAT BELONGS TO YOU, Garth Greenwell, Hadcover, 194 pages, January 2016, Farrar, Straus and Giroux I don’t know how to begin. I have been trying for days to come up with an opening sentence for this appreciation, struggling to find an angle, an introduction, some way to communicate some glimmer of the poetries, perplexities, and perfections of this novel. I can’t. So, let Mr. Greenwell’s opening two sentences work their mesmeric power on you, as they did on me. Listen:
That my first encounter with Mitko B. ended in a betrayal, even a minor one, should have given me greater warning at the time, which should in turn have made my desire for him less, if not done away with it completely. But warning in places like the bathrooms at the National Palace of Culture, where we met, is like some element coterminous with the air, ubiquitous and inescapable, so that it becomes part of those who inhabit it, and thus part and parcel of the desire that draws us there.
Confronted with the hypnotic repetitions and rhythms of those sentences, their complications of emotion and intricacy of language, I immediately stopped, went back and read them again. After which, I stopped, again, got myself a pencil and sticky-arrow-notes, and started scribbling in the margins, taking to Twitter to declare my euphoric, ecstatic reveling in such glorious writing.
In those two sentences Mr. Greenwell tells us so much about the narrator. While he names the object of his desire, his betrayer, Mitko B., he does not name himself, not here, nor in the remaining pages of the story. The repetition of should, warning, desire, and part, along with the rhythms of element, coterminous, ubiquitous, inescapable, tell us this is a man who listens and lives in layers. We are in his head and his heart and his groin as his inner monologue tells us: “I should have known, so I should have desired less; but that desire that should have lessened with the warning of the initial betrayal, is the desire that compels the un-named me to this place; this desire which is conflated with, inseparable from the warning, the warning being a large part of the compulsion.”
There is such connectivity in the choice of words he repeats, and in their repetition a compelling, compulsive, complexity and hastening, the experience is building for us as it happens to him in the way a musical composition repeats phrases and themes. All of which is brilliant enough for an initial two sentences, but then Mr. Greenwell adds a layer of juxtapositioning, limning encounter and betrayal, minor and greater, bathrooms and National Palace of Culture, the introduction of his laser-like application of dichotomy of language, emotion, and experience that continues throughout this novel, symphonically communicating the contrapuntal and atonal spiritual and emotional disunion in the heart of our un-named narrator.
I worried when reading the spellbinding first few sentences that this would be another of those novels that begins with such promise and ultimately disappoint. For naught. From my stunned, breathless appreciation of its opening, to my first sobbing on page 34, to my recognition of myself and my experiences over and over again in these pages, to the brilliant loss of self and initial disconnect described on page 73, to the crippling ever-after scarring of first unrequited love so eloquently painted on pages 90 and 91, to the painful final discoveries of truth on page 190-191 that left me — again — in tears of recognition and sorrow and appreciation for the effort and genius of this work, yes, from beginning to end, this was a work of magical, once-in-a-generation numbing, ensorcelling accomplishment by a virtuoso of literature. You can see, looking at my copy of What Belongs To You, it was a transforming experience throughout:
Now, as I warned you, this is less review and more about me. Here goes. Much has been made of late about naming — about finding — the Great Gay Novel, and despite the ever-contracting world of publishing, there seems an expansion of opportunities for writers of what is often called diversity. I’ll spare you my cosmologo-pollyanna-ish-angry-loving-hippie-esque-nirvana-utopia-dreamworld take on why all this labeling is ultimately so harmful and reductive, but, if we must choose a Great Gay Novel, let it please be this one.
When I was young, it was Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story and John Rechy’s City of Night that told me stories about other gay men, some other gay men. Those books were not available to me in my local bookstore and although I was from the time I began first grade called out as sissy and queer and fag and every other derogatory term for boys who loved other boys, I was still not publicly declared and so I had to go to some trouble, take some risks to find and get and hide these books, and I read them furtively. During the years of my circumspect, secretive non-living of my truth, at thirteen and fourteen, I was falling in what felt like love to me with someone who was, I now believe, not much gay. Had the world been different — not a prison of labels and naming — we’d have been boyfriends for a while, broken up, moved on. As it was, he, B, was just the first in a line of scars I still bear which included when I was seventeen and eighteen, C, and then in my twenties and thirties, A — who ruined me forever for love, and later, a different sort of tragic and deep connection that didn’t fit anywhere in the world in which we lived, the weight of which caused implosion, confusion, and untethered fury for both of us, and, well, these men all loved me after a fashion, and I loved them, but in each case their desire for me was less than their desire that no one — including themselves, really — know they loved me, and, worse, my acquiescence to and acceptance of that condition.
It was a kind of love particular to many (certainly not all, but many) gay lives.
Which is why, I understand, we still need gay novels. Because, had I not had Mxs. White and Rechy, when growing up I would have felt even more alone and abandoned and afraid than I did. And yet it is that fear, that alone, which is the why, I hope you understand, I wish we didn’t need gay novels. I want that world, my imagined cosmologo-pollyanna-ish-angry-loving-hippie-esque-nirvana-utopia-dreamworld, where we are all first and foremost HUMANS. We are not our gender or our attractions or our ages or shapes or incomes or anything other than our SOULS. I want that world so that there never have to be young people who feel “OTHER” because of who they find themselves attracted to.
But, yes, things are getting better. Heartening that both Mr. Greenwell and Mr. Lisicky discuss Walt Whitman’s poetry in their books. There have always been gay writers, but it is only now in an age where freedom to love who we love burgeons that the reclamation has begun, and reclamation and clarification of the past, a revisionist inclusion-ism as it were, is an important step on the way to my utopian “we are all equal souls” world. So, important to know now, Whitman belongs to the pantheon of writers whose experience was informed by their attractions to people of the same gender; as we declare our presence in the present, we also claim our past. Evolution of culture and society is about re-examining, re-defining, finding new ways to interpret old truths that shed old skins, undo old lies. Greenwell’s narrator says of Whitman:
I understood his desire to be naked before the world, his madness, as he says, to be in contact with it. I even felt something of that desire myself, though it was nothing like madness for me, in my life lived almost always beneath the pitch of poetry, a life of inhibition and missed chances, perhaps, but also a bearable life, a life that to some extent I had chosen and continued to choose.
What sentences! What thoughts! What truths for so many (I suspect, for when something resonates with me — such is my ego — I assume there is a world of people for whom it also resonates)! However, Mr. Greenwell frequently works at the pitch of poetry. This, when the narrator is told by a sad, withdrawn Mitko:
…I want to live a normal life. I was silent for a moment, torn between a terrible sadness and my desire for escape. And then, watching his [Mitko’s] face, I don’t want to be one of your clients, I said. He turned to me in surprise, saying But you aren’t a client, you’re a friend, but I waved this objection away. I like you too much, I said, clumsily but with candor, it isn’t good for me to like you so much.
I have said those words. Who hasn’t said those words? Who hasn’t loved more than was good for them? That isn’t a gay novel or a queer novel or a diverse novel, that is a human story, a poem told about a soul with whom we can all identify. This is a love story and a Bildungsroman and a weighing of where the culture is now in contrast to where it was when the narrator’s father disowned him and an embrace of the blatantly, celebratory erotic urge. It is, in short, a life. Not little. Despite its less than two-hundred pages this is a very large life, and a great novel – gay novel, yes, but human novel, certainly.
Oh, my friends, you few who have made it all the way here, past three-thousand words (I’m so sorry) there is so much more I could say about both these books. I have already edited from this post huge swaths of quotes, because, truly, just please read them, these elegant explorations of sensitive, perceptive souls wandering and wondering through precipitous emotional landscapes, blessed and tormented and transformed by the vicissitudes of relationships and mutations of love.
Note to Mr. Lisicky and Mr. Greenwell: I am sorry I couldn’t better communicate how much I loved these books and how deeply touched I was by the universality of the emotions within each of them, the ways in which they echoed my own personal experience. I felt, sometimes, as though you’d both read my journals. Much thanks, gratitude, and love for your work, your sharing of your own Lights and Love. Thank you, thank you, thank you.