The Narrow Door, Memoir, and Chronology

9781555977283A thing I’ve said more than once in classes is that every good book is a mystery. Which is to say that “mystery” isn’t something to be left for a certain genre of fiction. But mystery might apply just to novels, or to narrative more broadly. Last week I read Paul Lisicky’s new memoir of friendship in two sittings[*], and I came away with a new idea: every good book is a self-help book.

Reading it made me want to be a better friend, and a better partner to N.

In short: the book’s about Lisicky’s friendship with a novelist and how it, at times, intersects with his relationship with a poet. There’s pleasurable stuff about the life of a writer throughout, but the real gift is the way Lisicky turns the internal ruminations over the care and upkeep of our relationships?was I in the wrong or he in the wrong? should I call her or isn’t it that she should be calling me??into meaningful drama.

I don’t care who becomes president in the fall. It doesn’t concern me because I can’t figure out how it will have any effect on how I treat the people in my life whom I love?those relationships that I’ve created and am in charge of maintaining. Which is to say, relationships are what I find myself caring about these days, so maybe it’s that Lisicky’s book is coming into my life at the right time. But I think there’s something novel or even mildly revolutionary about the book’s focus and attentions. I haven’t read a book so concerned, on the character level, with those boundaries between where the I-self ends and the other person begins.

Also, its structure warrants some attention. Here’s a passage that appears about 3/4 the way through:

2010 | I don’t leave my therapist’s office without remarking that the process ahead isn’t going to be chronological. [My therapist] nods with relief as if I’ve said the gold star thing. Though human beings condition one another to want order, peace, and resolution, we also don’t want too much of that, and just when it seems all is comprehensible, the world bewilders us again.

The book, it probably goes without saying, does not proceed chronologically. Nor does it do that Karr-esque thing in memoir of beginning with an in-media-res prologue that’s halfway through your story before leaping back to the beginning for Chapter 1. Instead, Lisicky goes through his story by working its angles, and what results is a book that finds its intrinsic form?the way trees grow into the shape their DNA tells them to?as opposed to a memoir led by its narrative. A memoir that looks like a novel, except is quote-unquote more true.

With The Narrow Door I’m becoming increasingly convinced that linear chronology is more hurtful than helpful when it comes to constructing a memoir. Not only because abandoning chronology leads to a better (i.e. more mimetically accurate) experience for the reader, but because it leads us as memoirists to worry less about re-creating what happened and more on interrogating who we’ve been.

Also, it’s a paperback original! More on The Narrow Door here.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Well, two lyings-down.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *