"Our feet are warm," writes Paul Lisicky, describing an evening in Philadelphia with the novelist Denise Gess. "Our faces shine. The room is getting dark, the night coming a little sooner these days. Should I turn on a lamp?"
But no light can fix the darkness in Philadelphia. Gess, the oldest and dearest of Lisicky's friends, is sick.
"Our gestures say, we're here for you, time," Lisicky writes about that night — one of the worst any two friends might imagine. "We're not straining against your grasp. No concerns about the side effects of the latest round of chemo."
A slim and quilt-like work of memories arranged out of order but labeled by year, "The Narrow Door" is heartbreaking and sprawling accumulation by an ambitious author of four previous books who is attempting not only to remember the life and death of one good friend but also to consider the flowering and dying of several other important relationships — with people, places, animals and ideas. The result is a highly engaging mosaic of finely told personal memories, rigorous thought experiments and various moments of cultural reference.
We hear about Gess when she is a star, her first novel a huge hit, with a glamour that is a sure fit for that decade's taste for wild women who knew how to dance. There's Gaugin and Marvin Gaye and Joni Mitchell but most of all Lisicky, describing the vivid agony of writing in the shadow, a closeted gay man, a real writer too someday?
Then it's to a specific moment in 1983, when Lisicky and Gess are young teaching assistants at Rutgers. Gess, a second year, is assessing a rough draft of a story Lisicky has written. He watches in terror as she moves through pages; Gess is in conversation, he soon realizes, not with a friend but with something larger. "She's not talking about me, or herself, but she's talking about writing now."
How do we stay together when so much drives us apart? Career-wise, it can come to feel like the success of one of these two writers might mean the other's failure. Lisicky, who starts out behind, eventually powers his way through to write something good and true. Then he gains admission to the prestigious Writers' Workshop in Iowa, and later he publishes books. Finally he finds himself on course for yet another central trauma in "The Narrow Door," his love affair and eventual marriage to another luminous force in the writing world, the poet Mark Doty.
What might matter most about a friendship is the way any of us acts in the times of greatest need. If cancer begins the book, "The Narrow Door's" other dark heart is when Gess and Doty come together. The scene is (again) finely drawn: a rental on the North Carolina coast, the faint tang of mold, waves crashing in the distance, glasses of wine, rattan furniture. But as it comes alive there's a cruelty that emerges; to his old friend's dismay, Lisicky casually cuts down a recent story in the New Yorker. Gess, whose career has suffered, will one day be sick and suffer, but in this moment she stands up for the weak among us.
To Lisicky's credit, he remembers the scene as well as he can: "Denise paces back and forth in front of us," he writes. "She is not making sense.... She keeps defending the story but the intensity is so extreme — it has to be about other matters."
The story of any great friendship is a bit like the story of being in love, just as the story of a long life might eventually lead to its end. It's Lisicky's radical honesty about all this — life and death, friendship and lost love, ambition and failure — that makes this book so special and at times so unsettling. Why isn't he nicer to Gess? Why are any of us anything less than the best we can be, and why must it all come apart? If you've ever tried to make a human relationship work, Lisicky seems to say — both by his actions and this book — there are probably dozens of versions of yourself at play, at least one for each person you love, and none of them real or perfect or permanent.
It's this frank sincerity and book's bold form that place "The Narrow Door" beside some of the more daring and exciting writers of the last few years, such as Roxane Gay, who with her essays and online persona has made us rethink vulnerability and fairness; or the shaggy way Lidia Yuknavitch in her fiction and Cheryl Strayed in her nonfiction have given us complicated ways to think about women converting words into power. Like them, Lisicky argues for a position in this sincere canon, and for this book's structure and thinking about difference, maybe its place is even somewhere near Maggie Nelson's "Argonauts." ("Gay men don't get angry," a friend tells Lisicky. "They just get sad.")
There is something insular and maybe even unfair about Lisicky's world, which will delight those who can read about a Nick and Claudia joking at the writer's conference and guess which poets he means.
But that insider info isn't necessary to get "The Narrow Door," which is a complete book while being neither a straight-forward story nor a triumph. It's a more complicated and more honest telling, with a course as meandering and unsure as any from real life.
Deuel is the author of "Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East." He teaches writing at UCLA and Mount Saint Mary's University.
The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship