April 15, 2013

My Four Walls and Our Two Faces: A Review of Karen Lillis’ Watch the Doors as They Close

We've all had to face the inevitability of change. People move away. Relationships end. We get older, and we start to inspect our pasts under a new light, hopefully leading to some sort of acceptance or understanding. In Watch the Doors as They Close, Karen Lillis lets readers dive full force into the mind of a woman who recognizes that “everything flows,” and whose heart has been broken just days before the book’s opening. The narrator, by recounting and exploring some of the couple’s shared moments, seems to be trying to explain how two people could burn so brightly for each other in summer only to fizzle out by winter.

The entire piece reads like a discarded diary, with entries dating from December 12, 2003, to the end of that same month. The narrator is a writer who works in a bookstore and was seeing Anselm, a deeply troubled composer, from roughly August to December. In the first sentence, she admits that “this is the story of Anselm.” In fact, the narrator remains nameless throughout the novella. We learn so much about Anselm so quickly, including his sexual past in Paris involving three different women and his depression:

He calls it “the bad space.” When he starts going there he starts getting shaky and scared. Anxious. The shaky feels like after you've been crying for a long, long time. When he’s in the bad space he is almost absent to himself (though he seems to sit with it and try to cope with the accompanying anxiety – other times he just wants to be distracted, like watching movies – still other times he can’t bear it and he drinks to take the edge off) but he can seem strangely present to the person he’s with.

The quote above illustrates Lillis’ narrative tactics. Here, the sense of distance, of separation between Anselm and the narrator and the reader, is strongly established. Anselm is absent to himself while strangely present, just as he is absent and present to the reader through the narrator’s interpretation of him. Appearing within the first few pages of the book, Anselm’s depression casts a shadow over the entire relationship. It dictates the way the couple interacts and, often, how the narrator feels about herself. The sex stopped being sober relatively early on, and they live a sort of “desert island existence” not because the narrator is anxious about getting Anselm to meet her friends, but because Anselm is “so skittish among the living.” At one point, things are so awkward that the narrator has “a full-blown meltdown,” and “internaliz[es] his daylong inattentiveness into an inescapable feeling of ugliness and impotence, and just general ineffable anguish.”

Lillis’ choice of a diary format provides a level of honesty—in private writings, there’s no reason to leave anything unsaid. If the narrator were telling this story to a friend or family member directly, for example, there'd be more cause for skepticism. Lillis instead keeps the world of the novella very small, aptly mirroring the couple’s “desert island existence.” Minor characters are mentioned by name but aren't involved in the scenes.

The novella’s success comes in Lillis’ portrayal of a destructive relationship. The break up is so filled with subtleties that it really is heartrending. But, while readers empathize with the narrator’s sadness, the problem of Anselm’s tacit abuse is very real—his mood swings, his insularity, his drinking, his urge to leave without warning or explanation, not to mention the moments when the narrator simply feels threatened even though nothing is happening. Displaying typical signs of an abused person, she shares enough about Anselm’s shaky past to contextualize and almost justify his behavior. She has brief moments of clarity about the situation, but there is so much talk of confession, of her admitting to a wrong and returning to a “state of Grace,” that it seems she thinks she committed some sin. In the story we’re told, the narrator comes across as the victim but blames herself as the victimizer. She is so wrapped up in the World of Anselm that perhaps the truth is hard to acknowledge.

By the end of Watch the Doors as They Close, readers are left somewhat conflicted. While wanting to understand Anselm, there’s also a feeling that the narrator should stand up for herself and throw a few punches. But it’s not that kind of book. It is a personal and delicate attempt at tolerating change and moving beyond sadness and abuse. Just as the narrator says that “one has to sit very still and pay close attention to see where [Anselm’s] going,” so the readers must look closely to see some hope that the narrator will find solace and adapt. “I bought him some food for the bus and paid for a cab to Port Authority as if he still belonged to me,” she admits in closing, “but when the bus finally backed away, I hurried home to Brooklyn and dragged our futon to the curb.”

Review by Robyn Campbell

Watch the Doors as They Close by Karen Lillis
Spuyten Duyvil Novella Series, 2012

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