Watch the Doors As They Close
(Spuyten Duyvil, 2012)
In her new novella Watch the Doors As They Close, Karen Lillis employs a technique made famous by Henry James, though in a manner that reverses James’s original intent. In books like The Ambassadors there is someone who James would call a “ficelle,” a character whose main object is to act as the sounding board for the protagonist. James never gave much background for their kind, since a ficelle’s chief occupation is to listen to the hero or heroine vent.
But what happens if, in a two-person drama, centered on the beginning and inevitable end of a doomed love affair, one of the leading characters—the narrator herself—is a ficelle? In Lillis’s ingenious plot, the unnamed female protagonist—let’s call her L—begins by saying she wants to describe her ex, Anselm, and proceeds to fill us in on his upbringing, a rough one; the town where he grew up, a played-out mining community in western Pennsylvania; and his previous love affairs, including servicing an older woman and being involved with a sex dictator who “never accepted his moods, or the rhythm of his sexuality when she wanted and that was that.” Meanwhile, in the course of the book, readers learn next to nothing about the narrator other than her approximate age, 30-something.
Lillis’s use of a ficelle is not executed in a heavy-handed way. We discover enough about the needy, endlessly, blindly optimistic L to empathize with her. She tells us a little about her job at a bookstore, her friends, and a beloved Greenpoint diner she’s enough of a regular at to make phone calls from. But Anselm doesn’t want anything to do with her life that takes him out of their symbiotic bubble.
A central distinction between the two characters is Anselm’s fixation on a past filled with traumas and broken promises and L’s preoccupation with the everyday present, like going to parties given by her bookstore colleagues. The failure of the relationship stems from this incompatible temporal perspective. As L says, “To exist in a ‘state of sin’ really just means that you haven’t survived your experiences yet. Really, that’s all life ever asks of you. Is that you go along, and…feel what you feel, but you don’t let your experiences bind you up and prevent you from living and seeing and feeling and loving.” The sentences do double duty insofar as they both indicate the narrator’s increasing sense of herself as things “go along” as well as help readers know more about this reticent character.
The book begins after L and Anselm’s affair is over, but as the narrator reconstructs it from memory, we find it didn’t take L long to complete her sentimental education, to realize that Anselm is damaged goods beyond repair. The book buries us in details about his hard-luck past, so the more he acts out his ambivalence toward L—ignoring and subsequently embracing her when she cries—the more his behavior seems acceptable, even justified. Anselm suffered through a childhood of abuse, continually beaten by his mother after his father, a lung-diseased miner, took a shotgun to his head. In a telling way, Lillis links the implosion of Anselm’s family to the collapse of the region in which they settled. “His county claims something like 12% unemployment, but that’s just the folks collecting the checks. It’s more like 85% of the people that are unemployed. There’s simply no jobs there…And yet it doesn’t stop anyone from buying huge trucks that put them into debt and riding around getting into trouble.”
Need I say this book is not for romance novel readers? There are moments of tenderness and camaraderie in the couple’s relationship, as when Anselm is suddenly too shy to enter a party at a Brooklyn loft they instead go up on the roof, drink the booze they bought and peer through the skylight. Overall, though, the book is a “downer,” but not in the sense that word is usually used. It’s a sad tale that grows sadder as it indelibly and insightfully pictures every screech, every whine of twisted metal, and every cry in an unforgettable train wreck of a love story.