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February 2, 2016

Book Notes - Paul Lisicky "The Narrow Door"

The Narrow Door

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Paul Lisicky's The Narrow Door is a beautifully told, honest, and poignant memoir of friendship, love, and loss.

The Los Angeles Times wrote of the book:

"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."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.


In his own words, here is Paul Lisicky's Book Notes music playlist for his memoir The Narrow Door:


1. "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter," Joni Mitchell
I heard my first Joni Mitchell song when I was ten. Those songs—their weird chords against those unexpected, sometimes diffuse melodies—sounded like nothing else I'd ever heard. By the time I reached my twenties, it was the sound of my inner life, though I never would have used such a term back then. I didn't know anyone else who loved—or even listened to those songs. They were the songs of the generation ahead of me, and when I first met my friend Denise, I was actually shocked to meet another human who loved that music as much as I did.

I could have picked any song from the great albums of the middle to late seventies: The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Hejira, Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, Mingus. I settled on the title song of the third of the four, largely because the speaker's dilemma was very much Denise's dilemma: art and sex vs. the home life. Which do you choose?

These days I can't listen to this song without thinking about Jaco Pastorius, the bassist. Those slides in the deep notes? He finished the recording so bloodied, his left hand had to be bandaged.

2. "Golden Lady," Stevie Wonder
Who else writes songs with such charisma, vitality, sexiness? The opening of this song is an homage to Joni's piano playing on "For the Roses," but once we get beyond those few bars, the song is effervescent Stevie. Denise was a great fan of Stevie Wonder's music, and I'm remembering one late winter night, after a falling out, when we sat cross-legged on her living room rug, listening to his songs: Denise singing, eyes closed, head moving with the music. Her big grin.

I love the way this song climbs and climbs as if it's going up stairs.

3. "History of Touches," Bjork
One of the things that's always confounded me about writing is that it's primarily a single melodic line, whereas a musician has access to harmonic structures. The Narrow Door is my attempt to make harmonic structures in writing, through suggestions of simultaneity: one point in time filtering through another through the use of patterns in phrasing, image, content. I know that that sounds a little grand. This was all an act of intuition.

"The History of Touches" is a great song of simultaneity, and I love the curtain of chords behind this song, which sound like they've been lifted right out of a dream. The sonic version of an aurora borealis. And who could not love a song with lyrics like this? "Every single fuck we had together / is in our wondrous time lapse / with us here at this moment." Sung the last night a couple makes love.

4. "A Case of You," Joni Mitchell
The Narrow Door is in many ways a book of lists, and so I'm surprised that I didn't put the playlist (or CD) I gave to M into the book. Maybe it felt too personal for display at the time. It felt like life and death to me. I don't know where that list went; I suspect it was on the laptop of mine stolen from our Chelsea apartment, on the night when the two of us slept, unawares that someone was actually prowling through our living room before he slipped out the kitchen window, down the fire escape. I gave this CD to M when it was clear we were in crisis. Language wasn't big enough for what I wanted to say, which was that I loved him deeper than pure water. I remember this song was on it. He was a Joni fan too. I remember him telling me it broke his heart.

5. "The Sound of Failure," The Flaming Lips
Another playlist does make it into the book: it's from a CD I gave to Denise several months into her final illness. She loved getting new music when she had to spend so much time in doctor's offices or waiting rooms, a line of chemical tapped into her arm. The songs on this CD are anchored into a particular era, an era that's not so long ago in calendar time, but already feels like the past in pop music time. I don't even listen to these bands any more, a vaguely troubling admission, as I think many of them were up to something timeless. Here's one from that list. Denise thought a lot about failure; she was obsessed with the idea of failure as an artist, as is the speaker in this song, with its references to "Britney" and "Gwen."

6. "Death with Dignity," Sufjan Stevens
My taste in pop music usually runs to pieces written in opening tunings or with crazy time signatures, but the simplicity of this song always gets under my skin every time I hear it—actually, I could say it about any of the songs on Carrie & Lowell. Sufjan Stevens sounds like he's singing into his limits and beyond. He's singing the song of anyone who's every lost anyone, even though he isn't: he is singing about his mother. That is the trick of art.

7. "Kingfisher," Joanna Newsom
Denise tended to be attached to songs that had some roots in R&B and soul, and I don't know what she would have done with Joanna Newsom. She might have thought her as too twee. I love not only the instrumental arrangement here but the structure of the song itself, which keeps refreshing itself through unexpected changes in key and tempo. It's brilliance all the way, animated at every turn, no dead parts of the forest.

Speaking of appropriate lyrics:

Stand here and name the one you loved
Beneath the drifting ashes
And in naming, rise above time
As it, flashing, passes

8. "Dollar Days," David Bowie
I don't know when David Bowie wrote this song, but I imagine it, along with every other song on Blackstar, as being performed by someone who knew his time on earth was finite. Denise was working on a new book about illness during her last months, and I often wonder whatever happened to it. By that point we'd stopped showing each other our early drafts, but I'd like to think of the fragments of that book as light-filled, shining darkly on some hard drive in a storage unit.

Is there a more beautiful line?

"If I never see the English evergreens I'm running to /
it's nothing to me, it's nothing to me"

9. "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," Diana Ross and The Supremes.
I write about the original Marvin Gaye-Tammi Terrell version of this song is in The Narrow Door, just before one of its darkest moments in the book. For this playlist, I decided to go with the version that might take itself more seriously. It isn't afraid of grandeur, or shy about a little kitsch.

The Iowa Writers' Workshop plays a part in my book. One night I remember and sitting on the floor next to my classmate Charles D'Ambrosio at a party. The song came on the stereo. No one in our group noticed that the chemistry had changed in the room—what had come on before that, The Cranberries? The song was building, growing. Then strings came on, symphonic. And I remember saying something along the lines of, God, I fucking love this thing. I was probably twisting around a little. Possibly I might have been mouthing the words. While I was caught up in my little world, I felt a wave of fondness from Charlie, for the song, for me—it didn't involve speech. It was only a smile, sweet. But it meant a lot at a stressed-out, self-conscious time. It was hard to be one of the few gay people in the Workshop, but that's another story.

10. "American Dove (Live)," Laura Nyro
I never understood why Denise had never listened to Laura Nyro's music. They seemed to me twins of spirit, in their respect for high drama, highs and lows, intense expression. They were both Italian—well, Laura was half-Italian. Plus, if I loved Laura Nyro, shouldn't Denise have loved her equally?

One night I decided she'd lived been a non-fan long enough, and I was going to introduce the music to her in the proper way. I turned the lights low. We were going to sit there and listen—and not simply have it playing in the background. I put on "Upstairs by a Chinese Lamp." I watched her face for a shimmer of reaction. After the song finished, I felt her trying to like it, trying to please me. She'd said it was wonderful, but I knew she didn't think it was wonderful. I put on "Gibsom Street" then I put on "Lu." She wasn't making the usual Denise sounds of delight. When she truly loved something she loved it with her whole body; she'd squeeze her fists. It was hard not to take her politeness personally. Somehow I doubt she ever listened to the CD I gave her again; perhaps it ended up in a drawer; but maybe this song, this live performance, would have drawn her in?

Another song that climbs and climbs and climbs.

11. "So Long," Rickie Lee Jones
Simultaneously a lullaby and a sendoff: one of the most beautiful songs ever. Every time I conjure it up, my eyes fill. It seems remarkable to me that the speaker is neither angry nor hurt that the Loved One is leaving. Her love is too pure for that, too ancient, too grave, too sweet. And she isn't grandstanding about that love either. You'll find the sun and laughter, so long.


Paul Lisicky and The Narrow Door links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry

Boston Globe review
Chicago Tribune review
Kirkus review
Los Angeles Times review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review
San Francisco Chronicle review
Slate review

Chicago Pride interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for The Burning House
Michigan Daily interview with the author
Philly Magazine interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

Online "Best of 2015" Book Lists

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)


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