Watch the Doors as They Close by Karen Lillis
published by Spuyten Duyvil (novella series), 2012
Karen Lillis’s novella, written as diary entries from December 12th through the 30th of 2003, begins, “This is the story of Anselm as told to me,” and right away I worried for this poor young woman. Anselm, a bi-polar, world-travelling undergraduate from a poverty-stricken Appalachian town used to date the unnamed narrator, but they broke up one week prior to her journaling. We learn nearly nothing about her (although she does mention that Anselm read the book she wrote and was jealous of some passages).
The narrator feels she knows nothing about Anselm, yet the story is stacked with details about his family, of what he hates, and the neurosis of his many ex-girlfriends and lovers. On my first experience with the novella I got through 40 pages and had to put the book aside to complete other projects. Three days later, when I returned, I found myself zoning out, lost, maybe a bit bored, but I couldn’t figure out why (I had loved the first 40 pages). I read the novella a second time (two sittings in one day) and loved it. The many details of Anselm, it turns out, are vital to understanding the beauty of the situation between the two characters, and I had forgotten brief moments from those first 40 pages. For instance, on page 6 the narrator claims Anselm hates being tickled (who cares?), but it isn’t until page 61 that we learn “there was a not-really-told story about [Anselm’s mother] sadistically tickling him….as if her instinct to beat him started with tickling instead.” If you don’t pay attention to this narrator, she will have no effect on you, and you’ll be missing out on a great deal of excellent storytelling.
The anecdotes of cruel Anselm are sparse, as if she is protecting him from a reader’s scorn. What she reveals and hides says more about her personality than her own words. When the narrator does express herself, it is through claims, causing the novella to blur into lyricism. One of the woman’s claims: “One time I was dreaming that everywhere [Anselm’s and my body] touched each other turned to a blanket of green stamps, like fish scales on our skin. My challenge in the dream was to figure out if the green was the color of green of love and growth, or if they were merely food stamps.”
Lillis’s book reads like listening to a friend (another good reason to read it in one sitting). I wanted to shake this friend, but I gained insights into young adulthood from her. When Anselm shows trepidation upon arriving at a party of the narrator’s friend, he wants to stay outside and talk and drink, giving her much personal attention. Ultimately, the narrator realizes, “I also had the foreboding sense that Anselm and I were always going to be only an intangible, fleeting entity, if we never dared to enter real life together.” To her, real life is exposed and worth living, but Anselm’s world is hidden and confusing. Such a short beautiful read, especially for those caught in the crossfire of young adulthood and developing adult relationships that change a person’s identity.
This review was originally published at JMWW.