Watch the Doors As They Close
by Karen Lillis
Spuyten Duyvil; 100 p.

Like many contemporary readers, I feel oddly ambivalent about today’s literary love stories, or lack thereof.  I cannot think of a relationship from the world of literature that inspires me or engenders jealousy. (Two exceptions: Calvin Trillin’s nonfiction account of his wife in the devastating About Alice, and of course, that cool couple from The Notebook.) We live with a lacunae in the literary world in our ability or desire or to depict models of enduring intimacy. And yet, at the same time that we crave a believable literary love story, given the history of the novel and its obsession with love, we always need to confront the question of what can we say about love that still matters. We like to think of our relationships, and therefore, other people’s relationships, as idiosyncratic, as singular in some transcendent manner, but reality robs us of this delusion.

Consequently, what can literature say about love besides describing its empty promises? We put happiness on the back burner, at least until someone can come along and convince us of its existence; a story of a relationship that falls apart hardly sounds original. And yet, in a svelte 80 pages, Karen Lillis, in her new Watch the Doors as They Close, somehow insinuates herself into this canon of love, and love lost. Lillis accomplishes this because she chooses to focus less on the fluctuations of the relationship and more on the obsessive quality, the illogical search for answers that we think will calm our hearts after the maelstrom of love passes. Though the story sounds simple — a woman attempts to come to grips with the abrupt end to an emotionally wild relationship by writing in her journal for 19 days — we rarely receive a normal plotting of the relationship. She begins writing only five days after her boyfriend Anselm leaves her, but instead of seething anger, the unnamed narrator delves into the mystery of Anselm. The book reads as a character study of Anselm, the fleeing, bipolar, drunken, depressed, aloof, fucked-up, emotionally toxic boyfriend, as she attempts to explain to herself what went so horribly wrong.

From the outside, as in all relationships, it’s all so clear. Anselm’s insanity borders on the need for institutionalization. His background of abuse and emotional neglect pegs him as a person from whom to keep a 100-foot berth. He can no longer feel in his nerve endings because of all the physical abuse from his mother; he talks, forever, about previous relationships, he oscillates between intense intimacy and frightening aloofness, and many of the paragraphs simply details the things he hates:

Things Anselm hates: Mozart; short hair (“God didn’t mean for anyone to keep cutting what grows fine on its own”) watching anyone else have fun when he’s in THAT MOOD; being put in a group of people, especially in private quarters; families; holidays; women who are taller than him; his mother; anchovies; being tickled, or anything that tickles, sneakers, the color pink.

Sounds delightful, I know, and this list just starts a long motif of things Anselm despises and of traumas he lived through and continues to live with. In a sense, he signifies a paradigm of whom not to love, and yet, because of this, he fits perfectly with the essential question of the book: how does love make us lie to ourselves so much that we can accept sadism, or masochism, or insanity as a receptacle for our greatest dreams about life? Or to put the question in another way, do any of us actually believe that love conquers all?

Because what this book amounts to is less of a story about a relationship than a story about a person trying to explain relationships to herself, and failing. The narrator evinces a belief that if somehow she could get to the bottom of Anselm, understands his flaws, what makes him implode, or explain what went wrong, something might shift, internally; the pain might subside. Call it a writer’s curse, but it’s a hopeful curse. An implicit acceptance of the possibility of real love, otherwise why try to explain what went wrong this time.

Of course though, after 19 days of obsessively cataloging a person and a relationship, putting it under the microscope to find the root cause of the rotting, she finds nothing but ambivalence. In a sense, I find this beautifully fitting with the odd name Anselm. The most famous Anselm was Anselm of Canterbury, best known for originating the ontological proof for God. Even if you accept the ontological proof for God as logically true, it carries no weight emotionally, an apt metaphor for the impenetrability of relationships. Because God, like love, despite our experience of its increasing unlikelihood, is something whose existence we hope for time and time again. A potential intellectual imagining of a concept barely scratches an emotional storm.

In another sense, this beautiful novella, one full of insights into every stage of a relationship, taps into another universal experience in the mourning of a relationship. (Because make no mistake, we do mourn our relationships as if a death.) Specifically, how we use magical thinking in which words, written or spoken, can serve as conduits to immortality. As long as you talk about it, him, her, the times together, his idiosyncrasies, the embraces of true intimacy, the fighting, the reconciliation, the emotions still enrapture you. Words concretize the wish for immortality that we seek in the love for and of another person, even just in the memories of love.

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