“watch the doors as they close”, karen lillis

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A reprint of my post on “Watch The Doors As They Close” by Karen Lillis, from 2012. It was published by Spuyten Duyvil Press.

About Karen Lillis

If you don’t know about Karen Lillis, then let me use a few lines to introduce you because she is somebody that you will want to keep an eye on. You can do so here at her blog: Karen The Small Press Librarian. 

Karen is a writer, of course, but also an advocate and community builder among those who find themselves drawn to the small press. It would take pages to do her efforts justice. Karen represents the kind of inclusive advocacy and defense of DIY that we need and her efforts to organize have not gone unnoticed by many of us. We are honored to have her latest novella in our hands here at Full Of Crow and wish only the best for the talented and respected Karen Lillis as she continues on her tour of readings and appearances. This represents another achievement in her writing career, and she has reason to be proud of it.

We have been fans of her work for years now and she was nominated for the Pushcart by our editors for her fiction pieces in one of our quarterly publications, Blink Ink.

Watch the Doors as They Close is a new novella from Spuyten Duyvil Press, distributed by Small Press Distribution.

The narrator writes about Anselm.  Struggling to process not only the experience of being with him in the context of her own expectations and version of love, she tells the story of a relationship and that interface where two people with disparate histories attempt to connect. We know that they do connect, but their lives don’t seem to integrate. They spend their time together parallel, astride, unable to push any closer, intimacy elusive. In the end they part ways rather easily, like the whole thing had simply run its course.

Or so it seemed. Perception, reality, evidence, denial- all come into play. What are the facts?

The narrator has taken to analysis, assembling facts and observations to more fully understand the relationship, sketching Anselm as the subject.

Anselm is not “trying” to be the people around him, even when he can be.

She appears nameless and fleeting, even in her own story. Her recollections are less their combined experience and more his past brought full circle to the present where she tries to make sense of the man she meets from her composite of the man he was. She has to draw from her memory of his memories, as well as her own.

In a way, she makes a study of Anselm. She is like an ethnographer, a historian, gathering information to create a picture, a context for what she has observed in their time together. It doesn’t come across as sentimental or appear to be the fixation of a woman unable to let go. Rather, it reveals the insight of an observer who, through love, has taken the time to transcribe her observations. In a sense, she honors him, and it is a story of “him” far more than “them” in the end. 

The reader might suspect that the absence of her own details is indicative of a problem in their relationship and might infer that the narrator is of a subordinate mindset. Had she lost herself in his story, neglected her own? Why the dedication to the narrative of a man who is no longer in her life? Why the need to make sense, instead of letting go?

But Lillis makes certain that you don’t view the undertaking of this kind of study in this way, as a woman “stuck”. It isn’t that simple, she isn’t a pathetic “lost soul”. There are places where the reconciliation and adaptation seems one sided, and that is a fair assessment. But she is also comfortable with vulnerability, and in this we see strength in her character, and in her willingness to be present for the emotional investments, in the moment even as she compares their love to what she anticipated. She displays maturity in the working through and eventual acceptance of many aspects of their relationship that would likely be perceived as threatening, accepting many of the boundaries and limits of the other, without an active campaign to change him. She expresses opinions but doesn’t seek to convince us of their merit, she isn’t concerned about being “right” in a relationship gone wrong. She has not “failed” in some effort to win him.

Nor does she seem satisfied, or at peace. Through her lens we examine why, along with her introspection. She seems poised to accept her conclusions, her findings, once thoroughly processed. She seems to find a level of empowerment in her analysis that makes her sympathies more a conscious choice versus an act of desperation. Clearly, she wanted more than what she could have with the under-achieving, artistic Anselm, but in the investment of effort she seems capable of resignation as long as the snapshots come through, rendered clearly.

Lillis touches on class with subtlety, the narrator is aware of the differences in their upbringing and the ways that family dynamics play a role in our adult fumblings toward closeness and security constructs. Anselm is the product of a rural, disadvantaged upbringing whose clutches he cannot fully shake in her city. We know that he has made a transition on his own, prior to their meeting, toward a life of enhanced cultural repertoire: travel, gourmet cooking, music, elite education. Yet Anselm seems to approach this reaching with a passivity, if not a reluctance. There is something in this rejection that the narrator seems to admire, without openly saying so.

Anselm is not “trying” to be the people around him, even when he can be. And just as Anselm sips beer outside instead of joining the party, he seems to make efforts socially on his terms. He is out of his element, therefore, in New York among cloying Bohemians, in a scene where he has the capacity to excel but simply drops the ball.

This tendency is something that the narrator seems to want for herself on some level, not fully comfortable with the scene either, or perhaps wanting something more authentic. Their bedroom becomes the refuge for their disconnect, the haven for their candor. They want to be real with one another but at this point in their lives, seem unable to let go of expectations to simply appreciate the time shared, as is.

He isn’t able to integrate, he seems incapable of a shared life beyond the apartment, with shared friends and some hypothetical basis for a committed future. They remain on fleeting terms, shaky ground, until the end when the city and the relationship prove too much for Anselm to bear. His is a calm ending, an inevitable departure. Hers becomes a quest for the answers that form the basis of the novella- the result, a glimpse into the layers of a relationship whose story isn’t complete until she can fill in the spaces.

“Watch the Doors as They Close” is an engaging peek, and Lillis brings richness and thoughtful care to Anselm despite the ambivalence and intermittent patience with both his disposition and his instability. We don’t know how real he was, is, could be- “This is the story of Anselm. The story of Anselm as told to me.”

Read A Review in Four Chambers here. 

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

ISBN: 978-0-923389-87-1

Cover by Camille Lacroix