Watch the Doors
as They Close

By Karen Lillis

Spuyten Duyvil
February 2012

Reviewed by Lacey N. Dunham


Late in Karen Lillis's novella Watch the Doors as They Close the narrator asks: "What do I really know about Anselm? Only what he told me." This is true of all relationships, of course; what we know of others is only what they willingly divulge. We learn about those we love from their pillow talk, but we learn more from seeing them perform their different roles: lover, brother, son, hopeful youth, burned-out professional.  

For Lillis's unnamed narrator, however, the enigmatic Anselm exists in a vacuum. She never meets his friends or family. They never run into his co-workers when they're together. She compares Anselm to Tom Ripley, Patricia Highsmith's "dangerous drifter" and "charming psychotic"—her knowledge of him is fleeting and possibly false—and she has a flickering fear that he's going to set the bed on fire.

The narrator's realization that she doesn't truly know who Anselm is arrives late in the novella. Until this point, she obsesses over him, a man about whom she knows everything and nothing, and clings to their unstable relationship. Anselm's story—told through a series of journal entries written by the narrator in the month following her break-up—is also the story of what she and Anselm did—or didn't—have. Deciphering the exact depth and nature of her relationship with Anselm is challenging because she's not wholly honest with herself.

For the narrator, the affair with Anselm was brief—stretching a handful of months from late summer to December—but reading about her consuming obsession I felt that if Anselm stuck his head through her door, she'd repeat the same injudicious mistakes. She writes, "The longer he stayed away the taller our dreams soared, and the more dangerous we became to ourselves." It's a late warning, because Anselm is dangerous: emotionally abusive and coping with depression, he cuts himself both before and after a stay in Bellevue. His sexual passion quickly morphs into threatening dominance when he begins harshly and crudely biting the narrator during sex. "He wanted to please a woman in order to conquer her, not in order to open her up, expand her desires."

For all we (don't) know about Anselm, we know even less about the narrator.  True to the diary-style format, she doesn't share the details of her life. She dissects Anselm as a way to come to terms with their relationship. More than once, she lists things he hates. She tells us he's a songwriter and musician who enjoys the process of creation more than the final product—an apt metaphor for his quick seduction and rapid consumption of the many women who've passed through his life, including "all the female poets at Yaddo one summer." He forgets chunks of time. He's jealous, manipulative, egotistical.

The journal entries can seem glib at times; sentences are too off-handed and casual, and the effecting aftertaste is that the narrator—and the reader—shouldn't take this story too seriously. Anselm—who escapes his poor Appalachian childhood at Oberlin College only to drop out and become a musician—maintains an arsenal of unstable and needy ex-girlfriends. He's a caricature of the bad boy with a golden heart and the narrator becomes the woman who wishes to save him. I had the urge more than once to grab the narrator's shoulders and shake her. The limitation of a story told entirely in journal entries is that we'll never know more than what the narrator knows, and ultimately what she knows about Anselm seems merely to be an elaborate lie. Anselm may very well be his own creation.  He ricochets around the claustrophobic pages of the narrator's journal like a pinball rattling inside a pinball machine, passing through New York City landmarks on its way to GAME OVER.


"I've had the overwhelming urge to confess to my therapist lately… and have her tell me exactly how I can attain forgiveness," the narrator confesses. She  immediately backpedals, almost as if Anselm were reading over her shoulder and tapped his finger on a line he particularly disliked. She adds, "Don't get me wrong—I don't want [the therapist] to help me rationalize anything I've done…" But what sin has she committed beyond falling in love with a man who never loved her back, a man who willingly lies to others—emotionally, physically—and who refuses to allow to others into his life? It's easy to blame the narrator for her shortsightedness, especially when she so readily blames herself for everything. It's a natural reaction, certainly, but it makes for frustrating reading.

Ultimately, what the narrator  wants is "the challenge of someone who cares enough to tell me the absolute truth" about Anselm, except the truth is buried among the murkiness and the mess of a soured relationship that might have once held a sincere moment of beauty and promise:

I'm remembering his hands, which looked like a cross between those of a farmer and a piano player. Tapered but work-worn. Thin, intelligent, long fingers but a sure, passionate grip. And the scar on the first knuckle of his right hand.

The scar is dead giveaway that the sensitive piano player is not who he pretends to be. The narrator willfully overlooks Anselm's physical and psychological flaws and, in this way, she becomes complicit in the collapse of her search for truth.