“The rising seas, the sinking lawn: none of that bothered me tonight. Laura’s health and mind, shifting like water. Mister Greasy, Son of Unabomber. Far away. Yay. I walked from the bay. I could not see. But I might have been given a fresh brain, inspired and outwardly turned, and as soon as I spoke those words to the deep, I swear creatures started coming toward me. Squirrels, raccoons, deer, herons, catbirds, footfalls on fallen leaves. I was like someone out of a freaking folktale, who knew not death or the churned-up stomach but moved through the night with the lightest tread, changing it with the benevolence of his passing.”
“The Burning House”
Etruscan Press, $14.95
Thus begins “The Burning House,” a poetic, enigmatic, and slender novel (novella?) by Paul Lisicky, the author of two previous works of fiction. The story is narrated by Isidore Mirsky, who with his wife and her sister lives in a house that the sisters inherited from their mother. They live in a town on a bay that is being threatened by developers who want to build something big. It is going to affect the ecology as well as the nature of the town.
If I sound vague or tentative, it is because much of the detail in the book is never specified. Several towns or locales are mentioned in a way that makes one think that they are the location of the story, and yet is it Dunbarton Township? Ocean Ridge? Lumina? Aberdeen? Toms River? All these places are mentioned. I didn’t know any of them. Isidore’s wife, Laura, has an illness; though it is darkly hinted at and eventually even more darkly shown, we are left uninformed as to what her actual malady might be.
Isidore has been injured in an accident and his broken hand is keeping him from his normal occupation, fixing cars. He spends a lot of time taking care of the house, in part because he feels less than entitled to be living there, as it belongs to Laura and Joan. Also perhaps because he did not feel completely accepted by their mother.
Isidore narrates the book and is relaxed about setting the scene. He is a bit ahistorical in his approach and sometimes switches tense or person, once in a while even becoming an omniscient narrator, which lends the book a dreamlike quality. You sometimes don’t know until halfway through a scene if it is past or present, in one location or another. The narration is, in fact, a great deal like his sexual but emotionally isolated affair with Janet.
“. . . I tried my best not to take it all in, as I was afraid we might get ourselves into trouble if we started talking. All that mattered was that she had a body completely different from my wife’s. . . . We’d figured out a way to do what we’d needed to do without being entered by our history, the world, and that was no small thing.”
Despite a sentiment of no history, Isidore tells us that he grew up in a house of men — father, uncle, and cousin — and it shaped him in ways that make it difficult now for him to live in a house with two sisters and the ghostly presence of their mother.
“When did you last go into a household where you were expected to lift the toilet seat on leaving the bathroom? I’d thought that was common until Sherri Blatt, my first girlfriend, admonished me for such carelessness in her house. How could I not feel bewildered and ashamed for not knowing the most obvious thing?”
Sexually, Isidore is not completely at ease. He loves his wife — she has been his love since he saw her sing in high school — but that doesn’t stop him from having his sexual liaison, nor from lusting mightily (albeit ambivalently) after his wife’s sister. “Joan sat beside me. I felt as I felt when she first moved in, and I couldn’t figure out how to arrange my eyes and arms whenever she talked to me.” They end up lying together on the bed . . . innocently? And Laura walks in on them and her eyes fill with tears. “For some reason it came to me that I was losing her.”
Isidore asks himself if it was ever possible “to love two people, wholly, equally, at once?” At one point he says, “A part of me wanted to pull [Joan] into the next room. Another part would have been happy never to see her face again.” He is in denial about whether his feelings for Joan are merely sexual or more romantic, although the other woman with whom he is actually having sex holds no emotional connection for him at all.
Joan is active in the antidevelopment movement and intends to speak at the next town planning board meeting. The expectation, at least from Isidore, is that she is going to be terrifically persuasive and win the day, stopping the greedy developers who are going to ruin the town. But when the time comes, she bombs excruciatingly.
“She kept reaching for the right word (and I was reaching there along with her), but the harder she tried, the more elusive it was, so just as she almost touched it (beautiful, generous thing), it swam away: a sunfish she’d been trying to grip with her bare hands. Of all the pains in the world, the worst has got to be watching the humiliation of someone you care about.”
Laura doesn’t make it to the meeting because of her illness. “Her skin smelled hot and unfamiliar, like a barnyard or dirtied feet. . . . ‘But I’m just worried about . . . Why couldn’t he put a name to it? Stupid doctor.’ ” And then a page or so later: “Mystery disease. It did not belong in our house.”
The writing in “The Burning House” is often gorgeous and lyrical. At one point Isidore tells us that “rage drew its claws across my back.” Raindrops fall on leaves “with a curious sound of frying,” and “Glarey clouds ragged in from the bay.” There is a kind of trancelike quality to the writing and to the book that can be disconcerting and fascinating, sometimes at the same moment. Mr. Lisicky’s poetic and minute scrutiny of the details and nuances of moments and thoughts and images sometimes seems so microscopic that one feels as though one isn’t seeing the entire picture, but then again, perhaps that is his intention.
“I walked forward, concentrating into the cedar shake shingles on the roof: the mold, the pale green threads of lichen furring up the wood. I didn’t want to give them what they wanted. There, the supermarket manager with the unbalanced glasses; there, a man with a clean ace bandage wrapped ten times round his arm. There, Chick Keatley; there, Betty Bridges; there, Kevin Honeysett in an expensive satin tie, pink as a rhododendron. They didn’t yell or even talk among themselves. Something shuffled, something scraped. They’d become their own thing now, a single force with a single unalterable face, fatigued and defiant. We’ve waited too long for what we want; we’ve been duped, and time’s running out faster than you think.”
Paul Lisicky teaches writing at New York University and is at present a visiting professor in the M.F.A. program at Rutgers University at Camden. He lives part time in Springs.
Michael Z. Jody is a psychoanalyst and couples counselor with a practice in Amagansett and New York City. He has a house in East Hampton.