“What would we be without Town?” writes Paul Lisicky in “Later: My Life at the Edge of the World,” his third memoir. “We are parts of its body now.”
“Town” is shorthand for Provincetown, Massachusetts, where Lisicky was a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center. The memoir recounts Lisicky’s time there in the early 1990s, a time when Provincetown, a queer mecca, was heavily feeling the effects of the AIDS crisis.
Lisicky, who is an alumnus of the renowned Iowa Writers’ Workshop and teaches creative writing at Rutgers University-Camden, has long been established as a writer; he is the author of two other novels, “Lawnboy” and “The Burning House,” in addition to several short fiction pieces. In “Later,” Lisicky starts at the beginning of his fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center, making Provincetown the memoir’s center. Stunning honesty grounds readers in this otherworldly haven, a town where Lisicky first found a place within the queer community.
Enrapturing, present-tense prose pulls readers into the moment with Lisicky. He invites all to enter into his stained-glass memories as he pieces together the emotional heights of his “life at the edge of the world.” He remembers — with a lucidity that cannot be easy to achieve, given how trying the times were — how he felt during those moments. Through this remembrance, readers are transported back to a place and time where trauma still makes an impact to this day.
To tell the story of Provincetown and his time there, Lisicky writes in compact microchapters within larger chapters. The burst effect of this mimics memory and the process of remembering, though the chapters are arranged chronologically, building upon each other thematically to tell the broader story. It is best, then, to read Lisicky’s memoir slowly so as to chew on each microchapter, absorbing this rapid succession of information fully in order to do it justice.
The abstraction of the sentences, too, constitutes a slow reading. Lisicky’s phrasings are beautiful — sometimes quippy and prophetic, and other times serpentine and complex. It’s the kind of book that warrants underline after underline, bound to result in more than one heart scribbled next to more than one paragraph.
It’s almost musical, the way Lisicky writes. Musical references are scattered throughout but not executed in overabundance. Joni Mitchell in particular comes up more than once; with her wail-cry of a voice that seems to mirror the wail-cry of Lisicky’s declarative style, one can see how music seamlessly informs the prose in “Later.”
Although “Later” is autobiographical, it is also in many ways a biography of when Provincetown was so lovingly called “Town,” despite being the site of so much sorrow. Vivid details and characterization make Provincetown come to bursting life in “Later,” as much a character as Lisicky himself or anyone else included in the book.
Through the writing of this memoir, Lisicky defies a claim that someone within the story makes: that “trauma porn” is “an expression for any book written about AIDS.” How can one who lived through this not talk about it, the memoir asks — how can one who lives through this be asked to not make something out of it, whatever that something may be?
By the end of “Later,” Lisicky has arrived in 2018, ruminating on how much the experience of being a queer man has changed since the early 1990s. The world, against all odds, has become safer. Yet, it is impossible to forget those earlier days: “AIDS isn’t the good old days,” Lisicky reminds us in the final chapter. With this in mind, each explosive microchapter of “Later” is all the more poignant; we’ve come so far, says Lisicky, but how can we be expected to forget that it wasn’t always this way?