I came to Mary Karr’s work in a way unlike I’d arrived at any other writer’s work. I’m usually pretty linear about the writers I read: an author I like mentions this other author in an interview or on their acknowledgements page, or the internet aggregates me a list of writers whose work I might like based on liking this other author, etc.
But Mary Karr seemed to haunt me. I’d first read her name a while back when I was googling alumni from the MFA program I dropped out of (turns out she went there, too). From then on, she pretty consistently showed up on internet lists and in interviews or research for my classes, usually linked somehow with other authors she’d cut her teeth with in the writing world. So she was chimerical until she wasn’t.
I picked up her third and most recent memoir, Lit, the week before my daughter was born. I hadn’t bought a memoir since The Glass Castle, and this book was total chance. With the baby pending, I was curious about alcoholism and this book was being sold as a recovery story. It’s a family condition of mine and, as I was about to start my own family, I needed to hear from someone else about what alcoholism looked like.
Lit, which is also billed as a kind of conversion memoir in addition to a recovery piece (Karr discusses her sobriety and her eventual enchantment by the Catholic church) is about grief and age and relationships. Lit introduced me to the distinctive Karr voice. It also introduced me to a narrative approach that was so much whimsy and folklore and absolute precision that I knew I was learning from someone with a lot to share.
The memoir itself I can’t speak upon too much, only the writing impressions that it gave. This is not because the book itself is not memorable. It was simply overshadowed by the birth of my daughter: this was the book I was reading just before my wife went into labor–and I mean just before, as in Lit was the book I read while curled up on a squeaky leather recliner in the delivery room next to my epidural-sleep-induced wife. I might not recall too much specifically, but my sense memory of this book is that it was exactly what I needed at that moment: wise and honest and just snarky enough to remind me to keep my feet in my boots.
Before I decided to revisit nonfiction writing I frequently suggested to my wife that she write about her childhood (this may turn out to be a classic case of giving out the advice that you, in fact, need to heed.) So when Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir came out this autumn, my wife ordered a copy for herself. She’d later tell me, when I began reading the as-yet untouched hardcover, she knew when she ordered it that the book was really for me.
But I haven’t finished The Art of Memoir. In fact, I stopped about halfway. For two reasons: one, I have been in enough writing classes and read enough writing guides to already know the basics (which is sort of how that book starts); the other reason was that she was so smart and authoritative in the early chapters that I wanted to be on the same page as her. Karr talked about her own decisions as a writer so fluidly and taught the work of other authors in a way that I just had to get into some of the work she discussed. I stopped after her chapter on Nabokov, went to the back of the book, and made a list. I’ll get back to The Art of Memoir after I knock a few titles off of my reading list, and get some of my own chapters down.
At the top of my reading list was Karr’s first memoir, The Liars’ Club. Official review: holy shit. As someone who aspires to write memoir, reading about her youth made me feel absolutely unqualified to write about my own life. (To which I quickly reminded myself: fuck that.)
I don’t want to summarize what she goes through because that’s not going to do anything other than diminishing Karr’s efforts on the page via my shitty summary. From this memoir, I learned that–just as Karr purports in the early chapters of The Art of Memoir–voice is crucial to telling the story. And she is so dexterous with this faculty as an artist that she weaves in the most powerful voices–her mother’s and father’s–in the most purposeful and affecting ways. As the story of a girlhood, Karr utilizes a voice that slips and slides from her own pre-adolescent goofiness into zingers from her mother before standing long and strong in the drawl of her Texas oil-worker daddy. This memoir taught me how important it is, if you come from a heritage of story-tellers, to try and let them tell their stories. At least that’s one of the things I think this memoir does masterfully: she demonstrates the keen hurt and awe inspired by her parents and their decisions while also building their personae to the larger-than-life people they must have seemed to young Mary. And while the memoir is not sentimental, it is still emotionally devastating. Karr’s memoir is really an unsentimental love letter to her mother and father. And it’ll wreck you in that way, too.
Voice is the engine of this piece, and much has already been said elsewhere about Karr’s ability to pull poetry from Texas colloquialisms. But, for me, the real power of the memoir is the way Karr suspends reality in a book that is based on reality. And, again, it’s not the surreal nonfiction events, per se. What pushed this memoir from great to masterpiece for me is how deft Karr is at highlighting moments and elements of her life to build the tapestry of the story. She so carefully positions her family’s dysfunctions among the town’s distinctively brackish hue that you can’t seem to remember you are reading about folks who are not always as wild as they seem. She isn’t lying, she’s telling the story in the way that the best story tellers–the Liars’ Club and its chief raconteur Pete Karr–tell stories: deliberately and dramatically. And while she has a good deal to say early on in The Art of Memoir about honesty, in The Liars’ Club shows us how to shade your details via images and language and scene to present a narrative world so specific and moody and believable that this story could only have happened in these places. This is an essential element for any kind of prose or poetry, and Karr puts on a clinic for all kinds of writers in this book.
So. That’s Memoir #1 for True-Thousand Sixteen. I’m into this. Next up: Townie by Andre Dubus III. See you in a week or so, friend.