Mary Karr's Lit: A Monumental Achievement

The key to writing a great memoir is seducing the reader to fall in love with you. After reading first The Liars’ Club and now Lit, I am totally smitten. I have Karr’s second memoir Cherry on my shelf and will need to read it also.

Lit is the story of a girl from Texas whose hard-drinking father worked in the oil fields and whose psychotic mother aspired to art. She grew up to be a poet, wife, mother, divorcee, alcoholic, and best-selling memoirist. Lit is a humdinger of a story told the way a sharpshooter and straight talker from Texas would serve it up. You can read so many other reviews of this book that I will simply provide the link to the publisher’s website for a sampling of the overwhelming, well-deserved praise larded on by reviewers.

Karr can tell a good poem by the way it makes her feel. I judge memoirs in much the same way. Then I try to rummage around in my mind to define what quality is after it hits me between the eyes. What makes Lit better than most other memoirs?  Above all there is the author herself, whose voice trembles and resounds inside a steel echo chamber full of opposites–vulnerable/fiesty, earthy/spiritual, loving/selfish. Karr is a complicated human being who respects herself and all who have come into her life. She believes in evil, both the evil in the world and in herself. Since her mother tried to stab her with a knife , her father fell off a bar stool in the VFW, and her blueblood husband withdrew into a separate world before they divorced–a small sampling of pain in her life–Karr could have written the standard “misery memoir.” But she didn’t. Nor did she write a sentimental salvation story. Instead she carved out of her own life a set of stories rich and unique enough to revisit in three books. No wonder she attracts a larger readership every time–the by-now-familiar story keeps getting more interesting. 

Some people make lemonade out of lemons. Mary Karr makes Lemon Marscapone Layer Cake. The layers include motherhood, daughterhood, education, addiction, recovery, poverty, sexuality, spirituality and God. In addition to plot, Karr carefully layers musings on memory, submerged literary theory, and theology. For my taste, she worries aloud too much about how a secular audience will respond to her conversion to Catholicism. However, after reading the hostile comments to Terry Gross’s interview of Karr on NPR, I understand the worry. Wow.

I love Mary Karr for caring about how friends and family remember the same stories and for her decision to share relevant sections of the manuscript to them before publication. She sometimes changed things in response to these vettings and sometimes just noted  in the text itself the fact that her sister remembers something differently. This is another part of the layering of the story. Karr cares about other people out of sensitivity to their feelings, but she also demonstrates in doing so that a memoir that questions the accuracy of the memory that created it will be trusted more than one that does not. I quoted Karr at the end of my review of Mennonite in a Little Black Dress saying that if the antagonist of your story is not you, you haven’t gone deep enough. Karr threw out several versions of this latest memoir before turning it over to her editors. My guess that she did so, in part, because she kept peeling back new layers of her what she calls her sinful soul.

Mary Karr was a poet before she became a memoir writer. In a podcast interview with Barbara DeMarco-Barrett, she admits that she wrote memoir for money, but she also turned down a juicy book contract when she did not feel ready to write. This book took seven years to write. Each word seems to flow effortlessly, and Mary Karr and her editors worked very hard to make it look so easy. Part way through the writing, Karr lost confidence in her writing, like many great writers do. Poet laureate Robert Hass told her, after she confessed to him that she was afraid that she had written a bad book, that she should focus on writing some good sentences. She surely succeeded. Here are just a few poetic passages that left me in awe:

“The word daddy hung in the air outlined in gold. Closing my eyes, I found it in blue on my eyelids. I could feel the roots my daddy had grown in me–actual branches in my body.”

“For the first time in days, inside a rank plastic shower curtain flowering with mildew, water poured over me. And it was in the shower that the acid kicked in — not full bore, just enough to keep me holding myself very still. The suds swirled down my torso like chrysanthemums in a Japanese wood-block print. And my body seemed to smoke.”

“Those of you who’ve never prayed before will cackle like crows and scoff at the change I claim has overtaken me. But the focus of my attention has been yanked from the pinballing in my head to south of my neck, where some solidity holds me together.”

And the conclusion: “Every now and then we enter the presence of the numinous and deduce for an instant how we’re formed, in what detail the force that infuses every petal might specifically run through us, wishing only to lure us into our full potential. Usually, the closest we get is when we love, or when some beloved beams back which can galvanize you like steel and make resilient what had heretofore only been soft flesh. (Dev, you gave me that.) It can start you singing as the lion pads over to you, its jaws hinging open, its hot breath on you. Even unto death.”

What one falls in love with, after listening to this voice, may not be the person Mary Karr at all. What we love is the force itself and the song it evokes even unto death, driving Mary, her mother, her father, her ex-husband, her sister, her saintly professor from the midwest college, her fellow recovering addicts–the whole cast of characters–to the lion with the hot breath. C.S. Lewis depicted God as a lion and Francis Thompson imagined God as the hound of heaven. That former cynic and skeptic Mary Karr can bring this force to our attention in the twenty-first century, and do so without schmaltz or irony, makes me too want to shout and sing.

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About Shirley Hershey Showalter

Author of memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. Blogging about Magical Memoir Moments and Jubilación -- vocation in the second half of life.
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6 Responses to Mary Karr's Lit: A Monumental Achievement

  1. Thank you for this great, passionate, review. Having just read the book, I can say you nailed it. I am reading Lit again, amazed by Karr's accomplishment as a writer and moved by her journey as a human.

  2. shirleyhs says:

    Thanks, Richard. I forgot to mention that Karr has a Facebook fan page I have found interesting. You might enjoy also.

  3. Pingback: A Letter to Mary Karr | 100 Memoirs

  4. Pingback: Mary Karr’s Secret–Humility and Confidence–Interview in the Paris Review | 100 Memoirs – Wordpress.com

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