It is easy to hate the contemporary memoir. Many an over-share of information with little relevance (or interest) to most or a maudlin stain on the page that attempts to elevate the commonplace to the unique or a crime scene for unreliable narration. These are the charges, but I find myself enjoying more and more memoirs in recent years because to me they are indistinguishable from fiction for the most part. Just a story. A condensed peek into a life, the same narrative arc as fiction, similar emotional content to fiction. So much fiction is thinly veiled autobiography anyway. Unless a memoir has skewered objective facts, the subjective realities of the genre fail to register as fault with me. So I especially appreciate the sentence with which Mary Karr begins her third memoir, Lit - "Any way I tell this story is a lie..."
Because I enjoy Karr's poetry, because this book garnered such glowing reviews, I decided to read it, but without those two factors, I would never have sought out a book pitched as the story of a recovering alcoholic who discovers God and her craft ("learning to write by learning to live.") Ouch. Her previous two memoirs, The Liars' Club and Cherry were never on my radar. So you can imagine my surprise (and embarrassment) when I shed a few bookishly infrequent tears for the rawness of her share, especially for her relationship with her father whom she has to painfully separate from his home about a third of the way through the book to move him to a nursing home.
"We loved each other this way, Daddy and I, from afar. We're like totem animals in each foreign cosmologies - like islanders whose ancestral gods favor each other. Each of us represented to the other what little we knew of love inside that family, but whoever I've turned into has wiped away who I was as a kid, whoever he once loved."
Out of context it seems a simple enough passage but within the memoir has impact from what has led to this point. Karr finds herself a part of a foreign cosmology no matter what space she occupies. She is distant from her Texas white trash, alcohol-infused upbringing. She attends graduate school where she is only required to show up a few times a year avoiding that sense of community she often views from the outside. She marries a man of aristocratic ilk whose world she fails to permeate, whose distance she mourns at the same time she intentionally distances him from the razor sharp observations to which others in the book are subject. Even the intense feelings brought on by motherhood are at times observed from a place outside herself.
For a while, the only place she fully aspires to join is the world of literature so that one sees that the title of the memoir refers to not just her frequent state of being pre-rehab but to a potential source of resolution. Seen through drunken dazes, the "nervous hospital," the trials of motherhood and troubled marriage, where the reader finally arrives with Karr seems less improbable than originally conceived as even her faith sings smartass songs of doubt. Karr's intelligence and literary occupations and eloquence make for excellent storytelling whether truth or lie.For synopsis and links to other reviews on this TLC Book Tours event, please click here.