Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Lit, by Mary Karr

For those of us bitten by the memoir bug, Mary Karr reigns. Though her first books were poems, Karr is best known for The Liars' Club, which tells the story of her childhood. The nuts and bolts of the story of her early life are not for the faint hearted: She was raped as a youngster, and had unstable, alcoholic parents who alternatively left her unsupervised and terrorized her. At the pinnacle of Karr's mother's psychosis, she held a butcher knife over Mary, intending to murder her. This amidst a raging fire the mother had just set, burning all their belongings.

"Lit" begins as Mary enters adulthood. As one might expect, after surviving an upbringing like hers, she writes of herself in the story as someone who is wobbly, cobbled together, the bumps in life easily opening up cracks in the foundation of her well-being. In "Lit" she marries, has a son, becomes an alcoholic, divorces, and enters into recovery for her alcoholism, all the while plodding along, working to become an author. Karr is a narrator with nary a whine or complaint. In fact, there is an honest, humorous, cowboy-flavor in her telling that spares no one, not even the author, as a player in the insanity.

For those of us who, along with Karr, are card-carrying members of the dyspeptic, are-you-making-this-up version of childhood, (and I include myself in that group), "Lit" feels like someone has finally opened the window and let in some fresh air. My favorite line, "If you live in the dark a long time and the sun comes out, you do not cross into it whistling", seems to me to be a truth long waiting to be articulated.

Karr not only survives a childhood not fit for survival, but is able to remember and recount it in astonishing detail. Yes, Karr has had an amazing life, but "Lit" helped me realize that we all have amazing lives. "Lit" left me seeing that the amazingness of our lives comes with flipping back the pages of time and bringing out the richness that comes with remembering the smallest of details. When those small bits of truth are revealed, the challenge is to plumb the depths of our courage and look straight at them. I love the way Karr reaches down, grabs hold of truths, and looks at them unflinchingly. Yes, "Lit" is another drama-and-trauma memoir, but it's honest, and it's good.

Below is a link to a recent article about women's fiction, that explores the complaint that women write either dark narratives denoted as "misery lit" or the fluffy stories known as "chick lit".

Women's fiction: All misery and martinis?

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