Lit: A Memoir, by Mary Karr, moved on to my “must read” list mainly through the high esteem in which blogging colleague Shirley Showalter over at 100 Memoirs holds both the book and its author. (Here, her review, and warm letter to Karr after they’d met.)
I reserved the book at the library, but when I arrived to pick it up, I realized I’d made a mistake in my order. It was the large print edition. I still manage just fine with regular print, so reading it this way wasn’t that comfortable, physically. I had to hold the book somewhere near my knees to get a decent distance from the big type, and sometimes after an extended period of reading, my eyes felt curiously maladjusted. I found myself rubbing them to get the familiar proportions of my environment back.
None of which is important, except that this seemed a kind of metaphor for the experience of the story as well. Lit is powerfully absorbing. Mesmerizing. The life it describes is about as large — in its intensity and visceral impact — as it gets without beginning to feel unreal. But it’s real enough; Karr is known to be scrupulous about writing fairly and accurately.
This book picks up where two earlier memoirs — The Liars’ Club (about her childhood) and Cherry (about her teen years) — leave off, with Karr’s education, marriage, becoming a drunk, getting sober, writing a bestseller, finding God. Karr has a lot to work through because of the damage her dysfunctional parents inflicted, and the damage she’s inflicting on her husband and beloved son Dev.
The plot may sound maudlin, like one of those too common grovel-to-glory accounts, but there’s something different about how Karr handles her material (and I don’t mean just her rather earthy language). I think it’s that she took the advice her friend Tobias Wolff (of This Boy’s Life) gave her:
Don’t approach your history as something to be shaken for its cautionary fruit…Tell your stories, and your story will be revealed…Don’t be afraid of appearing angry, small-minded, obtuse, mean, immoral, amoral, calculating, or anything else. Take no care for your dignity.
Such writing follows much the same path an alcoholic has to take to sobriety — facing, listing, confessing “my sinfulness in all its ugliness.” It’s a stance Karr maintains throughout. Interestingly, by taking no regard for cautionary fruit, she ends up being instructive — an example — anyway. She’s very good at describing growth, conversion, transformation, call it what you will, those small moments (that eventually add up) in which the soul opens a little, or shifts perhaps. Such as when she kneels in front of a toilet in the hospital, after checking herself in following a near suicide attempt:
If you’re God, I say, you know I feel small and needy and inadequate. And tonight I want a drink.
The silence fails to say anything back. I glare at it. It feels like judgment, the silence. And at that silence I give off rage; I start a ranting prayer in my head that goes something like this: Fuck you for making me an alcoholic. For making my baby sick all the time when he was so tiny…. And my daddy withering into that form. What pleasure do you get from… from smiting people?
I feel something stir in me, a small wisp of something in my chest, frail as smoke. It is–strangely–the sweetness of my love for my daddy and my son. It blesses me an instant like incense.
My eyes sting, and I blurt out, Thanks for them.
I feel the stillness around me widen a notch.
Karr’s writing reminds me of Anne Lamott’s, another writer who seems larger than life, raw and revealing, yet not diminished for all her carelessness of personal dignity. It’s an art perhaps, such honesty, and certainly the poetic language is, but it seems a gift as well. At any rate, I recommend the book. Unless you really need large print, read it in regular, however; Lit is quite strong enough without the additional shout of those great big words.