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Wednesday
Mar102010

Mary Karr: Lit

Marr Karr

Lit

HarperCollins

November 3, 2009

Mary Karr once again earns her place as one of the preeminent memoirists in the industry today with her recent book Lit.  Having set the world of autobiographical literature on fire with her gritty breakthrough effort The Liars’ Club in 1995, Karr now tackles the demons of alcoholism and a failed marriage.

In Lit, Karr inhabits the role she has been trying to exorcise her entire life, the uncompromising, alcoholic mother who damages her family in spite of every desire to protect them.  She takes the reader through the depths of her dependence on drink, into the struggle to let go and find peace, and eventually into her reluctant conversion to Catholicism.

I have to admit, I was wary when I realized this book could delve into the world of AA meetings and reliance on a higher power, because I wasn’t that interested in a salvation story.  But Karr does such a thorough job depicting the depths of her sins and the strength of her resistance to let anything good into her life, that by the time she is ready to accept a path to peace, so was I. 

She relates the arguments of an intellectual who has had no reason to believe in the power of God or organized religion in a way that is both subtle and realistic, and captures each tiny moment of surrender so that we know what a challenge it was.  For as much as Karr provides a dark chuckle through the repeated screw-ups of a young, emotionally damaged mother, I was happy to see her dragged kicking and screaming into a place of gratitude and understanding. 

As someone who has formally studied autobiographical literature, including The Liars’ Club, I consider Mary Karr a beacon of the genre, especially among women writers.  She avoids what are sometimes called “self-help memoirs” by writing from a deep place inside her that combines authenticity with artistry.  Her equal skill in poetry is evident in her image-driven prose, infused with the pluck of a Texan girl.  Each of the many mini-chapters is framed by a literary epigraph, from Keats to Nabokov, Homer to Hemingway, each passage informing not only the content of her story but her connection to the genre and the litany of authors who came before her.     

Her writing also provides a great example of what I call the “remembered self,” which is characterized by an understanding that memory is a sly mistress, and any attempt at autobiography is inherently subjective.  Karr knows this all too well, as the first line of the book reads, “Any way I tell this story is a lie.”  But the power of her memoir is not in fastidious fact-checking, it is in the ability to capture the transformation of self, from the fractured girl to the mother who is whole, in an honest and captivating way. 

Mary Karr’s Lit is ultimately more rewarding if you have read The Liars’ Club and Cherry, her previous memoirs.  The backstory of Karr’s mother Charlie and her knife-wielding breakdown are not as powerful in this installment, and need to be addressed by an author fifteen years younger.  But Lit is successful as a story of self-inflicted pain, of role fulfillment, and of conversion.

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