Angela Kelsey

Tell the Story

book 12 of 24 books in 24 days: the liar’s club

Filed in Books, Writing :: February 24, 2010

Liarsclub I read Mary Karr's new memoir, Lit, before I read The Liar's Club, so before I read about Mary and Lecia Karr's childhood in Texas and Colorado, I read about their trip to Colorado as adults, around the time The Liar's Club was about to be published. 

This is Mary Karr's account in Lit of Lecia's reaction to the memories evoked by the places they lived while their parents were divorced: 

Though her eyes are devoid of feeling, fat tears streaming down, and she curses me for bringing her to this godforsaken place–me with my fucking therapy and passion for the old crap.  I didn't know it'd be this hard, I tell her.  Inside, I'm pissed at myself for buying her don't-give-a-damn act when I knew better.  I tell her it's good we can face this place together, good that she got us out of here when she did.

In The Liar's Club, Karr writes, "If I gave my big sister a paragraph here, she would correct my memory. . . .  I contend that her happy memories are shaped more by convenience than reality. . . ."

Running With Scissors can't hold a candle to The Liar's Club in terms of the level of unthinkable crazy experienced by children supposedly in the care of adults, but The Liar's Club never rang false to me.  I think this is because of Karr's frequent acknowledgment of and play with the fallibility of memory.

The first sentence of the book points to memory: "My sharpest memory is of a single instant surrounded by dark."  She continues, "It took three decades for that instant to unfreeze."  Her memory may be incomplete, but she is in control of her story.  "Because it took so long for me to paste together what happens, I will leave that part of the story missing for a while.  It went long unformed for me, and I want to keep it that way here.  I don't mean to be coy.  When the truth would be unbearable the mind often just blanks it out."  She waits a hundred and fifty pages before she tells the story that is the memory from the first sentence.

Poetry evokes memory, twangy Texas vernacular expresses it, and smells are powerful memory triggers.  Sometimes Karr imagines what must have happened, but she tells the reader that's what's going on.  When she and Lecia leave their mother in Colorado to go home to their father in Texas, Karr begins sentence after sentence with what "must have" happened.  Then she stops herself: "But I'm making this up.  The French door on that scene never swung open.  Any talk with Mother after Lecia's call [to Daddy] was siphoned clean from my head."

In some of the most tense sections, Karr switches from past tense to present, as if she has had to go into that past place and event in order to tell about ti, and the journey is harrowing. "Here time telescopes and gets slow, for some
reason.  I almost have to hold my head very still to keep from backing
away."

Sometimes memories are incomplete: "The memory turns to smoke right there.  It floats out the door over the cape jasmine."  She jokes about the ways that it's incomplete: ". . . the more important the occasion–funeral, wedding, divorce court–the more detailed the wardrobe memory and the dimmer the hope of dredging up anything that happened."

Mary Karr works her memory over in the pursuit of telling the story of her childhood.  Not everyone would.  She writes toward the end of The Liar's Club,

Lecia could confirm what I dredged up.  But like me, she lacked basic facts, the whys and wherefores of Mother's past.  In her world, though, people who whined about their childhoods were woosies, ne'er do well liberals seeking to defraud the insurance industry out of dollars for worthless therapies.

But Karr goes for it, sometimes flinching but never seeming to stop.

Filed in Books, Writing