Mar. 18th, 2017

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Finished Mary Karr’s Lit. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it a lot.

I liked The Liars’ Club very much, so I was surprised by my reaction to this book.

Karr’s prose throughout this memoir is incredibly arch, beginning with the forced pun in its title (“lit” is both a colloquial term for shit-faced drunk and college slang for critically acclaimed works of fiction.)

The metaphors throughout this book pop like Orville Redenbacher in a microwave. The overall effect is distancing. It’s been a while since I read The Liars’ Club, but my memory is that Karr used a slightly toned down version of the same style. There, though, it worked: Horrendous childhoods require some sort of distorting rear view mirror because of the intense pain of recollection. (For another take on how to distance oneself from the pain of a Grand Guignol childhood, see Jeanette Walls’ very brilliant The Glass Castle. Walls uses a kind of deadpan Mark Twain-ish humor to achieve this end.)

Is a religious conversion a similarly painful experience?

Possibly it is, and this was Mary Karr’s unconscious acknowledgement.

But what it felt more like to me was that Karr didn’t particularly want to be owned by the experience or at least to admit to her readers that she was owned by it. See, kids? she's saying. I'm still the same pomo ironic hipster siren you know and love!

Poor little sentences struggling under the freight of all those wiggy tropes!


Let’s try analyzing a paragraph I’ve pulled at random from an open book flip:

The cough penetrates my dream with the sandpapered force of chain-smoking speed freak. It’s Daddy’s pneumonia-laden cough, Mother’s emphysema wheeze. Even without the monitor, I can hear the hacking gasps start. My body’s a sandbag, but my eyelids split open like clam shells (3:10). On the table, a tumbler of mahogany whiskey burns bright as any flaming oil slick. Gone a little watery on top, it’s still possessed of a golden nimbus.

(After reading this, don’t you long for the ghost of Ernest Hemingway to rise up, wrest the Lit manuscript away from a screeching Mary Karr, begin red penciling?

One night, the kid got sick. It was not fine. Even bad whiskey is like religion on a hot night.)

Let us now pretend we are sitting in Professor Vogel’s English class at Ithaca College one interminably stuffy afternoon. (Professor Vogel was my demented aunt, mad as a rabid bat, but possessed of the most singularly penetrating insights into literature that I have ever come cross.) The air conditioner isn’t working, and though the girl sitting just in back of you has washed herself down with Estee Lauder Youth Dew, her armpits have begun to ferment.

That’s your context.

But what’s the context of this paragraph?

Mary Karr’s son has been taken ill. She and her husband have spent the previous paragraph taking their son to the hospital.

She doesn’t mention bringing the kid home from the hospital – and yet, they must be home from the hospital because whiskey! They don’t let you keep tumblers of whiskey in hospitals! Trust me, I know: I was a registered nurse for 10 years.

Strike one! Because good writing always grounds the protagonist in a specific place. Even if that “specific place” is an amorphous corner of the universe, you know that he or she is there. You don’t know where the hell Mary Karr is in the paragraph above.

Strike two: Notice how every sentence in the paragraph above has almost exactly the same rhythm. I’m not sure exactly how people read when they’re reading to themselves; it’s not as though they’re reading aloud inside their own skulls. Nonetheless, rhythm does play a role, and when rhythm doesn’t vary, a reader is likely to find himself or herself drifting off, becoming bored, succumbing to transient Alzheimer’s. So it was with Lit. I found myself looking at paragraphs, thinking, Wait! Didn’t I just read this one?

Strike three – although this criticism may be peculiar to my own sense of timing: The pacing of this paragraph feels inauthentic.

It’s true that time seems to slow down when you’re facing a crisis in which you have some sort of agency, when you’re charged with solving that crisis somehow. And when time slows down, you notice a lot of details.

Every parent is a helpless, passive observer when their child falls ill, though. And when you’re a passive bystander, time seems to clump. Call it a motion blur, if you like: You’re willing time to pass quickly, and it does. Situational details are mostly unmemorable. Maybe one thing stands out from that blur: Thus, I am willing to believe in the enticing glow of Karr’s whiskey tumbler. But the rest of that paragraph has too many specific details. Really? Her anxiety leaves her the leisure to create an entire taxonomy of coughs? Uh uh, I’m thinking. That taxonomy was very obviously cobbled together after the fact.


It’s instructive to compare Lit with Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott’s memoir, which covers much the same turf. Karr and Lamott have lived parallel lives in many respects. Both single mothers, both alcoholics, both highly intelligent humans who struggle to reconcile themselves with the magical thinking aspects of organized religion. Lamott is too wacky to have been able to snag a job at a top creative writing program, though.

Sentence by sentence, Lamott is almost always a pleasure to read. Her prose is navigable in a way that Karr’s simply isn’t – meaning Lamott’s prose goes up and down and loops around and takes the reader somewhere. With Karr, you always have the sense that you're treading water – possibly because Karr herself feels like she's treading water.

I think this is due to the fact that Lamott is more of a risk taker than Karr and being a risk taker, she’s not afraid to look stupid. Karr never abandons that ironic hipster persona even when she’s on her knees; Lamott was never an ironic hipster; she was always the fool that goes where angels fear to tread.

There’s a sense of immediacy in Tender Mercies that’s entirely absent from Lit. A breathlessness. A pleasure in discovery.

On the other hand, Lamott loves to lecture, to drone on and on and on, as drunk on redemption as she once was on Scotch. This gets boring to those of us who are not 12-step fans. It’s been many years since I read Traveling Mercies, but I remember distinctly that I couldn’t finish the book.

I did finish Lit. Karr serves up a conversation with a Franciscan nun as the final dish on the tasting menu. It felt disjointed. But since everything in Lit felt disjointed, at least the ending was consistent from a structural point of view.


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