Friday, 16 September 2011

LIT by Mary Karr

Mary Karr is apparently a famous memoirist. I am meeting her however only in this, her third book, so I have missed the Texas childhood with alcoholic parents, and the highly sexed adolescence, and am just tuning in for the descent into alcoholism.

It's probably an indictment of my upbringing that I didn't find this descent especially harrowing. Indeed, I barely found it alcoholism. For god's sake, she doesn't drink in the mornings! She doesn't even get the shakes! However, this probably says more about Zimbabwean society than it does about the memoir. The important point is that she feels she is an alcoholic, and commits herself to AA and sobriety most commendably.

Her descent goes in parallel with the birth of her baby and the attendant collapse of her marriage. She desperately desires as baby, and - as seems to be the way with these things - is desperately unhappy once said baby arrives.

She writes with great honesty, and often a real comic sense, about this period:
The time I'm mostly thinking of, you were barely four, which – I would argue – is less like being a miniature person than like a dog or cat who can talk.
Her child is in fact a central character in this memoir. The lady has spent a lot of time in therapy, and thus there is a great deal about her parents' failings, and how they explain everything about her life. I tried not to find this irritating. As a parent herself, she has, it seems to me, a vastly overinflated idea of how much impact she is having on her own child. At one point, she enrolls herself in therapy, because she snaps at her child – once! - in a grocery store parking lot. At other times, she seems to promote entirely bratty behaviour as charming self-expression:
As a toddler, once faced with a tea service at my in-laws', he'd stuck his fist in the sugar bowl and upended it, sugar spraying all over as Mrs Whitbread hissed that no other child in that house had ever interfered with a tea.

While I struggled with some of Karr's ideas, such as her understanding of your parents as the centre of your personality, I still very much enjoyed this book. It was bracingly, often painfully, honest. It is not often you get to hear someone's in-depth analysis of their own failings, vanities, and embarrassing hangups; and I found her struggles with them, often unsuccessful, to be oddly inspirational.


  1. I respect any one who has gone through a not-so-good life and is bold enough to put it into a memoir. Even confessing to our own ears is sometimes problematic because it has a way of crystallising the very thing you've been trying to avoid. Making it seem more real than what we would want to believe.

  2. Hmmm this sounds interesting, she sounds a bit over-the-top in terms of the therapy because she snapped at the kid once and what not, but glad to hear you still found it inspirational!

  3. This looks like an interesting book, Sarah! Your observation - "She desperately desires as baby, and - as seems to be the way with these things - is desperately unhappy once said baby arrives" - made me remember the old saying - "Be careful what you wish for. You might get it." Many times we yearn for something and then when we get it, we are not sure whether that is what we wanted.

  4. Yes, memoir can be really inspirational in its own way, even if the persons issues are not your own! I guess it reminds you that everyone is struggling on their own private battle field . . .