As I mentioned a few posts ago, I recently finished reading Mary Karr’s Lit. I discovered Mary Karr in an introductory non fiction class that I took as an undergraduate. I had never really thought much about non fiction but when I read Cherry, I was struck by how much poetry and non fiction have in common. The vivid imagery, the lyricism of her lines, and the raw emotion really struck me. I read the Liar’s Club and when she came to a local university a few years ago with Franz Wright, I listened to her read from her poetry collection Sinner’s Welcome.
I think the dangers in writing a memoir are many. They can come off as too precious, too much like a self help manual, especially of you’re writing about overcoming addiction through a spiritual journey, which is essentially what Karr is doing in Lit. I have to admit that about halfway through the book, I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to finish. The prose was gripping, the tone seemed genuine, but it seemed lofty to me that Karr was going to claim that God had saved her. My athesist boyfriend dismissed the book before even reading it because of these spiritual revelations. However, he was mistaken and so was I. Karr is not shoving religion down our throats in this memoir, and whether you believe or not, you can take something away from the gritty prose that fills this book. It is heartbreaking but it is also relatable and I think that’s what drew me in and kept me reading (I finished the book in one day). There were a lot of places where she could have fallen into cliche. I mean she’s a writer, a poet, and an alcoholic. It doesn’t get more formulaic then that, but I believe her joy, her pain, her struggle, and her small triumphs. She draws you into her life and somehow makes it yours.
Her relationships with her family are documented in brutally honest words, but there is also tenderness. When she describes the moment when she has to move her dying father to a nursing home is devastating, made worse by the fact that a stroke has rendered him almost speechless. When moving her mother from her disintegrating house towards the end of the book, it is a reenactmentof her father’s pain. Her mother feels stripped and naked in the new, stark white condo and that vulnerability results in a painful argument between mother and daughter. Family is a central theme in this memoir and is closely related to alienation, so much so that they almost become symbols for each other throughout the text.
This memoir is not a mantra and it does not deliver some lofty message. It is a real account of a life that is still being lived. The verdict is still out on how this story will end.