Tuesday, April 6, 2010
Book Review: Lit by Mary Karr
Mary Karr, Lit (2009) [*****]. I know I should read Mary Karr's first two memoirs, The Liar's Club and Cherry, as she has been credited with practically singe-handedly sparking the memoir madness of the past couple decades, but the brutal subject matter -- parental alcoholism and psychosis, childhood abuse and neglect, adolescent promiscuity and drug abuse -- have just never called me at the moment when I am thinking, "What shall I read next?" Julie, however, has read all of Mary Karr, along with the whole wretched-childhood genre she pioneered -- what we call the "Bastard Out Of" series, after Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina (so Liar's Club is Bastard out of Texas, and Push is Bastard Out of Harlem, etc.). Julie recently read Lit, and insisted that I really had to read it, she loved it so much. And I'm very glad I did -- it is beautiful and very compelling -- though I didn't love it quite as much as Julie. Lit is the story of Mary Karr's adulthood, in which she writes poetry, marries a poet, becomes a mother, drinks an astonishing amount of alcohol, attempts suicide, spends some time in a mental hospital, gets sober, divorces her husband, converts to Catholicism, and becomes a successful poet and memoirist. Her story-telling is funny and thoughtful -- this is a very fast and engaging read. And I know I should say that it is beautifully written, luminous even, and it is! But.... I will admit there were times when I grew weary of yet another simile or metaphor. And don't get me wrong - every one of them was fresh! original! illuminating! But every other sentence, really? It's not an accident that the first half of the book is more lush with metaphorical language than the second half, which is much more sober. I get what she's doing, and she's really good -- I'm eager to read her poetry, in fact -- but sometimes it just felt like too much, distracting even. My only other criticism is that Karr strikes me as a bit falsely modest at times -- it was easy to believe, as she told it, that her career as a poet suffered terribly from her extreme alcoholism, but then when fellowships and book contracts and teaching offers kept falling in her lap, it seemed possibly she had been a bit disingenuous about what a hit her writing had taken. These are minor quibbles, though, in an otherwise fine memoir that does a lot of really hard things well: Karr convinces us that she really can love and forgive her totally crazy and self-absorbed mother without seeming like a martyr; she tells her side of the story of her pretty unbearable marriage without bitterness and with, what seems to me, a great deal of genuine generosity to her ex-husband; she acknowledges the pain she inflicted on her son with open-eyed clarity, but without narcissistic self-recrimination and self-pity; and the story of her conversion from atheism to Catholicism is moving and convincing and mercifully lacking in evangelism.