Monday, February 8, 2010

Addictive prose

Mary Karr's incandescent
Lit gives testimony to a poetic resurrection

The following book was published last week on the Books page of the History News Network website.

Mary Karr didn't actually launch the memoir boom of the 1990s (Tobias Wolff, following in his brother Geoffrey's example in The Duke of Deception in 1979, can plausibly clai
m that honor with This Boy's Life in 1989). And she may not represent the zenith of that boom (Frank McCourt's 1996 book Angela's Ashes was more of a global blockbuster). But Karr's 1995 account of her wild Texas childhood, The Liar's Club, was perhaps the quintessential expression of the movement. The book was a surprise hit, because while she had been building a reputation as a poet, Karr was not a well-known public figure. And her tale, while notably dramatic and filled with vivid characters, was also rendered with great literary flair. In her wake, comparably talented writers like Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius), along with some less talented ones like Augusten Burroughs (Running with Scissors), scored popular success. Meanwhile, the movement over-ripened into a fad and curdled into controversy following the publication of James Frey's A Million Little Pieces in 2003 when Frey revealed that much of his story had been fabricated. Memoir now seems firmly established a commercial literary genre, but the charm of its novelty has long since passed.

Karr, for her part, has continued spinning her tumultuous life into a literary commodity. She followed up The Liar's Club with Cherry (2000), which recounted her sexually active adolescence. Her latest book, Lit, picks up where Cherry left off, but does so in a neatly segmented way that requires no prior knowledge of her other work. The story this time is of Karr's descent into alcoholism and subsequent resurrection by way of a conversion to Roman Catholicism.

After a prelude in California and an unfinished undergraduate career at an unnamed Midwestern college (Macalester), Lit follows Karr's marriage to blue-blooded poet, the birth of their son, and the couple's struggles over work, money and love. Karr's drinking problem grows steadily worse, and its impact is depicted in terms of her family life, her professional aspirations as a writer/teacher, and the other addictive personalities she encounters along the way. In its depiction of a struggle to attain (and maintain) a semblance of a middle-class life -- and a strenuous, educated-class reluctance to submit to the perceived hokiness of the recovery movement -- Lit is reminiscent of of the late Caroline Knapp's Drinking: A Love Story (1996). But Karr's work is peopled with a cast of much more bumptious characters, beginning with her mother, and is rendered with a tangy Texas wit she attributes to her father ("wouldn't say sooey if the hogs were eating her" is among the gems she attributes to him). But some of Karr's encomiums go well beyond her rich provincial roots, as in this resonant exchange with a husband impatient with the lushes she's entertaining while he tries to sleep:

He whispers, I can't sleep from the noise. If you don't ask them to leave, I'll have to.

I hiss at him, You're such a control freak.

He says, you knew I was like this when you married me.

The righteous cry of married men everywhere, for it's a cliché that every woman signs up thinking her husband will change, while every husband signs up believing his wife won't: both dead wrong.

Tellingly, there are no quotation marks here. Even given the lax factual standards of the genre, Karr feels compelled to signal her subjectivity. Such hedging is not sufficient to put one's skepticism to rest, however, given that Karr repeatedly confesses that much of her memory of her drinking days has been blacked out. Moreover, her portrayal of her repellently parsimonious husband strains credulity, if for no other reason than to make one wonder why she would cast her lot with him. The great pitfall of books like these is that the author wears out her welcome with her reader, and while Karr never quite crosses this line, she certainly flirts with it. Yet she ultimately maintains control of her material, revealing that for all its pleasingly democratic implications, the success of contemporary memoir finally depends on a sense of iron-willed literary discipline applied to God-given talent.

Which, in turn, testifies to one source of the book's likely durability. Lit should find a lasting life in the the discourse of addiction and recovery. It also can help explain why, for all its considerable liabilities, the Roman Catholic Church has a singular power to fuse spirituality, ritual, and a sense of social solidarity difficult to match elsewhere in American life. But beyond the title's allusion to biological and religious intoxication, it also points to a third figure in what is finally a trinity: a life saved and lived through the power of the written word. Whether it's in scenes depicting the joy of poetry as experienced by the mentally handicapped women Karr teaches, or the thrill of encountering a real, live poet in the flesh, Lit is a testimonial to Good Books and the sense of purpose and structure they offer. This sense of purpose and structure is psychological, but material as well. Few things give Karr as much joy as the $750 she gets as an advance for one book, or the car she can buy when she lands a publisher for The Liar's Club. Compared to other ways of making money, this one is laughably inefficient, and one that -- speaking as a fellow addict -- can and perhaps should seem bizarre to those inclined to pursue more practical livelihoods. But a great many of us, lit remains nice work if you can get it. And a remarkably compelling even when you can't.