Mary Karr* is the only writer I’m reading lately whose sentences are so good that I stop reading to write them down. These are from Cherry, her memoir of school years, which perhaps if you’ve never read Mary Karr you may think a dull premise for a memoir. Like, in third grade I loved Garbage Pail Kids but my mom wouldn’t buy them because they seemed to reject classical Western/religious principles of personal/godly dignity and ennoblement (Hi Mom!), now buy my life story!
But Mary Karr’s alchemic pen spins sand to gold and writes a memoir backwards and in heels:
“You know almost nothing about [Los Angeles], so while you’re waiting for your friends to come in a blue truck and ferry you off, you stare at its spot on the map, as though peering close enough will split the small dark seed of your future and reveal whatever self you’re fixing to become.” (4)
“You study your mother’s beautiful clear face under its dandelion of white hair and see she’s clearly tired of the green world and only loves what she can draw through her eyes from a page.” (11)
“Violet Durkey has a hamster and a miniature turtle who lives in a shallow plastic bowl under a palm tree with snap-on fronds, and an albino rabbit named Snuffles with pink ears from Easter. It’s the hamster I’m thinking about here.” (17)
“The lostness of my not even knowing about it freezes me where I stand.” (96)
“The silence I’d been yelling into seems made of tin.” (97)
“Time lagged mule-like in muddy traces.” (121)
“Had you merely been taken to ride like an animal?” (133)
“Time will never again stretch to the silky lengths it reaches that spring when you and Phil first sit entangled in his car, the odor of narcissus and jasmine and crab-apple blossoms blowing through the open windows on black wind. Nor will kisses ever again evolve into such baroque forms, delicate as origami in their folds and bendings.” (167)
“Odder than the taboo against discussing your liquor-related miseries is the piety with which you all return to separate homes stoned out of your minds on other substances, as if illegal chemicals constitute magisterial progress over being a drunk. As if the mind were a rabbit hole you could each vanish down into (like in the Jefferson Airplane song). As if this vanishing were progress.” (199)
“A swart and skittering wind cuts under the glib surface. The changes are coming fast and blind now, and in your skull sits and hourglass with a grainsize hole through which numb seconds are sliding.” (208)
And now a few brief notes on Karr and Memoirs of Trouble (a maligned genre I find addictive):
Her narrative shifts from first to second person when she slams into 8th grade depression. Here, third person narrative reads as a distanced kindness toward her adolescent self that nonetheless judges young Mary’s actions.
Smaller stories of her mother’s drunk disappearances and suicide attempts, her mother’s hostility having long replaced affection. Her father’s general absence. Her rape at age 7. None of these sufferings are as meaningful in this narrative as her indictments of her own failures to listen and love enough. Her best friend’s brother was jailed on false charges of conspiracy and intent to distribute. She describes all the ways she failed her friend throughout this time. She wills ignorance of the harm she causes others. For years.
Her gentle prosecution of her younger self emphasizes her own failures instead of the impossible demands her family and town put on her from birth. Demands that left her traumatized, self-centered, isolated, desperate to trust, and drawn to self-obliteration. She instead describes a hard-won, 12-step sense of her own responsibility, which our society prefers to the cliched victimhoods feeding the memoir movement she spawned.
Lefties may seek structural changes to the structural social problems that caused young Mary so much pain, but she writes only of causing her own and her friends’ glorious ignorant, desperate escapes.
I believe that’s why lit culture affords her work with more respect than almost any other woman memoirist. [Think about memoir: it’s just her and those couple dudes whose dads raped them and who used a lot of drugs. They sold their stories to HBO starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Maybe it’s just that one dude? Why won’t HBO buy Mary Karr’s life story hahahahaha we all know why?]
Her refusal of either a victim narrative or its cousin, survival, helps us believe that anyone could live through her family and come out teaching creative writing at a university if we only look at ourselves hard enough. And write poetry. And sleep it off on the beach. And we don’t have to accept any responsibility for the sexist, racist, constricting poverty that shaped her.
*Yes, the Mary Karr whose name David Foster Wallace tattooed on his body, whose son he stalked, whose boyfriend he threatened to kill, and whom he pushed out of a moving car. Misogyny, yes, toxicity and power, sure, but also, I suggest, jealousy: He set his ambition onto a different project, but his sentences could never build so much muscle into so few words. I now choose to read her instead.