Well I think it’s safe to say I’m running behind this week. For good reason! I’m in the middle of a huge project at work, my bathroom was being redone (which I realize has no tangible effect on my ability to read or write in a timely fashion) and, perhaps most importantly, the season finale of The Bachelorette was on (that’s a one-hour reunion, a two-hour finale and a one-hour “After the Final Rose” special; big obligation guys). But here I am, better late than never.
I picked up Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club because of what I like to call a glitch-in-the-matrix moment: It came up, either online or in casual conversation, at least three times in the course of two weeks, so I figured the reading gods were all but asking me to pick it up. More importantly, it seemed to come up as one of those books everyone has read but I somehow missed the memo on (in fairness, The Liar’s Club came out in 1995; I had not so much availed myself of the memoir genre at that time, as I was 10.)
In any case, the book is praised for its combination of Mary Karr’s story—she’s a Texas-born problem child with a penchant for fights and a soft spot for her two alcoholic parents (including a deeply troubled mother)—and her writing; Karr is a poet as well as professional documentor of life’s calamities. Whatever the combo, it seems to strike a chord: The Liar’s Club was selected as one of the best books of 1995 by People, Time, The New Yorker and Entertainment Weekly (the latter perhaps not the best barometer of fine literature, but I’ll let it slide.)
On the story front, The Liar’s Club delivered in spades. There’s no denying what Karr went through is shocking, and more than once horrifying. The book—the first of three memoirs Karr has written; the second is on her young-adult life, the third on her own alcoholism and subsequent conversion to Catholicism—covers what is essentially her youth, from cute toddler to budding teenager, forced to choose between parents, move across the country and navigate the emotionally (and often physically) dangerous consequences of having a severely alcoholic mother, who is so dysfunctional as to at times seem cartoonish (I am thinking specifically of a scene in which she attends a parent-teacher conference in a silk nightgown, fur coat and cowboy boots.) Karr’s relationship with her sister—the rock with whom she experiences all of her family’s various horrors—is also undeniably moving an d a central element of the story.
Considering all this, I don’t know what exactly it was about the writing that didn’t quite resonate with me. Karr seems to alternate between very specific memories of scenes from her childhood—down to the weather, her outfit and her mother’s facial expressions—and a much more general narrative. The end result felt to me awkwardly paced: several pages devoted to a generic family argument, then an equal number spent on a much more dramatic decision to move to a different state. Several pages on neighborhood children, then an “Oh and one time I got sexually abused.” The weight given to different events or scenes never quite made sense to me.
I suppose one might consider this a good thing. Karr seems to put no more emphasis on any one point in her childhood than she felt for it personally, and having not personally lived her childhood, who am I to question? Nor is it lost on me that these distinct portraits are exactly how I remember many moments from my own youth, particularly the traumatic ones. (I couldn’t write more than a few paragraphs about fifth grade in general, but I could tell you in vivid detail about the time I got in a fight on the bus.) What I am interested to see is whether in subsequent memoirs Karr’s story becomes more fluid, as she begins writing about things that have happened recently, as opposed to thirty years prior. Perhaps at that point, whenever I get around to reading the rest of her life story, I’ll also be less cranky. (i.e. “So what, your mom tried to drive the family car off a bridge; my apartment doesn’t even have a functioning bathroom!”)
The memoir genre has seen heavy rotation since The Liar’s Club came out, and I think that puts the book at a disadvantage today, as does what I consider a general desensitization to family dysfunction. This isn’t to say that I don’t believe Karr’s childhood was tragic—that goes without saying—just that in the era of reality television and tabloid gossip, it sometimes feels like everyone’s dealing with dysfunction. What family doesn’t include a drunk, or a liar, or a cheater? What kid hasn’t experienced bullying? What daughter doesn’t have a slightly tortured relationship with her father? Perhaps because I watch enough Intervention and Celebrity Rehab to kill a small horse (reality TV kills horses, no?) and because I read enough news to assume the world is an awful place full of awful people, and because I’ve dealt with the ramifications of alcoholism in my own family, I feel like some terrible part of me was expecting Karr’s story to somehow be worse, to be more epic. So maybe at the end of the day, the problem with this book wasn’t this book; maybe the problem was me.
If you haven’t read it, The Liar’s Club is indeed full of tragedy, but its strengths are in nuance. Karr doesn’t aim to create disaster porn, and the end product isn’t. Ultimately, that’s a good thing.
TITLE: The Liar’s Club
AUTHOR: Mary Karr
PAGES: 320 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: Cherry, Lit
SORTA LIKE: The Glass Castle
FIRST LINE: “My sharpest memory is of a single instant surrounded by dark.”