By Yolande Clark-Jackson
I just finished reading Mary Karr’s memoir Lit. This is the third of the three phase memoirs that pretty much revolve around the fallout from her childhood traumas. Lit details the events of Karr’s life as a young woman, wife, mother, and writer who for many years battled alcoholism and the demons of her past. It also develops into a story about how the author unexpectedly gains a deeper self-awareness and faith in a higher power. It begins with an open letter to her son as part apology and part explanation for what she feels she cost him. Yet, I believe all three books are loosely dedicated to her mother who often appears as nemesis or heroine in her memoirs. Karr’s mother also battled alcoholism but is sober for most of this last installment.
What works in this memoir is what works in all of three of Karr’s memoirs. She has the ability to write a tragedy like a shameless comedian, and her writing voice is generous with metaphor and simile. This keeps the reader entertained while she has to relay necessary information. Background sections of memoir could get stale, but Karr avoids this with the use of figurative language. Her Texas colloquialisms also add texture to her rich and colorful prose. For example, when she realizes she has to check herself into a hospital to avoid suicide, she writes, “It’s a relief to place myself before the staff person on duty, asking him to call my doctor because I’m fixing to off myself.”
After finishing the book, I went back to re-read the first fifty pages and counted over a dozen similes. My favorites: “My head pitches back like a Pez dispenser.” “The suds swirled down my torso like chrysanthemums in a Japanese wood-block painting,” and “Mother’s yellow station wagon slid like a Monopoly icon.”
Karr also has a gift for telling a story in a way that is entertaining for the reader even though the subject matter is gravely serious. This is not to say that she makes light of the seriousness of her experiences. It is just to say that she is able to inject humor at just the right moments in her narrative to stay true to how she was taught to communicate and move in the world. Language was how she learned to cope with dysfunction.
A great memoir should make readers think, feel, understand, and relate on one level or another. I think Karr’s animated comparisons allow the reader to get closer to her and her past in a way a simple straight forward retelling couldn’t. She takes you on a wild trip down her memory lane, and her style of writing makes it worth the while.