15 March 2018

The Liar's Club by Mary Karr

I heard about Mary Karr because of her connection to David Foster Wallace.. something I'm sure would make her eyes roll back into her head. I was reading Chuck Klosterman's But What If We're Wrong: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past (full review here) and he briefly mentioned DFW's obsession with Karr. It was in that book that Klosterman also mentioned her memoir The Liar's Club and I decided to add it to my list of books to buy.

I remember having to order it with a couple of other books last Christmas. When the order finally came in Karr's memoir was packaged with a DFW book I ordered. I joked with my friend Michael (who was working at the time) that this was exactly what DFW would have wanted. Now I feel a little guilty about the joke after learning how pissed off it makes Karr to constantly be associated with DFW.

Sometimes people go on and on about David Foster Wallace. As though my contribution to literature is that I fucked him a couple times in the early nineties."

ANYWAYS, let's get to the actual book.

The Liar's Club is a 352-paged account of Karr's, and her older sister Leica's (pronounced Lisa), horrible childhood in southeast Texas. The book is named after her father's "club" - a group of men who would meet up at random bars, get wasted, and listen to Karr's father tell stories. Karr would tag along on these meet ups.

The book starts in a depressed industrial town in Texas when Karr is ~five years old. We learn about their less-than-parental father and their alcoholic mother. From there we follow them to the mountains in Colorado then back to southeast Texas. The book predominately focuses on Karr's early childhood, but we get a little bit from her post-high school period near the end.

Mary Karr
I should let you know up front that it's going to be hard for me to not constantly compare this to Jeanette Walls' The Glass Castle (full review here). I read the two books so close together that it is impossible not to be comparing which works better as a memoir of  a rotten childhood.

I'll say right now that I think Karr's memoir is a lot better. The story is similar in that the parents are super neglectful, but Karr is the better writer. I know this will sound super douchey, but Karr just seems to write in a more "literary" fashion. What I mean is that I found it really hard to find any passages from Walls' memoir that would hold up for me overtime... but Karr had some great lines that I'll definitely look back on.

[...] some windowshade in the experience flew up to show me what suffering really is. It's not the old man with arthritic fingers you glimpse trying to open one of those little black, click-open purses for soda change at the Coke machine. It isn't even the toddler you once passed in a yard behind a chain-linked fence, tethered to a clothesline like a dog in midday heat. Those are only rumours of suffering. Real suffering has a face and a smell. It lasts in its most intense form no matter what you drape over it. And it knows your name."

It is also pretty interesting to me to see how much of a draw there is for books about people's shitty childhoods. I have been wondering why that seems to be the case, but I feel like the answer is pretty obvious. People want to have shared experiences, even when they are horrible ones. And I can understand why a lot of psychologists have suggested their patients who have dealt with something similar should read The Liar's Club.

I have the tenth anniversary edition of The Liar's Club and in it Karr writes a brief foreward. She talks about how many people have approached her since writing the book to tell her about their horrible childhoods. This was a really interesting little section because I had recently read an article about what happens after you write a memoir (read here), and you can see that Karr's experience has been very similar to the article's author's own experience.

Silence can make somebody bigger, I've come to believe. Grief can, too. A big sad silence emanating from someone can cause you to invest that person with all manner of gravitas."

This book is depressing. You have to read about injuries that could have easily been avoided had the parents just taken care of their children, about verbal abuse, and graphic scenes of sexual assault. There is a scene where Karr, at only eight years old, is forced to perform oral sex on an adult and it is VERY difficult to read. Karr is able to make you cry, feel nauseous, and furious all at once.

What I really enjoyed about this book was that Karr also makes you laugh. She constantly reminds readers that while it's easy to think of her as "tough," she was actually a massive cry baby. She also constantly interjects comments she thinks her older sister would demand be in the book, like how Mary was "so damned cute" that people let her get away with things. She would also mention when her sister had no recollection of certain events and couldn't confirm Mary's memories, or that her sister was convinced Mary was remembering something wrong. This keeps the memoir based in reality, and not completely subjective.

Her sister Leica is also very sharp witted. One of my favourite lines was from a scene on Karr's birthday where her mother was wasted and threw a giant casserole dish at their father. It shattered everywhere and he left immediately. Leica mutters under her breath: "Tape Ten, Reel One Thousand: Happy Goddamn Birthday."

I think about the story of Job I heard in Carol Sharp's Sunday school. How he sort of learned to lean into feeling hurt at the end, the way you might lean into a heavy wind that almost winds up supporting you after a while."

I loved the relationship between Karr and her sister Leica. I am the older sister in my family and even though we had a perfect childhood with amazing parents, there are a lot of scenes that are so universal to sisterhood. Karr is constantly trying to sleep next to her older sister or hold her hand, all of which Leica finds incredibly annoying. My sister used to sleep on the ground by my bed because I wouldn't let her in it. She always claims I would eventually cave, but I don't remember it that way.

My favourite scene is when their mother is drunk and waving a revolver at a new boyfriend... Lecia tells Karr to run to the neighbours house and essentially takes her place in a very dangerous situation. Karr talks about how at that very moment she imagined a bullet flying and taking the life of either her mother or sister, and who she would prefer to survive:

I would like to claim that I worried the bone of this choice a long time, but I did not. In an eyeblink's time, I killed the very sister who'd taken my place in the bullet's path. No sooner did the choice present itself than I chose."

I love this passage because it is so, so, so true. No matter how parents behave, their children are drawn to them, and Karr making this decision in her early childhood proves this.

So to wrap things up, I definitely found The Liar's Club to be a lot better than most childhood memoirs. Karr has such a great sense of humour but is also a very talented writer. I'm so glad I read the Lenny Letter interview because I found out that Karr is an amazing poet. So while I don't think I would read the other two memoirs Karr wrote, I would definitely be interested in picking up a book of her poetry.

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