The Liars' Club Essay - Essays and Criticism

Mary Karr

Essays and Criticism

Novelistic Techniques

Many readers of The Liars' Club have commented on Karr's acute memory of the intricate details of her early life. Some readers wondered whether the memoir was really true, since Karr's memory seemed so remarkable. After all, few people can remember their early childhood in such detail. This reaction on the part of some readers raises many interesting questions about how a memoir is written and what it means to say that something is "true."

The Liars' Club is as artfully arranged as any novel. It is not simply a chronological account of the events of Karr's life, like a diary would be. It begins, for example, in medias res (a Latin phrase which means, literally, ‘‘in the middle of things’’). The first incident Karr relates is the aftermath of Mother's demented rampage in which she burns the children's belongings and seems about to kill them. The incident is told in chapter 1 from the point of view of a child surrounded by large adults, a child who is bewildered at what is going on around her. But Karr is very careful not to let the reader in on the secret of what has led to this unsettling scene, even though Mary as the little girl is quite capable of explaining it, since she watched it all unfold. Karr's purpose in adopting this technique is to create interest and suspense for the reader. Readers continue on in the book because they want to know the full story of what happened in that incident. Karr keeps readers waiting until she explains the incident fully near the end of part I. In so doing, she accomplishes what every good novelist must do, which is to create suspense. Suspense means a state of uncertainty about what is going to happen.

Of course, the writer must also establish sympathy in the reader's mind for the character, so that readers are interested in her and concerned for her. Karr does this in masterly fashion by having the first incident revolve around the perceptions of a child who only half-understands what is happening around her. Like many children faced with disruption in the family, she feels that it is she who must have done something wrong. Karr also captures the child's irritation at being left out of whatever serious business is taking place because the grown-ups think the child would not understand: ‘‘When you're a kid and something big is going on, you might as well be furniture for all anybody says to you.’’ It would be hard for any reader not to be on Mary's side after comments like this one.

Creating a sense of mystery by the technique of foreshadowing is also part of Karr's array of novelistic techniques. The mystery is created when Grandma Moore shows Mary a photograph of two children, whom she calls Tex and Belinda. She tells Mary that they are Mary's brother and sister. Mary does not understand what she means, since she has never seen these children. Grandma says the children were sent away, and if Mary is bad, she will be sent away too. The full story does not emerge until the last few pages, when the adult Mary learns from her mother the circumstances under which Tex and Belinda, her mother's two children from her first marriage, were taken from her mother. The fact of that terrible loss explains Mother's history of mental problems. As in a good mystery novel, the author produces the solution only at the end, which also enables the memoir to end on a note of reconciliation and optimism.

Karr's artful way of telling her story, using techniques that fiction writers employ, resembles her father's technique in telling stories to the Liars' Club: ‘‘No matter how many tangents he took or how far the tale flew from its starting point before he reeled it back, he had this gift: he knew how to be believed.’’ Like father, like daughter. Incidentally, Mary comments that most of Daddy's stories were not true. Not only this, but Karr has stated that she herself made up the stories told by her father in the memoir. The only exception to this was her father's one story that she recorded, which she played back for him after his stroke in 1980.

In spite of such acknowledged inventions, Karr has insisted that the events of the...

(The entire section is 1693 words.)

The Liars' Club's Believability

The English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge uses the term "the willing suspension of disbelief" to talk about how important it is for readers to...

(The entire section is 1568 words.)

The Fine Line Between Memoir and Novel

As a book, The Liars' Club was so good that it transcended its genre; reading it today, it's easy to forget how influential it was...

(The entire section is 1355 words.)

Mary Karr, Mary Karr, Mary Karr, Mary Karr

We may have financial straits to thank for Karr's decision to turn her family dramas into a memoir. It's certain that The Liars' Club...

(The entire section is 1313 words.)