Novelistic Techniques

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1693

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...

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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 memoir really happened. In her acknowledgements in the front of the book, she states that she checked the veracity of what she had written with her sister. In interviews with journalists, she has indicated that many of the details came back to her during the long years she spent in psychotherapy, dealing with the legacy of such a disturbed family background.

However, there are many ways of presenting truth, and it is possible for a writer to convey the essential emotional truth of a situation without necessarily sticking to a laborious account of the moment-by-moment facts of a person's life."Readers expect the truth,’’ Karr told Charlotte Innes for the Los Angeles Times, "but nobody carries a tape recorder around with them all the time.’’

Karr points to a modern trend that she calls ‘‘genre blur,’’ in which the usual boundaries between fiction and nonfiction have become less rigid. She explains, according to Innes, that the memoir ‘‘may offer its own aesthetic lies of compressed time, authorial bias and manipulated details.’’

By the phrase "compressed time,’’ Karr means that events that were separated by perhaps days, weeks or months in real life can be condensed by the memoir writer for dramatic or other effect, so that they appear to have taken place over a much shorter period of time. This supplies the memoir with a much tighter structure and a consequent increase in narrative drive—the speed at which the story moves forward. This device makes it more interesting for the reader.

When Karr refers to ‘‘manipulated details,’’ she means she has again used a storyteller's license. Most likely, she has on occasions taken several separate but similar incidents and condensed them into one, taking the most appropriate details from each incident. The result would be a composite that in the author's judgment tells the incident in the most powerful and effective way. At times also, Karr may not have adhered strictly to the real-life sequence of events. In other words, incidents in the memoir may not necessarily follow the order in which they occurred in real life. Karr reserves the right, as the creative author, to sequence the story in the way she thinks will produce the effect she wants. This is often how writers of fiction (and many contemporary memoirists too) work when drawing on incidents from real life. The point to bear in mind is that something can be true to the emotions and feelings involved in a situation, and to the relationships between the characters, without being strictly factual in all its details.

The last of the "aesthetic lies'' that Karr identifies is ‘‘authorial bias.’’ In writing about her own life, a writer may consciously or unconsciously shape her narrative to present herself the way she thinks she is or the way she wants to be perceived. All manner of things can be distorted in this way. It is almost impossible for a writer or anyone else to be objective about her own life. However hard a writer looks, there are things about herself that she simply cannot see. And even if she is sure of her own feelings and motivations, she cannot know for certain what others are thinking or how they view her. She cannot know their motivations with the same certainty that she thinks she knows her own.

There is also the problem of memory. Often people misremember past events, even as they are certain that they remember clearly. If two people are asked to remember an incident they shared, say, a decade ago, they are likely to come up with two very different sets of memories. But people usually make little allowance for these distortions that the passage of time imposes on them, confident that they remember things the way they "really" were, as if such a notion has an objective status, beyond the realm of one's fluctuating subjectivity.

Bearing all this in mind, perhaps the question of whether a memoir or an autobiography is true or false is irrelevant. A memoir is simply a viewpoint of one individual at a certain point in his or her life, and that individual will be conditioned by temperament, experience, desires, and beliefs to see her life in a certain way. Her viewpoint may change over time, rendering earlier judgments and beliefs obsolete. Karr tells us this in no uncertain manner on the last page of her memoir. After she learns the secrets of her mother's troubled life and has had some time to reflect on them, she realizes that the way she has habitually interpreted her life is not only a distorted view, but is altogether false:

All the black crimes we believed ourselves guilty of were myths, stories we'd cobbled together out of fear. We expected no good news interspersed with the bad. Only the dark aspects of any story sank in. I never knew despair could lie.

In other words, Karr never realized that the interpretation she used to put on events, that at the time seemed so clear, certain, and obvious, could actually have been a false way of seeing things. It did not enter her head that there might be a completely different way of interpreting those very same events, a way much "truer" than the previous one.

What Karr reveals in the last few paragraphs of her memoir is that all personal judgments about one's life should be provisional only, subject to revision as later facts become known, as full stories are puzzled out, and as one gains more and more wisdom. There is no final truth, only successive revisionings, for today's truth may be tomorrow's lie.

Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on The Liars' Club, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, Gale, 2003.
Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on twentieth-century literature.

The Liars' Club's Believability

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1568

The English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge uses the term "the willing suspension of disbelief" to talk about how important it is for readers to at least pretend to believe that what they're reading is true. In fact, it is so common to assess the merits of literary fiction by evaluating its believability that even people who have never heard of Coleridge appraise the merits of texts and films on the basis of their willingness—or their lack of willingness—to suspend their disbelief. Bad actors can undermine good films by being "unconvincing'' or by being scripted into too-unlikely situations and circumstances. Even unbelievable dialogue, which forces actors to speak in ways human beings do not and never have spoken, has the potential of limiting an audience's pleasure by reminding moviegoers that the narrative they're watching is an imaginative construct.

Although there are a multitude of ways fiction writers generate believability in their novels and stories, one of the most famous techniques is a reliance on concrete detail. In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner says that the fiction writer "gives us such details about the streets, stores, weather, politics, and concerns of Cleveland (or wherever the setting is) and such details about the looks, gestures, and experiences of his characters that we cannot help believing that the story he tells us is true.’’ Even The Elements of Style, which is more of a rule book than a guide to writing fiction, promotes the importance of concrete detail. Strunk writes:

If those who have studied the art of writing are in accord on any one point, it is on this: the surest way to arouse and hold the attention of the reader is by being specific, definite, and concrete. The greatest writers—Homer, Dante, Shakespeare—are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matter.

In this age of the memoir, however, it is a surprise that few critics have discussed the ways in which concrete detail, which is so necessary in fiction, might actually damage creative nonfiction. The most notable stylistic quality of The Liars' Club is the extremely specific detail with which Mary Karr records the generally horrific events of her childhood. Because this detail is suspiciously concrete or specific, it actually undermines the book's believability.

The Liars' Club begins when Karr is-seven years-old, after her mother has had the most violent and frightening of her many nervous breakdowns. The family doctor is kneeling before Karr, wearing "a yellow golf shirt unbuttoned so that sprouts of hair showed in a V shape on his chest.’’ Karr also tells us that the doctor had"watery blue eyes behind thick glasses, and a mustache that looked like a caterpillar.’’ She says she's wearing ‘‘her favorite nightgown,’’ which has ‘‘a pattern of Texas blue-bonnets bunched into nosegays tied with ribbon against a field of nappy white cotton,’’ and that her sister is wearing ‘‘pink pajamas.’’ She describes ‘‘a tallboy [that] was tipped over on its back like a stranded turtle, its drawers flung around,'' and "the nutty smell [of coffee mixed with] the faint chemical stink from the gasoline fire in the back yard.’’ Karr then tells us "the volume on the night began to rise'':

People with heavy boots stomped through the house. Somebody turned off the ambulance siren. The back screen opened and slammed. My daddy's dog, Nipper, was growling low and making his chain clank in the yard.

Although it's possible that a child whose mother may or may not have been trying to kill her would remember all these details—neurologists say that trauma slows down time and helps victims focus on details—Karr also remembers events that aren't as traumatic in The Liars' Club. She tells us, for example, that one night after she and her family moved to Colorado, they ordered ‘‘meatloaf and mashed potatoes’’ that Karr and her sister Lecia "molded into volcanoes.''

The most tender parts of the memoir are the passages in which Karr goes fishing or to the Liars' Club with her father to listen to him and his friends— "Cooter and Shug and Ben Bederman''—tell funny stories. The first such passage happens early in the book and here, too, Karr luxuriates in her obvious love affair with concrete detail. She tells us not only what each man says just exactly, but also, on one occasion, that the men and Karr ‘‘each have a floatable Coca-Cola cushion to sit on'' and that Karr ‘‘[jerks] the banana-yellow lure across the surface of the water so its tiny propellers whir and stop ...’’

In other words, in The Liars' Club, Karr has completely abided by the rules governing the American creative writing workshop and associated texts and manuals. She's showing, rather than telling, by appealing to senses of sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste. Karr also takes great advantage of her experience with the image—the verbal picture—to evoke her memories in her readers' minds. Yet, since her acute memories of such details are sometimes impossible to believe, they make Karr suspect as a speaker.

As mentioned, fiction relies on details because readers have a difficult time enjoying anything they don't believe. Lyric poets also focus on details, which they're inclined to call images, not only because such details increase believability, but also because lyric poems use the particular as a kind of clay in order to still time and make individual experience seem more universal. The goal of personal essayists is to use concrete detail to expose their processes of mind and thought rather than to depict a series of narrative events. They are more inclined to admit to what they can't remember than to pretend to remember it. This technique increases the personal essayist's sincerity, which Phillip Lopate in "The Art of Personal Essay'' says "is meant to awaken the sympathy of the reader, who is apt to forgive the essayist's self-absorption in return for the warmth of his or her candor.'' In other words, in admitting what he doesn't know and can't remember, the personal essayist increases his credibility. Isn't a memoir more like a personal essay than a novel? Shouldn't it be?

One of the most explicit passages in The Liars' Club describes Karr's memory of her first rape, which happens when an "evil boy'' from the neighborhood smells ‘‘some kind of hurt or fear'' on her and takes her ‘‘into somebody's garage’’:

He unbuttoned my white shirt and told me I was getting breasts ... his grandparents had chipped in on braces for his snaggly teeth. They glinted in the half dark like a robot's grillwork. He pulled off my shoes and underwear and threw them in the corner in a ball, over where I knew there could be spiders. He pushed down his pants and put my head on his thing, which was unlike any of the boys' jokes about hot dogs and garden hoses.

This passage, like a later one in which one of Karr' s babysitters forces her into a similar, if less complete sexual act, should inspire the reader's sympathy. But because of the book's almost obsessive reliance on concrete details, Karr does not always generate a sincere tone. The memoir seems at these times either overwritten or false.

In The Situation of Poetry, Robert Pinksy makes it clear that many modernist ideas, including those associated with the advantages of concrete details over abstractions and generalizations, have become too commonplace to continue to be interesting. Pinksy even criticizes certain images by the American poets Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore, saying, ‘‘the aggressive yoking of unlike things [can] sometimes amount to little more than showing off.’’

Mary Karr is, of course, a poet, and her penchant for detail serves her intentions in her poetry. In the title poem of her collection Viper Rum, for example, she compares "a tiny vine serpent'' to ‘‘a single strand of luminous-green linguini.’’ In so doing, Karr reminds us that one of the poet's primary tasks is to see the world so fully that we're reminded of its beauty and strangeness.

But in The Liars' Club, Karr's penchant for detail, which presupposes that very small children--even very small children who grow up to be writers—can, among other very specific details, remember the way a doctor's hair falls out of his shirt, destabilizes her reliability as a speaker. This lack of reliability undermines the entire book. In ‘‘Such, Such Were the Joys,’’ George Orwell, one of the best prose stylists ever to write in English, says, ‘‘whoever writes about his childhood must beware of exaggeration and self-pity.’’ Although Karr avoids self-pity by being absolutely merciless toward her parents' weaknesses, addictions, and collective lack of judgment, she commits the sin of exaggeration by claiming to remember such things as ‘‘the odor that came out of [her father's] truck when [they had] crowbarred the padlock off and opened it.’’ It would have been more profitable for her to more openly admit that, when it comes to recording memories, all writers must be lifelong members of the Liars' Club.

Source: Adrian Blevins, Critical Essay on The Liars' Club, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, Gale, 2003.
Blevins 's is a poet and essayist who has taught at Hollins University, Sweet Briar College, and in the Virginia Community College system; Blevins' first full-length collection of poems, The Brass Girl Brouhaha, is forthcoming from Ausable Press in September of 2003.

The Fine Line Between Memoir and Novel

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1355

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 when it was published in 1995. The literary memoir has a long and noble history, but the late 1990s saw what had been a fairly marginal genre move into the center of the publishing world as one memoir succeeded another at the top of the bestseller lists. Books like Frank McCourt' s Angela's Ashes, Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss, Carolyn Knapp' s Drinking: A Love Story, and David Sedaris's Naked sold like hotcakes, and their authors became major literary celebrities. But prior to the success of The Liars' Club, literary memoirs were much more of a specialized taste.

Mary Karr's childhood, though marked by domestic upheaval and an eccentric mother, wasn't really that unusual. Nor is the setting particularly exotic. Although she is molested by schoolboys twice in the book, she doesn't present this as a life-changing trauma. What makes The Liars' Club come alive is the force and art of her narration, which is so lively and expressive that it almost qualifies as a character itself.

Take, for example, the way she writes. In fact, it doesn't sound so much like writing as it does like talking, Karr is a very conscientious writer—a poet in fact—with a meticulous care for her choice of words. When she uses colloquial expressions, then, she's making a conscious decision. Why? Part of the reason is pure charm: The Liars' Club wasn't a phenomenal bestseller because it's hard to read. But a larger reason lies in her use of colloquial language to conjure up character, both her own and those she is writing about. For example, of her dying grandmother coming to live with her family, Karr writes, ‘‘maybe it's wrong to blame Grandma Moore for much of the worst hurt in my family, but she was such a ring-tailed b—that I do.’’ That sentence begins with an adult, educated point of view—the language of therapeutic culture ("much of the worst hurt’’), but it ends with a colloquial punchline, a funny Texas expression which serves to anticipate and dismiss an objection that might make Karr's character less than sympathetic. That mean, ornery, spunky little girl is the heroine of the book and has complete claim upon the reader by moving seamlessly between her adult character and the character of the child she was, Karr uses the best of both worlds. It's a calculating mixture of high-minded adult language and Texas sass, and it makes the book hard to put down.

Another payoff of Karr's skill is her ability to seem both within the action and also far away from it. When describing something especially vivid, like her experiences sitting in on a Liars' Club meeting or being molested by a neighborhood boy, she shifts to the present tense: ‘‘I am eye-level to the card table, sitting on an upended bait bucket, safe in my daddy's shadow, and yet in my head I'm finding my mother stretched out dead.'' Karr is simultaneously little Pokey, her father's favorite child, existing in a time and place so specific that she can tell you the tiniest physical detail of it and also outside herself, understanding her conflicted young mind better than she possibly could have at the time.

Besides creating her own presence, Karr's narrative strategies do something else too. They create for the reader the reality of her mother and father, the two most important other characters in the book. Unlike most memoir writers, Mary Karr doesn't really dwell on her own experiences and emotions. (Her molestation, for example, takes up less than two pages.) The book is really about her father and mother, their unique characters and the loving but rocky relationship between them. Mary Karr's mother Charlie is a bohemian, a romantic, irresponsible, impulsive, passionate, flighty, and given to bouts of insanity. Her father provides a grounded opposite; he is laconic, earthy, and unswerving in his devotion to his family. ‘‘With Mother,’’ Karr writes, ‘‘I always felt on the edge of something new, something never before seen or read about or bought, something that would change us.... With Daddy and his friends, I always knew what would happen and that left me feeling a sort of dreamy safety.’’ The tension between the two is the engine which pushes the book forward. ‘‘Back then, heat still passed between my parents. You could practically warm your hands on it,’’ Karr remembers.

The primary way readers get to know Charlie and Pete is through their language. Charlie's voice has little in it of Texas. But really, readers don't hear much of Charlie's voice. Karr describes what her mother does and says in her own language. She doesn't seem to talk much; in her most memorable scenes, such as her near-murderous car accident, she is singing ‘‘Mack the Knife.’’ At other times, she is quoted in italics:

We'd be driving past some guys in blue overalls selling watermelons off their truck bed and grinning like it was as good a way as any to pass an afternoon. She'd wag her head as if this were the most unbelievable spectacle, saying God, to be that blissfully ignorant.

The fact that readers so rarely hear Charlie's voice, and that it is so often stilted or cryptic when it is heard, contributes to her aura of mystery and menace. Who is this woman, readers ask. If the answer isn't clear, it's because it isn't clear to Mary Karr either, then or now. Charlie Marie comes through as a fascinating woman, whose bizarre behavior is only partially explained by the revelation Karr saves for the very end of the book.

Pete Karr, on the other hand, comes alive precisely because Mary Karr understands him so well. There may have been more to the real Pete Karr than his daughter Mary knew, but if so, it's not apparent in The Liars' Club. Mary Karr adores and admires her father in a way that illuminates her memoir from within, and the ultimate tribute is how frequently he dominates her narrative. The tall tales with which her father dominates The Liars' Club really don't have much to do with the book's action; the club itself only shows up a few times over the course of the book. But his language, with its expressiveness and Texas poetry, cuts through Mary Karr's narration. In a way, Pete Karr functions as a kind of masculine archetype in a book dominated by women.

"I s— you not,’’ Daddy said as he tore off a hunk of biscuit. ‘‘You touch a dead man sometime.’’ He took a swallow of buttermilk. ‘‘Hard as that table. Got no more to do with being alive than that table does.’’

Mary Karr would no more be capable of speaking those lines than she would be able to knock out a romantic rival with one punch, any more than she could have her father's raspy chin, Lava soap and whiskey smell or superhuman virility. But she can, and does, use her father's colorful Texanisms to pepper her own language, which for the most part is like her mother's—vociferous but colorless, without regional flavor—an educated person's words. Like the fighting streak she is so proud of, this is a gift from her father that she cherishes.

In the end, The Liars' Club creates a space to live in Mary Karr's memories. Readers may not have anything in common with her or her family or with Texas or with the troubles she experienced. But by creating such a richly textured memoir in which language itself develops character so powerfully, we feel that we know the people at least as well as she does. Karr along with Frank McCourt, helped to change American letters by demonstrating how a novelist's eye for detail and ear for the way people talk could turn one person's memories into literature as moving and universal as any novel.

Source: Josh Ozersky, Critical Essay on The Liars' Club, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, Gale, 2003.
Ozersky is a critic and historian.

Mary Karr, Mary Karr, Mary Karr, Mary Karr

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1313

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 has enjoyed much greater success and sales than her poetry; and criticism, God knows, makes money or friends for nobody. My review copy of The Liars' Club arrived in the custody of a thousand-word blurbissimo and a schedule of cities where Karr was to be available for publicity interviews: Philadelphia, Washington, New York, Boston, Syracuse, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Chicago—but nothing in the Southeast (where Viking may think we don't read) and nothing even near Texas (where Viking may think they read but are sensitive about stories of serial divorce, boozing, and worse excesses).

The Liars' Club, vulgar hoopla notwithstanding, is as good as anything of its kind that I know of. It includes much that I can still be amused but at the same time shocked by, in a kind of Tex-Mex-Cajun-Cherokee Gothic with some colorful reckless endangerment, like the conduct we find in the lower precincts of Pat Conroy or the less grotesque passages of Harry Crews, with moments of narcosis from Jim Carroll or Kathy Acker, along with gestures toward intellectual respectability in the form of sizeable epigraphs or quotations from R. D. Laing, Ezra Pound, W. B. Yeats, Cormac McCarthy, and Zbigniew Herbert.

The first-level Liar's Club is a group of East Texas workingmen who gather to drink and swap stories. At a second level, The Liars' Club is everybody in the book and, by a readily extended metaphor, everybody everywhere. The book focuses on the author's parents: a woman with a man's name and a man with no name but initials. Charlie was married seven times, twice to J.P., who fathered two of her children, Lecia (pronounced"Lisa’’) and Mary Marlene, who were born in the l950s and went through an upbringing that veered from numbing poverty to million-dollar comfort, from warm familial love to malice hard to believe except as a symptom of madness. The book starts in medias res, with Charlie being taken away for committal after a hair-raising episode involving delusion, alcohol, fire, and a butcher knife. The rest of the memoir unfolds the circumstances of this focal nightmare and comes to a close with the family temporarily reunited in a moribund twilight of fatigue and mortal illness.

Someone who has read Abacus will encounter much familiar material in The Liars' Club. Late in the book, the father has suffered a stroke and is hard to feed. Mary tries to dislodge a bolus that may cause him to choke: "Then he bit me. Even before his eyes creaked open to thin slits, he clamped down with his slick gums hard enough to hold me by that finger. Like some terrier who'd caught me snitching his biscuit. We stood that way a minute—my finger in his mouth, his black eyes glaring out with no glimmer of recognition.’’ Here, for comparison, is part of the poem "Home During a Tropical Snowstorm I Feed My Father Lunch'':

And when he choked
I pried the leather jaw open,
poked my finger past the slick gums
to scoop an air passage
till he bit down hard and glared,
an animal dignity glowing
in those bird-black eyes,
which carried me past pity
for once, for once
all this terror twisting into joy.

The teacher who in a few years offers a seminar on Mary Karr's writing will find such moments a splendid way to illustrate the differences between prose and poetry.

Those quotations suggest another change when Karr moved from the poetry of Abacus to the prose of The Liars' Club. Readers do not handle poetry the way they handle prose or speech. If a poem says, "And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made.’’ I think, ‘‘Poetic inversion.’’ If a piece of prose said such a thing, I would think, ‘‘Stupid: why not say, 'And build there a small cabin made of clay and wattles' ?'' Or try this: to be poetry and peculiar is to be poetry; to be prose and peculiar is to be peculiar. With a definite narrator, such as Huckleberry Finn or Holden Caulfield or Ellen Foster, a reader takes the voice, with its idiosyncratic vocabulary and spelling, as just another functional fiction, something you read through or read past, murmuring to yourself,"Well, I suppose some kids must talk like that.’’ I don't think Karr has quite solved this problem, or (and this may be what Mark Twain and J.D. Salinger and Kaye Gibbons accomplished) has made her peace with it. If you try to put yourself into the person of a seven-year-old girl (as Mary Marlene is at the beginning of The Liars' Club), you may benefit from the colorful language of childhood, but you may forfeit some distance, perspective, and proportion. Writers employing a juvenile narrator or at least a narrator with access to a juvenile perspective seem to settle for a degree of compromise that allows for irony and travesty. Karr now and then seems stuck on the horns of a dilemma. She writes sentences like these: ‘‘Tatting is an insane activity that involves an eensy shuttle, thin silk thread, and maniacal patience"; "They're going to make their webs somewheres else, so you think for a minute that Wilbur's gonna sink back into his porcine misery all over again.’’ You have to work very hard indeed to make a reader believe you are justified in using eensy, somewheres, and gonna in sentences that also contain maniacal and porcine. The outcome for me is a defiant retention of disbelief. It comes down to a question of husbanding your resources. A poet can just steal and be done with it: poets repeat, quote, echo, refer, and allude all the time, so much so that it seems that poems are made of other poems. That's part of their defining peculiarity. But prose is something else. Consider this description: ‘‘Gordon's being there embarrassed me. He had white girly hands. His skin was a mass of acne pits and scarring. Some poet wrote once about 'the young man carbuncular,' and that was Gordon.’’ That's so wrong-sounding that I want to hit it with my rubber stamp that says DECORATIVE. Not even ‘‘some poet’’ is invoked in a passage about Charlie's ‘‘very critical mother-in-law, whom we might describe metaphorically as a broomstick-wielding German housewife with a gaze merciless as the sun's.’’ Weirdly, Mary Marlene had, many pages earlier, viewed her other grandmother through the lens of Yeats's ‘‘The Second Coming'': "And the worst being full of passionate intensity always put me in mind of Grandma, who was nothing if not intense''; but the earlier quotation is overtly identified as something from ‘‘the famous Yeats poem about things falling apart.’’

Style is also mismanaged here: ‘‘Mother had a book of them, one portrait more gray-faced than the next,’’ which I think ought to read ‘‘more gray-faced than the one before.'' And there's the varmint The New Yorker used to call The Omnipotent Whom: ‘‘The next time Hector and Mother traveled, we stayed with his sister Alicia, whom I'd have guessed was too old and fat to fight with her husband, Ralph.’’

But these are mere blemishes. I want to testify that Karr captures one part of childhood sublimely: the world of artificial smells that is one of the first things we know about people and one of the last things to go away. Today a whiff of bay rum or Arrid can take me back fifty years and more, and Karr has a genius for specifying just what essence was in attendance when something important happened: Shalimar, Old Spice, Jergens, Burma Shave, Lava.

Source: William Harmon, ‘‘Mary Karr, Mary Karr, Mary Karr, Mary Karr,’’ in Southern Review, Vol. 33, No. 17, Winter 1997, pp. 150-55.

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