The Liars' Club
The Liars' Club
Mary Karr 1995Introduction
Mary Karr's The Liars' Club, published in 1995 in New York is a memoir of Karr's turbulent childhood in the fictional eastern Texas town of Leechfield, and later in Colorado. Karr's immediate family consists of her sister Lecia, two years older than she; her father, Pete Karr, who works at an oil refinery; and her mother, who is emotionally unstable and hates living in Leechfield.
The memoir describes the sort of childhood that many people would wish to avoid. Mary's parents fight constantly and eventually divorce only to remarry later. Her mother's alcoholism and addiction to diet pills lead to many strange episodes, some of them frightening, as when she becomes unhinged and appears to be about to kill her children.
Mary's father is a rough-and-ready, quarrelsome native Texan with Native-American blood who excels as a teller of tall tales in his group of buddies who meet at the American Legion. This group is christened the Liars' Club.
Although the pages of The Liars' Club are chock full of arguments, fights, and unsavory incidents of all kinds, the memoir was hugely successful. This success is due to Karr's skills as a poet, her finely honed sense of humor, and her wonderful ear for the slang of eastern Texas. Readers probably also sense that underneath the surface turbulence, this dysfunctional family still loves each other.
Mary Karr was born in January 1955 in Texas, the daughter of J. P. Karr, an oil refinery worker, and Charlie Marie Karr, an artist and business owner. She had a difficult childhood which she describes in The Liars' Club and she left home when she was seventeen. Karr enrolled at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, but left after two years in order to travel. In 1978, she was admitted to Goddard College in Vermont where she met writers Tobias Wolff and Frank Conroy, both of whom encouraged her to write.
Karr found her calling as a poet. She has remarked that she wanted to be a poet from about age seven. Her first volume of poetry, Abacus, was published in 1987; her second volume, The Devil's Tour, appeared in 1993.
After The Devil's Tour, Karr wrote The Liars' Club: A Memoir, which brought her fame along with critical and commercial success. Published in 1995, The Liars' Club spent sixty weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. In 1996, the book won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award and the Texas Institute of Letters' Carr P. Collins Prize. It also won the New York Public Library Award.
Karr's third volume of poetry, Viper Rum: With the afterword "Against Decoration," was published in 1998. This was followed in 2000 by The Liars' Club sequel, Cherry: A Memoir, in which Karr recalls her turbulent adolescence. Cherry was generally less well received than The Liars' Club.
Karr has been an assistant professor of English at various institutions, including Tufts University, Emerson College, Harvard University, and Sarah Lawrence College. She is currently the Peck Professor of English at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York. She is a two-time winner of the Pushcart Prize in poetry and essay. In 1983, Karr married a fellow poet, whom she divorced in 1993. She has one son, Devereux Milburn.
Part 1: Texas, 1961
The Liars' Club begins at a traumatic moment in Mary Karr's life, when she is seven. There has been a disturbance at her home in the town of Leechfield, Texas, as a result of which Mother is being taken from the house, having suffered a nervous breakdown. Mary and her nine-year-old sister Lecia are taken away by the sheriff and stay for a while elsewhere in the neighborhood.
Karr relates how her parents met and married and also tells of her father's childhood, explaining that she learned about these things by listening to the stories Daddy told to his drinking friends at the American Legion. This group of friends was known as the Liars' Club.
Mary's childhood is not easy. Her parents fight frequently, and although her mother threatens divorce, the couple stays together. Mary develops a sharp tongue, frequently using vulgar language she learned from her parents. She gets into fights at school.
Life for Mary becomes even more difficult when her grandmother, who has cancer, comes to live with her family. Grandma Moore is a bossy, critical, eccentric woman who carries a hacksaw around in a black doctor's bag and demands that Mary be spanked for misbehavior. Mary blames Grandma Moore for the worst times in her family, and Mary's own behavior deteriorates. She throws tantrums, bites her nails, walks in her sleep, and is suspended from second grade for attacking other children. To add to her misery, she is raped by an older boy in the neighborhood.
Grandma Moore dies a slow death. Her leg is amputated and the cancer spreads to her brain, making her, in Karr's words, crazy. She takes no pain medication but drinks beer all day. Since she dislikes Mary's father, he makes himself scarce while she is there, working double shifts and entertaining himself with hunting and fishing.
Grandma shows Mary a photo of a boy and girl, Tex and Belinda. She says they are Mary's half-brother and sister, but she does not explain what she means. She threatens that if Mary misbehaves, she will be sent away, like Tex and Belinda were. When Grandma Moore dies, shortly after the family returns home after fleeing a hurricane, Mary is relieved, although her sister Lecia is genuinely upset.
Another crisis erupts on a trip to the beach. Lecia is attacked by a man-of-war that leeches onto her leg, leaving bright red welts. Having wished many times for her sister to die, Mary now prays that she lives.
With Mother depressed and spending her time reading in bed, Mary is relieved when Daddy takes her to the Liars' Club once more, where she hears him spin a tall tale about how his father hung himself (his father is in fact still alive). Mother starts drinking to excess and this leads to even more vicious fights between her and her husband. On Mary's birthday, after a bitter quarrel, they all go out for the evening. But on their return, Mary's disturbed mother tries to grab the steering wheel and take the car over the edge of a bridge. Pete responds by knocking her unconscious. When she recovers she scratches his cheek bloody.
The situation gets worse. One night, Mother becomes unhinged, scrawling over all the mirrors with lipstick, smashing light bulbs, and burning the children's toys, furniture, and clothes. Then she advances on the children with a butcher's knife. She does not harm them and puts the knife down, but she calls the doctor and says she has just stabbed both children to death. This is the traumatic incident referred to at the beginning of the book. As a result, Mother is taken to a hospital for the mentally ill. Mary goes further out of control, shooting a BB gun at a boy who had been in a fight with her sister. The pellet hits the boy in the neck.
Part 2: Colorado, 1963
Having inherited money from Grandma Moore, the family is living in more comfortable circumstances. They move to Colorado Springs, where Mother buys a stone lodge on the side of a mountain. Mary is now eight years old. From the bedroom window, she and Lecia enjoy watching bears roaming around, and they learn to ride a horse. They spend an idyllic day fishing for trout with Daddy. Mother spends much of her time at the local bar. Soon Mary's parents announce they are to divorce, and they give the girls a choice as to with whom they wish to live. The girls choose Mother. Daddy returns to Texas the next day. A Mexican man named Hector moves in with Mother, and Mother calls him the girls' new daddy. The girls resist Hector's attempts to bond with them, and they miss their real father whom they unsuccessfully try to lure back.
They visit Antelope, the biggest city Mary has seen, but it is a disappointment to her. Mother rents a colonial house there, and the sisters each have their own bedroom for the first time. They attend a local school, where Mary still gets into fights. Mother's mental health continues to deteriorate. She becomes dependent on diet pills and spends most of her time drunk in bed. Her relationship with Hector sours, and she becomes moody and depressed, seeing no point in life. On one occasion she throws herself out of a moving car. In another traumatic incident, Mary is forced to perform oral sex on the man who is supposed to be baby-sitting her. She tells no one of how she was violated.
Life becomes so intolerable that Mother comes close to shooting Hector. Lecia and Mary, although they do not like Hector, try to protect him. That night, Lecia calls their father collect and tells him she and Mary are coming home. Daddy pays their airfare and is overjoyed to see them when they return. He prays their mother will soon join them. Mother returns soon after with Hector, intending only to pick up some clothes. However, Daddy beats up Hector, and Mother decides to stay and live with her family again.
Part 3: Texas Again, 1980
In 1980 Daddy has a stroke at the age of seventy and is incapacitated. Mother has stopped drinking but has become addicted to prescription drugs. She remains depressed. Mary, having left home permanently at seventeen, lives in Boston. She and her father have grown apart and no longer have much to say to each other. After Daddy's stroke, he loses the ability to speak coherently. Mary returns and helps her mother care for him.
One day, while searching the attic for old medical records, Mary comes upon a number of wedding rings. She asks her mother about them and Mother's anguished story comes out. Her first husband ran off with her two children, Belinda and Tex, and she saw them only once again. Each time she remarried, she expected her new husband to help her get her kids back, but the men quickly lost enthusiasm for the task. It was the strain of losing her children that led to Mother's mental instability over the years.
Ben Bederman is one of the members of the Liars' Club. He always listens carefully to Pete Karr's stories and is usually the first to ask a question. He visits Pete in the hospital after Pete has a stroke and is distressed at Pete's condition. Almost every night he sits for hours outside Pete's hospital room.
Cooter is one of the members of the Liars' Club. He often picks on Shug and scolds him because he is bothered by the fact that Shug is black.
See Pete Karr
Hector is a Mexican bartender who marries Mary's mother while they are living in Colorado. Mary and Lecia do not like him and refuse to accept him as their stepfather. Hector does not have a job and the couple lives off Charlie Marie's money. However, the marriage is not a success. Hector is frequently drunk. Charlie Marie criticizes him mercilessly and at one point she threatens him with a gun while he cowers in a chair and tells her to go ahead and shoot since his life is not worth anything. When Hector accompanies Charlie Marie to Texas to pick up some of her clothes, Pete overhears a derogatory remark that Hector makes to Charlie Marie. He drags Hector from his car, punches him to the ground, and then repeatedly hits him in the face. Then he kicks him, breaking one of Hector's ribs. Charlie Marie takes Hector to an emergency room and leaves him there. She then returns to live in Texas.
Charlie Marie Karr
Charlie Marie Karr is Mary's mother. She married seven times including twice to Pete Karr. Her fourth marriage, to an Italian sea captain named Paulo, was the one that first brought her to Leechfield, Texas, where she later met and married Pete Karr.
Unlike her husband, Charlie Marie is educated and intellectually curious. She spends a lot of her time reading widely in topics such as Russian history and French existentialism. She is also an artist, having studied art in New York's Greenwich Village, and has her own studio in the family home. She also listens to opera.
Charlie Marie's marriage to Pete Karr is happy at first, but they soon fall to fighting. She bitterly regrets leaving New York for the barren landscape of eastern Texas, and she threatens divorce many times. After her mother dies, Charlie Marie starts to drink, which has a bad effect on her already volatile temperament. In Texan parlance, she is considered "nervous," a term that covers a wide range of mental problems. The fights with her husband become more frequent, and eventually she has a mental breakdown. She smashes mirrors and light bulbs in the house, burns the children's clothes and furniture, and threatens them with a knife. As a result, she is taken away and spends a month at a hospital for the mentally ill.
When the family moves to Colorado, Charlie Marie's mental condition does not improve. She drinks to excess and becomes dependent on diet pills. Much of the time she just stays in bed, too depressed to get up. When she and Pete agree to divorce, the children elect to stay with their mother because they think that left alone she would get into serious trouble, whereas Pete could manage on his own. After Pete's departure, Charlie Marie marries Hector, but this marriage is no happier than her former one. When Charlie Marie almost shoots Hector, Mary and Lecia decide they will return to live with their father. However, it is not long before Charlie Marie leaves Hector and returns to live in Texas, eventually remarrying Pete.
At the end of the book, it transpires that the reason for Charlie Marie's chronic mental instability is that Tex and Belinda, her two children from her first marriage, were taken from her by her husband when he walked out on her. She saw these children only once again.
• An audiocassette of Karr reading The Liars' Club was published in 1996 by Penguin Audiobooks.
Lecia Karr is two years older than her sister Mary. Lecia is tough and frequently gets into fights, most of which she wins. She is able to beat boys several years older than she. She and Mary have a quarrelsome relationship, and on one occasion Lecia beats Mary in a fight. As the older of the two, Lecia often bosses Mary around, and she takes the lead in deciding what to do. It is she, for example, who decides that they will stay with their mother in Colorado rather than go back to Texas with their father. Lecia's role in the family is to be the competent one while Mary is the cute one. Often, even at the age of ten or eleven, Lecia is more competent than her own mother. For example, she knows that when her mother has a crying fit after listening to opera music, it is time to put her to bed.
Lecia is also resourceful. Within two days of being viciously attacked by a man-of-war at the beach, she is charging the neighborhood kids money to see or touch her blisters. Mary's reaction at the moment the man-of-war wrapped its tentacles around Lecia's leg says a lot about the sisters' stormy relationship: having many times wished for Lecia to die, she at that moment prayed that Lecia would live.
Mary Karr is the narrator of the memoir. She is a resourceful girl who has inherited her father's aggressive temperament and her mother's intelligence. She is dark-haired, unlike her blonde sister, and she looks vaguely Native American, like her father. As a young girl she adores her father and is enthralled by his storytelling at the Liars' Club, which she is allowed to attend. As a child, she cannot help but be influenced by her parents' quarrels, and she and Lecia fantasize about escaping and living somewhere else, such as a shack on the beach or the rest room of a convenience store.
Mary's life includes many traumatic incidents. She is raped by an older boy from the neighborhood when she is seven. She tells no one about it, because she is scared of the consequences of speaking out. In Colorado, when she is no more than nine, she is sexually abused by a babysitter. She also has to witness her parents' constant fighting; her mother's mental breakdown, during which her mother threatens her and Lecia with a knife; and her mother's threatening of Hector with a gun, during which incident Mary and Lecia throw themselves across Hector to protect him.
Not surprisingly, given her family background, Mary learns how to take care of herself physically. Feisty by nature, she acquires a reputation for herself as the worst little girl in the neighborhood. This reputation is sealed when she shoots a BB gun at a boy named Ricky Carter, hitting him in the neck. She has learned from her parents how to curse, and when she is challenged by the boy's father she retorts, "Eat me raw, mister." Mary frequently gets into fights with the neighborhood kids, and because she is small she never wins any. But she refuses to give in, and prides herself on being able to take a beating.
In spite of all the traumas Mary suffers in her dysfunctional family, she still feels loved by her parents and she loves them in return. She shows her love by caring for her father after he has a stroke and by forgiving her mother for the wrongs she did to Mary.
Pete Karr is Mary's father. A World War II veteran, he is a handsome, black-haired man with Native-American blood who works at the oil refinery. In forty-two years he never misses a day at work, even though he is a hard drinker. Pete is known for his storytelling abilities, and he holds his friends in the Liars' Club spellbound with his vivid tales of his childhood, although few of his stories are true. He is also known as a quarrelsome personality who is quick to get into fights, which he always wins. He even gives Mary, whom he affectionately calls Pokey, tips on how to fight, urging her to bite her opponents. His relationship with his children is warm, and he likes to indulge them, but he is also thrifty and does not like to waste money. He keeps scrupulous financial records and does not trust banks.
When Grandma Moore comes to live with the family, Pete stays out of the house as much as possible, and he is also absent for long periods during a strike at his workplace. A union man, he would hang around the union hall, waiting for news. During these periods, Mary would see little of her father.
Although his love for Charlie Marie is genuine, they quarrel frequently. After their divorce, Pete returns to live in Texas and makes little effort to stay in touch with his daughters. But he is delighted to see them when they return, and he is also eager for Charlie Marie to rejoin the family.
Pete has a stroke in 1980, seven years after his retirement at age sixty-three. After the stroke he cannot speak coherently and he is cared for by Charlie Marie and Mary.
Grandma Moore is Mary's grandmother on her mother's side. She is a bossy, critical woman who disapproves of Mary's marriage to Pete. When Grandma Moore gets cancer, she comes to live with the Karr family, and Pete makes himself scarce. Grandma immediately tries to impose her will on the way they all live. She has firm ideas about the proper way to do things. She tries to get Mary and Lecia to read the Bible every day, for example, and she never expresses a tender word to Mary. Instead, she is a disciplinarian and urges Charlie Marie to spank her daughter, even making a leather whip for the purpose. Grandma Moore is also eccentric; she carries a hacksaw around with her in a black doctor's bag.
When the cancer worsens, Grandma Moore's leg is amputated above the knee, and she wears an artificial leg. The cancer eventually spreads to her brain, making her even more cantankerous. Mary is not sorry when she dies. Grandma Moore leaves Charlie Marie a considerable amount of money in her will.
See Charlie Marie Karr
Shug is one of the members of the Liars' Club. He is the only black man that Mary ever sees in the American Legion, but he goes there only when the Liars' Club meets. He is openly skeptical when Pete Karr's stories get too incredible. He and Cooter are sometimes antagonistic towards one another.
Survival of Love
The Liars' Club is in many ways a grim story of the disruption of family life caused by a quarreling husband and wife, and a mother's alcoholism and mental instability. Although the devastating effect of this behavior on the children is apparent everywhere, especially in the aggressive behavior of Mary, it is not the main theme of the memoir. The main theme is the endurance of familial love in the worst of circumstances. The bonds generated by blood ties, even when put under tremendous strain, exercise a continual hold on the emotions and loyalties of the characters in the memoir.
It is noticeable that Karr, although writing as an adult, has preserved the nonjudgmental ways in which young children view their parents, even when the parents behave as badly as the Karrs do. Mary and Lecia never seem to blame their mother for her actions; they seem to be quite mature in their realization that it is simply the way Mother is and sometimes they even take the initiative to look after her.
The love between father and daughter is never in question either, even though there are long periods when Mary sees little of her father. One of the most poignant moments in the memoir is when the two sisters return to Texas from Colorado to live with their father. He lies on the bed with the girls on either side of him and weeps tears of joy at their return. He prays that Charlie Marie will come back to him and sobs as he does so. As they do with their mother, the girls sense what their father needs, and they gently pat him until he quiets down.
The fact that Pete Karr prays for the return of the woman with whom he regularly had such vicious fights is also significant. There seems to be a bond between them that is hard to break, no matter what happens. In their own turbulent way, the couple continues to love each other.
The triumph of love is made most explicit in the last section of the book, set in 1980, when Karr was in her mid-twenties. It shows that the bonds of this thoroughly dysfunctional family remain tight. For example, there is a moment during the time Karr is caring for her father when she plays the audiotape she recorded of one of the stories he told to the Liars' Club. It takes her back to the days when by his storytelling gift her father could take her to times and places she had never known except through his voice. Just before playing the tape, she looks at her father's face, so shrunken and gaunt, and for a split second sees it as a death's head. At this point she wants nothing more than to hear him tell one of his stories. Playing the taped story while they both listen is a way of affirming life and the bond they share.
The endurance of love is also shown when Karr discovers the truth about why her mother went through such long periods of depression and mental instability (i.e., the loss of her children from her first marriage). This knowledge frees them both from feelings of guilt and allows more love to be present, even though it is a while before they both realize this.
A symbol of the endurance of love occurs on the last page of the memoir. As mother and daughter drive home from the Mexican café where all the secrets have been divulged, Mary notices small gatherings of fireflies in the flowers at the roadside: "How odd, I thought, that those bugs lived through the refinery poisons." She is referring to the toxic fumes that emanate from the oil refineries of Leechfield, but she also means for the reader to make the connection: the light of love, like a firefly in the night, continues to live in spite of the toxic atmosphere generated by a quarreling family.
Although Karr often uses vulgar expressions that are part and parcel of the way many of the local people speak, she also on many occasions uses highly poetic imagery. This creates quite a contrast for the reader. In one of the milder examples of local slang, for example, a girl emerging from a coma after contracting encephalitis is "half-a-bubble off plumb." But on the next page, Karr uses a more literary form of expression, a simile, to describe the effect of her father's voice on the neighborhood children: "the kids all startled a little the way a herd of antelope on one of those African documentaries will lift their heads from the water hole at the first scent of a lion." Examples of similes (figures of speech in which one thing is compared to something else in a way that brings out the resemblance between the two) might be found on almost every page. Karr's similes are often original and memorable. The oil storage tanks in Leechfield are "like the abandoned eggs of some terrible prehistoric insect." Mary's mother's eyes are like "the flawed green of cracked marbles." A large woman in a "flowered dress" looks "a lot like a sofa." When Mary and Lecia visit their post office mailbox in Colorado twice a day to see if there is a letter from their father, the box "always sat empty as a little coffin." This simile perfectly expresses the feeling of abandonment the girls feel when they do not hear from Daddy.
Topics for Further Study
- Write your own one-to two-page memoir about an incident you remember from your childhood. Try to capture the child's way of seeing things. Write it in your own voice and style rather than trying to imitate Karr.
- Research the topic of alcoholism and the effects it has on families, particularly children. Why do some people become alcoholics while others who drink do not? Is there a cure for alcoholism?
- The Karr family is forced to flee Hurricane Carla in 1961 in Texas. Using the Internet, research Hurricane Carla and other major hurricanes along the Gulf Coast. What are the weather conditions that produce a hurricane? How has the technology of predicting the path of a hurricane changed since the 1960s? (Remember that in The Liars' Club, the storm unexpectedly hits a town in Louisiana rather than Leechfield, Texas, its predicted path.)
- Karr defines a dysfunctional family as "any family with more than one person in it." She means that every family is dysfunctional in one way or another. Do you agree? Why or why not? How would you define dysfunctional? Do you think that people can put bad childhood experiences behind them, or do those experiences mark people for life?
The fictional town of Leechfield, in eastern Texas, is important in creating the atmosphere of the memoir. Leechfield is in every way an oppressive place. Sitting in a semitropical latitude close to the Gulf of Mexico, it is three feet below sea level at its highest point and two rivers run through it. It is so damp and swamp-like that the homes are built without basements, since it would have been impossible to keep them dry. The many oil refineries and chemical plants give the whole town a smell like rotten eggs, a smell that gets worse the hotter the weather becomes. The night sky is an acid-green color because of the flames that rise from the oil refineries. According to Mary, the magazine Business Week voted it one of the ten ugliest towns on earth.
Leechfield was also the manufacturing site for Agent Orange, a herbicide used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War to defoliate trees and shrubbery where the enemy could hide. Agent Orange is poisonous to humans, although this was not known at the time.
To add to Leechfield's hazards, the city is also afflicted by swarms of mosquitoes, which necessitates the spraying of DDT (a now-banned poison) from a huge hose on a mosquito truck. The neighborhood kids "slow race" their bicycles behind the truck, inhaling the fumes. The aim is to come in last, which means that the winners often vomit and faint from the poison they inhale.
This image of poison, as well as the whole unsavory atmosphere of Leechfield, is an apt metaphor for Mary's early life, lived in the poisonous arena of family discord. Yet when Daddy says the town is too ugly not to love, it also seems appropriate for the story that Mary tells, a story that is at times ugly, but also in its own way full of love.
Numerous additional literary devices are employed in the memoir, as noted in the critical essay. These devices include starting the memoir in medias res; the use of suspense; the technique of foreshad-owing; and "genre blur," a writing trend Karr describes as blurring the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction.
A memoir differs from an autobiography in that it does not cover the writer's entire life, only selected portions. Traditionally, memoirs were written by public figures late in their lives, reflecting on great events in which they had played a part. Thus, politicians and statesmen have been noted memoirists. In a memoir, the focus was usually not on the writer, but on other well-known people the writer had known or encountered.
While there have always been literary memoirs as well as those by statesmen, in the 1990s the nature of the memoir genre began to change. Many of the new memoirs were written by relatively unknown writers with unusual experiences to relate rather than by well-known public figures. Susanna Kaysen's Girl Interrupted (1994), for example, was a bestselling memoir of Kaysen's life in a mental institution. Frequently, the new memoirs were about the author's childhood, with an emphasis placed on the honest, if painful, recall of unsavory details, including various forms of degradation, such as alcoholism, poverty, or sexual abuse.
In 1995 alone, approximately two hundred memoirs were published. The Liars' Club turned out to be the most popular of them all. It was followed in 1996 by Frank McCourt's bestselling memoir Angela's Ashes, about the author's impoverished upbringing in Ireland.
Commentators link the rapid growth of this kind of memoir to the popularity of confessional television and radio talk shows, in which people discuss the intimate details of their private lives. As James Atlas puts it in his New York Times Magazine article, "The Age of the Literary Memoir Is Now":
In an era when "Oprah" reigns supreme and 12 step programs have been adopted as the new mantra, it's perhaps only natural for literary confession to join the parade. We live in a time when the very notion of privacy, of a zone beyond the reach of public probing, has become an alien concept.
Karr has her own explanation for the rise of the memoir genre. In an interview with Charlotte Innes in the Los Angeles Times, Karr says that it is due to "distrust of institutions; loss of faith in the moral authority of belief systems; and a corresponding turning inward and listening to one's own voice." She argues that because many families today break up, this leaves many people with a feeling of failure. They reach out to television and books in order to reestablish a sense of community, the feeling that they are not alone. In an essay in New York Times Magazine, Karr relates how hundreds of people came up to her after book readings she gave on nationwide tours and told her that her family reminded them of theirs. People felt encouraged and reassured by Karr's record of her personal experience. She concludes:
Just as the novel form once took up experiences of urban, industrialized society that weren't being handled in epic poems or epistles, so memoir—with its single, intensely personal voice—wrestles subjects in a way readers of late find compelling.
Not all commentators see the growth of this type of memoir as a desirable trend. Novelist William Gass, writing in Harper's magazine a year before the publication of The Liars' Club, suggests that many writers of memoirs are too self-absorbed. They make the mistake of thinking every small thing that happened to them is important enough to be recorded. Gass also argues that it is almost impossible for a writer to convey a true account of his or her own past:
Every moment a bit of the self slides away toward its station in the past, where it will be remembered partially, if at all; with distortions, if at all; and then rendered even more incompletely, with graver omissions.
The Liars' Club remained almost sixty weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. Critical praise for the work has been unanimous, and critics have searched for the most glowing adjectives to describe it. Louis Ermelino, for example, in People Weekly, calls it "an astonishing memoir" and praises Karr's use of "the rich cadence of the region and poetic images." In the Nation, Molly Ivins makes a similar point, commending Karr for her "bilingualism," by which she means Karr's ability to switch freely from literate, educated prose to down-home Texan expressions. Ivins also praises Karr's observations about class, and she concludes her review in laudatory terms:
This is a book that will stay gentle on your mind, stirring up memories of childhood and family. To have a poet's precision of language and a poet's gift for understanding emotion and a poet's insight into people applied to one of the roughest, toughest, ugliest places in America is an astounding event.
A Publishers Weekly critic notes that Karr "views her parents with affection and an unusual understanding of their weaknesses." In Time, John Skow observes that there is probably a touch of exaggeration in some of Karr's more outlandish stories, such as when she finds the artificial leg of her dead grandmother while rummaging around in the attic, but Skow feels this exaggeration does not detract from the effectiveness of the book or its power to amuse: "The choice in the book is between howling misery and howling laughter, and the reader veers toward laughter."
Karen Schoemer in Newsweek notes Karr's "captivating, anecdotal style," which "meanders" like a good story told by a member of the book's Liars' Club. The effect of Karr's style, says Schoemer, is that when she gets around to relating the story's most horrifying incidents, "you're so completely in her corner that you feel just as trapped as she is. She's figured out a way to make every reader live through what no child should ever have to endure."
Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on twentieth-century literature. In this essay, Aubrey shows how Karr uses novelistic techniques in her memoir, and he also discusses how a memoirist may present a truthful account of her life even though she does not rely on a strictly literal, fact-by-fact approach.
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.
What Do I Read Next?
- Karr's second memoir, Cherry: A Memoir (2000), describes her life as a rebellious adolescent. The memoir is written in the same style as The Liars' Club: by turns gritty, vulgar, and poetic. Karr goes through various adventures—many of them involving sex, romance, and drugs—in her quest to escape the confines of Leechfield, Texas. She turns a harsh light on her own follies as well as those of others.
- Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes (1996) followed The Liars' Club onto bestseller lists. McCourt tells of his impoverished childhood and adolescence during the 1930s and 1940s in Limerick, Ireland. The story is a long catalog of deprivation and hardship, including his father's alcoholism and his mother's despair. McCourt describes the events without bitterness, anger, or blame, and many episodes are hilarious.
- James Salter's Burning the Days: Recollection (1998) is a highly acclaimed memoir. Unlike the authors of The Liars' Club and Angela's Ashes, Salter had an upper-middle-class upbringing, and in this memoir he describes his experiences as a fighter pilot in the Korean War and his subsequent life in the film business, traveling throughout the United States and Europe.
- Like The Liars' Club, Elizabeth Spencer's Landscapes of the Heart: A Memoir (1997) describes an upbringing in the American South, although in this case it is Mississippi rather than Texas. Spencer's narrative is more elegant and less rugged than Karr's, and she looks back at an earlier period (mostly the 1930s through the 1950s) with nostalgic affection.
- Tobias Wolff was one of Karr's writing mentors, and his This Boy's Life: A Memoir (1989) was exceptionally well received by reviewers. Like Karr, Wolff describes a difficult childhood in a dysfunctional family. However, as with Karr's memoir, his sense of humor and literary skill in telling his story alleviate the darkness of many of the events.
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 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."
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.
Bryan Aubrey, 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. In this essay, Blevins argues that Mary Karr's penchant for concrete details undermines 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 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 bluebonnets 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":
"… in The Liars' Club, Karr's penchant for detail, which presupposes that very small children … can, among other very specific details, remember the way a doctor's hair falls out of his shirt, destabilizes her reliability as a speaker."
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.
Adrian Blevins, Critical Essay on The Liars' Club, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, Gale, 2003.
Ozersky is a critic and historian. In this essay, Ozersky looks at the fine line between memoir and novel—a line nowhere finer, he contends, than in The Liars' Club.
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."
"… 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.…"
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.
Josh Ozersky, Critical Essay on The Liars' Club, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, Gale, 2003.
In the following essay excerpt, Harmon comments on Karr's move from poetry to prose in The Liars' Club and praises how Karr captures certain elements of childhood including sound and scent.
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 sizable 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.
"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.…"
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 Huckle-berry 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-inlaw, 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 grand-mother 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.
William Harmon, "Mary Karr, Mary Karr, Mary Karr, Mary Karr," in Southern Review, Vol. 33, No. 17, Winter 1997, pp. 150-55.
Atlas, James, "The Age of the Literary Memoir Is Now," in New York Times Magazine, May 12, 1996, pp. 25-27.
Ermelino, Louis, Review of The Liars' Club, in People Weekly, Vol. 44, No. 3, July 17, 1995, p. 28.
Gardner, John, The Art of Fiction, Knopf, 1984, reprint, Vintage Books, 1985.
Gass, William, "The Art of Self: Autobiography in an Age of Narcissism," in Harper's Magazine, May 1994, pp. 43-52.
Innes, Charlotte, "In The Liars' Club, Mary Karr Uses Humor to Tell about Her Fractured Family," in Los Angeles Times, December 26, 1996, p. 5.
Ivins, Molly, Review of The Liars' Club, in the Nation, Vol. 261, No. 1, July 3, 1995, p. 21.
Karr, Mary, "Dysfunctional Nation," in New York Times Magazine, May 12, 1996, p. 70.
———, Viper Rum, New Directions Publishing, 1998, p. 1.
Lopate, Phillip, The Art of the Personal Essay, Doubleday, 1994, p. xxxvii.
Orwell, George, Such, Such Were the Joys, Harcourt Brace and Company, 1952, p. 118.
Pinsky, Robert, The Situation of Poetry, Princeton University Press, 1976, p. 5.
Review of The Liars' Club, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 242, No. 16, April 17, 1995, p. 45.
Schoemer, Karen, Review of The Liars' Club, in Newsweek, Vol. 126, No. 6, August 7, 1995, p. 61.
Skow, John, Review of The Liars' Club, in Time, Vol. 145, No. 26, June 26, 1995, p. 77.
Strunk, William, and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, 3d ed., Macmillan, 1979, p. 21.
Karr, Mary, and Frank McCourt, "How We Met: Mary Karr & Frank McCourt," in Independent Sunday (London), July 8, 2001, p. 7.
Karr and McCourt (McCourt is the author of Angela's Ashes), describe their personal relationship and offer comments on each other's work.
Karr, Mary, and Gabby Wood, "The Books Interview: Mary Karr," in Observer (London), June 24, 2001, p. 17.
In this interview, Karr talks about her life and her method of writing, saying that she discards large amounts of writing before settling on the final version.
Smith, Patrick, "What Memoir Forgets," in the Nation, Vol. 267, No. 4, July 27, 1998, p. 30.
Smith argues that the trend in autobiographical publishing is to share vivid emotional and personal details of individuals' lives. These books go beyond enlightenment in their relentless effort to entertain. What they lack (although Smith makes an exception of Karr's memoir) is insight into the impact of human relationships on the human condition.
Young, Elizabeth, Review of The Liars' Club, in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 8, No. 375, October 20, 1995, p. 39.
This British review is as laudatory as most of the American ones. Young praises Karr's vivid, beautiful writing; the care with which it has been constructed; the mastery of East Texas slang; and Karr's sense of humor and emotional honesty.
"The Liars' Club." Nonfiction Classics for Students. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 11, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/liars-club
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