Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Lit: A Memoir (PS) by Mary Karr

Lit: A Memoir (PS) by Mary Karr is a memoir about the author’s alcoholism and her arduous journey towards sobriety.  Although she’s published two previous memoirs, this is the first I’ve read.  Karr wrote this memoir for her son and she is brutal in ripping her own truth apart, eviscerating her past to expose all of it for the reader, trying to put both her addiction and her sobriety in a context that can be explained.  Even when she thinks she’s found salvation in the form of marriage to an educated man who comes from a wealthy family, her self-destruction tendencies are relentless.

The narrative, however, is not.  If Karr is brutal with herself, she is less so with those around her.  The husband is practically a cypher, a cliché of a WASP who rarely shows any emotion and even then he does so in dismissive and stilted statements meant to cut Karr down to size.  Her family of origin is allowed to have a complexity that Karr does not allow herself. 

It’s hard for me to explain.  She manages to be utterly unforgiving where she herself is concerned while the reader is given just enough space to feel sympathetic, if not empathetic or overly compassionate.  I found it difficult to read, constantly frustrated by her choices.

And that is understandable.  I divorced a man who was an alcoholic and perhaps I am disinclined to hold drunken behavior with much tolerance.  I certainly admire her journey, her embracing the twelve steps and working her program.  Unfortunately, because her story and she tells it with no apology, it is an exhausting book to read. 

I couldn’t help to compare it with other memoirs.  Karr’s language is simple, her story told in a linear fashion.  When compared with Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal, it is simply devoid or relevance.  This is Karr’s story and if it can serve as a cautionary tale of why drinking is bad, she never makes her message universal.  And I know that stories of alcoholism and recovery and even the spiritual journey can be told with both brutal candor and humor, as Anne Lammott has proven time and time again.

Karr’s memoir reads more like a woman ripping open a scar to show how much she has suffered and then, with each chapter, she picks away at the scab as if to suggest that her original scar simply wasn’t bad enough.  Well written but ultimately it left me feeling like a voyeur, unsatisfied because, for a woman who doesn’t pull back from sharing her spiritual beliefs, her story lacks soul. 

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