AMERICANS WANT O.J., Scott Peterson, and Michael Jackson to confess, but they’re not going to. What we’re left with is people we wouldn’t otherwise have heard of, confessing their guts out. They do it in the form of the confessional memoir, a genre that has been flourishing for at least a decade, though its roots go all the way back to Saint Augustine and Rousseau. In Saint Augustine, sin was sin, and it needed to be dealt with by confession and conversion. In Rousseau, sin was replaced with the idea of childhood innocence. Such sentiment is the true father of the confessional memoir, a term that is actually something of a misnomer. The typical protagonist-narrator of such books does not confess his or her failings or sins (a word that rarely appears in these intensely secular books) but instead reveals dark family secrets, sensational “dysfunctionalities,” and, best of all, criminal sexual acts committed against the memoirist.
They keep on coming. A recent Time review of a couple of freshly minted confessional memoirs invokes some celebrated precursors in the listen-to-my-pain sweepstakes: Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss (father-daughter incest), Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes (the wailing woes of everybody’s favorite dirt-poor Irish family), and Augusten Burroughs’s Running With Scissors (a boy’s abuse by a pedophile). Oddly, Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club is not cited, although the book was a big deal in 1995, winning some prizes and rising to number two on the New York Times best-seller list.
Now, ten years later, Karr’s story of her working-class upbringing in “Leechfield,” on the Texas coast near Port Arthur, is being reissued, which seems a bit odd, since the book is readily available. Perhaps Penguin Books’ aim is to put the “classic” stamp on this spunky tale of down-home histrionics. Or perhaps it’s to lay the groundwork for the third volume in the never-ending Karr-crash saga, Tropic of Squalor, due out later next year.
To justify the reissue of her first memoir, Karr has penned an introduction. I had high expectations for this, as I hoped to learn something about the origins of the book and what works might have influenced it. Karr can be pretty good when she is writing about something other than herself; her introduction to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Other Writings (Modern Library, 2001), for example, is lively and makes a strong case for the poem’s continuing relevance, though it too is marred by the peppy vernacularisms—like “jacked up” and “get-go”—that she habitually employs from the get-go to jack up her prose.
But in the introduction to The Liars’ Club, the subject is, once again, her favorite one: herself. She reports that her family was so colorful that there was no reason to fictionalize their lives: “When fortune hands you such characters, why bother to make stuff up?” In an interview from Conversations With Texas Writers (University of Texas Press), Karr takes on the question of factual accuracy in her familiar potty-mouthed mode: “People do make up shit, but their family isn’t as well armed as mine has traditionally been. They’re not the kind of people you just make up shit about, because they would object.” Karr insists that her book tells the truth. Still, the sheer amount of detail rendered from early childhood is sometimes hard to believe. Let’s just say that Karr has a phenomenal memory. Perhaps the capacity to recall one’s childhood in excruciating detail is at the heart of the latest fad in university creative writing courses: creative nonfiction. The term means nonfiction that employs fictional techniques, and in fact it has been around awhile, from Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year to Truman Capote’s “nonfiction novel,” In Cold Blood. My guess is that the confessional memoir is one of the staple products of creative nonfiction studies.
Instead of telling us about memoirs that might have influenced hers, Karr prefers to talk about the book’s success, which is a way of talking about her success. There’s a bootstrap quality to her rise: She hit upon the jackpot idea, the bonanza baby, at a point in her life when she “needed money for a car so desperately (being a single mom in Syracuse, New York, where bus service is spare and snowfall measurable in yards).”
Now she claims that she is “no longer … the person who wrote Liars’ Club.” You’d never guess it from the adoring self-gaze of this introduction. Since the book was first published, she confides, she has continued “to receive from it the shiniest of gems: readers who get it.” According to Karr, during the intense year-long cycle following the book’s release, people came up to her at signings and readings and embraced her sufferings and shared with her their harrowing personal experiences. Here’s how she connected with one distraught woman’s story: “Like me, she’d lain awake and felt the metaphorical foundations of her family shake as her parents roared around in the masks of monsters.” Writes Karr: “As I went from town to town, I felt a community assembling around me.”
I will give Karr this: Her book tours have given her pleasure. She seems to have enjoyed the attention, the love, the ka-ching of the cash register. In contrast, there is a minor subgenre, the book tour narrative, among successful authors who whine endlessly about the rigors of the road. Such writers are disgusting to those poor authorial slobs who can’t get out of Texas. The latest exemplar of crybaby celebrity authors is Margaret Atwood. The much-put-upon authoress has come up with an invention that, she says, will allow her to autograph books at distant bookstores while she is at her home. She arrived at this idea after an exhausting three-week promotional tour for her latest novel, the title of which I refuse to advertise here by mentioning it. She has several nutso justifications for remote signings, among them: “My germs and my bio-material won’t be in the same place as your germs and your bio-material.” Good. I don’t want to be within a thousand miles of your bio-material.
But to return to Karr, as I know she would like, her self-regard knows no bounds. Near the end of her introduction, she mentions what her family calls a “Liars’ Club moment.” She was in New York recently, and a woman (“a big-deal Broadway actress”), upon discovering Karr’s identity (because she told her), “burst into tears” and said, “Your book changed my life.”
Humbly, Karr writes, “Maybe this sounds like a lot of bragging and big talk . . . ” It does, Mary, it does. But she can’t stop herself: “So many readers have started crying when they meet me.” She speaks of “that mythic village of like-minded souls who bloom together by sharing old tales—the kind that fire you up and set you loose, the true kind. So come on in.” We have been in this village before—Hillaryville, just down the road from Oprahland. Karr ought to start an outreach program or run for office. Perhaps she’s positioning herself for a Cabinet appointment in the next Clinton administration: Secretary of Family Feeling.
When Karr’s book was published the first time, I read it with considerable interest. It was a new voice in Texas letters. I taught the book twice in my Life and Literature of the Southwest class at the University of Texas but abandoned it because most of the males in the class simply wouldn’t finish it. I suppose that, in the language of the academy, it is a gendered book, i.e., marked by the writer’s negative characterization of the opposite gender (except for the father in The Liars’ Club, who is a stand-up working-class guy).
This time around I found it a pretty long slog. Karr has to gin up all the childhood stuff, and her little-girl self, Pokey, lives on hyperbole: She’s the toughest, meanest, most famous kid in whatever scene she’s inhabiting. And the writing is too perky by half, as though Karr had gone to the Dan Rather School of Homey Texas Sayings. I know I am in the minority here; I know everybody thinks, as Karr does, that the tired old simile “It’s raining like a cow pissin’ on a flat rock” is “a line of poetry,” but it is not.
If, however, I might be constructive for a moment, I have the following corrections to suggest for the next edition of this classic work (the one we can expect circa 2015). There is no such thing as a “cotton ranch.” You do not shoot doves in trees; that’s like shooting chickens. Finally, why be coy about “some poet” who writes of “the young man carbuncular,” when Karr knows full well that the poet is T. S. Eliot?
The part of the book I like the best is where Mary Karr is a young adult, returned to Texas from graduate school to visit with her father. It’s not so bad being an adult and writing about adults. The biggest problem I have with this kind of confessional memoir is that, in the end, it offers an X-rated picture of childhood; it’s kiddie porn. Karr devotes nine pages to a very detailed account of a fellatio rape that occurred when she was eight years old and living in Colorado with her crazy mother and stepfather. She does not identify the perp, but the scene extracts every ounce of repugnance from the reader. It goes on and on. Such explicitness, I’m pretty sure, is one of the guilty pleasures of this genre.
When it comes to the confessional memoir, my attitude could be summed up in a line from Hemingway’s great story “Hills Like White Elephants.” One character says to the other, “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?”