Mary Karr: Writing in the Absence of Truth

I’ve just finished Mary Karr’s new memoir, Lit, about her young adulthood. I read it for a lot of reasons: it was one of the NY Times’s best books of the year, it is about a young writer and academic, and it narrates a journey from bohemianism, to alcoholism, to Karr’s conversion to Catholicism.

It’s a fine book, and one that tries for honesty. It’s well-written and often fascinating. Yet I found it extremely disturbing by the end, because it presents us with a personality who will literally believe anything that makes her feel better. Lit is a book about living without the slightest regard for truth. For people like myself, who try to think about truth pragmatically, Karr ought to be something like a hero. She has truly made truth work for her. So why does the triumph ring so hollow?

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The essence of Karr’s worldview involves conflating difficulty with rigor; if something is difficult to do, then to accomplish it means to have done something of substance. Faith initially embarrasses her, and it is hard for her to accept praying to a “higher power” in order to become sober. Therefore, when she overcomes this hesitance and enters into an (apparently) lifelong habit of prayer, she has, from her own point of view, proven that God exists. In fact, not only does God exist, but He does all the things you would expect. He holds you in His hands during your darkest moments. He conceives of a grand plan that justifies all human suffering in terms of an ultimate purpose: the text implicitly agrees with the testimony of a friend who thinks she couldn’t get pregnant because, ultimately, God didn’t want her then-husband to be the father. As this suggests, in Karr’s world God takes a personal interest in the everyday events of your life — saving people from car accidents, lobbying for certain people to win fellowships, that kind of thing.

All this is pretty normal for an American Catholic. What is surprising about Karr is that she was not born into these beliefs, but instead acquired them after taking Pascal’s advice (“Kneel, and you will believe”). Her journey underscores a terrible weakness in the sensibility of the American intellectual, now that intellectualism and hipsterism are increasingly becoming one and the same: the hipster believes that his greatest problem in life is a crippling sense of irony, one that prevents him from being nourished by simple and good things. A hipster romance, regardless of the medium, will usually ask whether two people can find courage enough for the corniness of love, without bothering to ask whether love, of necessity, has to be something corny. “I want all the stupid old shit,” Liz Phair sings to a nonexistent boyfriend, “letters and sodas.” Furthermore, in this schema, irony comes to stand for any critical objection to banality. This is also how Karr sees her relationship with God, as something delayed and hindered by her problems believing in magic. Accordingly, she takes us through a series of conversations in which she offers up the usual objections. How could Christ rise from the dead? Why does God permit evil? Does the Devil really have cloven hooves? However, she objects so feebly that she tends to lose every argument after about half a page. The necessity of the crucifixion is explained to her by her son, who (as far as I can tell) is in elementary school at the time. In faith as in love, shouldn’t it be possible to see one’s critical faculties as something more than a hindrance to happiness?

It may seem like I’m objecting to Mary Karr’s religiosity. Quite the contrary: she isn’t nearly religious enough. You would think that somebody who has just discovered, after a long series of painful trials, that God is ever-present in our lives would become a hell-raising evangelist. Instead, Karr sits down and writes a memoir of her childhood, at the prompting of an interested literary agent. That book eventually turns into The Liars’ Club, which is a big success and which paves the way for Cherry and now Lit. In all of these books, Karr is acting, as she writes, like an “employee of her former self.” The appeal of her books comes from the madness and restlessness that drives them, and the ordeals and adventures that result. It seems fairly obvious that another memoir, describing her struggles to stay on the path of righteousness, would be both boring and unoriginal. It would be boring because it would verge on plotlessness, aside from watching her son grow up, and it would be unoriginal because her writing would borrow too heavily from existing spiritual autobiographies. In the books final pages, where Karr makes an effort to show us the world through God-colored glasses, she visibly strains for the effortless reinventions of Dante and Augustine that make T. S. Eliot’s last poems so moving. She ends up falling back on the old “somebody already highlighted this exact Bible passage” parlor trick.

It is quite possible to imagine a slightly different person writing a fascinating memoir (or series of memoirs) about being an author of famous books dealing with trauma and the desire to escape, books that many fans must have found directly relevant to their own lives. (Certainly, for me, the most interesting part of Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book Committed would be her preface about the aftermath of Eat, Pray, Love.) But Karr feels curiously distant from these experiences, remaining by her own account basically an isolated mom in a small town. This makes sense, since after Karr joined Alcoholics Anonymous, her group of friends and confidantes changed completely. She mostly stopped hanging out with writers and academics, who she portrays as insensitive and self-absorbed, and bonded with “sponsors,” priests, and groups of recovering addicts. The exception is Tobias Wolff, but that is complicated by the fact that Wolff is both her “spiritual advisor” (a shortcut so she can receive communion) and her gateway to the all-important first book contract.

Her interactions with these new friends casts a strange light backward, over the entire book. It’s not just that her relationships with her AA friends feel pretty one-sided, since we see her receiving a lot of TLC and advice, but never giving back to other newbies later on. It’s that nobody in the book, other than perhaps Mary and her son Dev, really have a conversation, in the full sense of a dialogue that changes both people. It’s as though Mary has absolutely nothing to offer the spiritual advisors who so smugly offer her advice, and previous to that, as though the interactions between her and her family are like the collisions of billiard balls, one discrete entity crashing into another, producing action and reaction but no internal change. Karr pays lip service to multiple perspectives: for example, in her accounts of her husband, she often admits that she has captured him at his worst, giving us a distorted picture of a guy who usually treated her well. But what she never says about him is that he bored her, which he pretty clearly did. Her ex-husband is the type of guy who gets up at five every morning, always goes for a run, and always has one or two Heinekens after finishing work (but no more). She prefers guys with bleeding hearts and chips on their shoulders, and she meets one later in the book. The reason Karr doesn’t describe her husband as boring is that her binge drinking, which ramps up once they’re married with a kid, has to come purely out of her own family history of alcoholism. This enables it to be her disease, the core of her life, and not something partially connected to her circumstances. Being a recovered alcoholic gives her a permanent, reliable identity for the rest of her life.

Both ways is the only way Mary Karr wants it. On the one hand, she relishes teaching her son to fight back hard against bullies. On the other hand, she utters a profound mea culpa for lashing out against low-level bullying directed toward her on a train (she hisses at a girl who keeps kicking the back of her seat). Her sober buddies tell her that getting so angry equals acting like a drunk. In one of her darkest hours, she feels the absence of God, but tells her secular readers that they can substitute “truth” or “mercy” if they’re uncomfortable with talk about God. (She also advises them to skip certain chapters of the book.) Truth and mercy are not synonymous; a memoir is not Mad Libs, and you can’t just insert into a text whatever word harmonizes best with your own preconceptions. Even if you mush truth and mercy together, they don’t make God. Mary Karr doesn’t care, because she’s not interested in concepts. She’s interested in ordering her life such that she is able to write and get paid for it. When that becomes a project without a horizon, it becomes something of questionable value.

None of this, of course, makes The Liars’ Club or Cherry bad books; Karr really does succeed in making a compelling character out of her earlier persona. She is equally compelling in portions of Lit. But, like Bob Dylan, she’s not there, and where she is now, there’s no reaching her unless you are a wisdom figure to whom she can submit. She gives us her book, and says “take and read; this is my life,” but there is no communion.

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