She Has No Time for Melodrama

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's question time after a talk by memoirist Mary Karr at the Huntington Library, and a woman in the audience wants to tell a story.

It happened, the woman says, when her book club discussed sections of Karr's book, "The Liars' Club," in which she describes being raped at 7 by a neighborhood boy and later being forced to have oral sex with a baby sitter. Every single woman in the group confessed to having suffered physical or sexual abuse as children. "Look at this face," one member said. "This is the face that was the result of my father's fists."

Karr sucks in her breath. "Didya'all go to his house? Beat his ass?" she says with just a touch of her childhood East Texas twang. When the woman says her friend continued to look after her father as a sick 90-year-old, Karr pronounces, "Well, that's what you call a dumb ass.

"I think you have to take your power back," she continues. "It's just not that morally complicated a question. This is not news. Our ability to talk about it is news."

It's a little exchange that says a lot.

It speaks of the hunger people have for stories to help them understand their own difficult lives. And it reflects the current cultural climate of confession, which encourages us to air what we used to call "dirty laundry," not only on television and radio talk shows but also in a veritable Niagara Falls of memoirs of which "The Liars' Club" is widely reckoned one of the best.

Now in paperback and on bestseller lists for 36 weeks, Karr's memoir is comparable, some critics say, to J.D. Salinger's novel "Catcher in the Rye" in its ability to conjure a particular slice of American life with gutsy good humor, poetic language and a touch of intellectual distance that bring complexity and literary beauty to a story that could have seemed merely melodramatic.

It's no surprise, then, that in person Karr, 41, comes across as one cool customer. She performs a magician's act of seeming self-revelatory yet keeping herself well hidden behind clever language, a brisk manner, a tendency to quote other memoirists (Geoffrey and Tobias Wolff are favorites) and to tell anecdotes about her book tours, on which, she says, her "game" is to see "how little I can talk about my family" to the hundreds of people who tell her they identify with her story.

Karr is here tonight to talk, not just about "The Liars' Club"--a tale of two tough sisters, a steady but withdrawn father and a crazed, artistic, alcoholic mother who married seven times (twice to Karr's father), once burned all her children's toys, and threatened to murder them with a kitchen knife--but about memoir in general, a subject that's been much chewed over this year.

Karr, now an associate professor of literature at Syracuse University and the author of two books of poetry, touches on the debate. Is memoir a fad? Or has it changed the shape of American literature? Will it replace fiction? as James Atlas claimed in the New York Times Magazine. Or perhaps, as William Gass suggested in Harper's magazine, the genre will drown in a tidal wave of self-absorption. "Look, Ma, I'm breathing," Gass mocked. "See me take my initial toddle, use the potty, scratch my sister, win spin the bottle. Gee whiz, my first adultery--what a guy!"

In an interview later, Karr says she hates Gass for his overly intellectual approach, while Atlas overstated his case.

"People have been really assaulting me about all the bad memoirs being written. But it's just like fiction. Go to the airport, and it's one bad Harlequin romance after another. Most memoirs will be bad, the same way most novels will be bad."

Clearly, memoir is not a passing fad. What, she asks, of St. Augustine's 5th century "Confessions"? Still, we are living in a tell-it-all era, and Karr has a list of reasons down pat: 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.

Interest in memoir has also been stoked, she suggests, by readers who feel a sense of failure about their families and have a cathartic need to know how others survive--in other words, most people. Karr's "working definition of a dysfunctional family" is "any family with more than one person in it.

"I think it's normal for a family not to work," she says. "I just don't think we have the structures to support the complicated feelings we have when people let us down." The resulting family breakups drive people to books and television for a sense of community, she says. (Karr credits therapy, "living 3,000 miles away" and love for the sense of closeness she still has with her family.)

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Still, she hates the way the memoir debate has been framed by simplistic commentators who invoke talk show host Oprah Winfrey as more or less single-handedly responsible for the confessional era. She despises television for its "reductive" nature. She says talk shows make one believe that the "sole virtue" of the families appearing on them is that "you do not share DNA with these people."

Books, however, can explore the complexity and ambiguity of childhood memory. And she believes there is a particular hunger at the moment for stories that straightforwardly confront the emotions. Memoir's popularity may also have been given a boost by "the explosion by meta-fiction of the lie that fiction is true," she says. Of course, she adds, memoir is just as artfully shaped as fiction and may offer its own aesthetic lies of compressed time, authorial bias and manipulated details. "Readers expect the truth," she says, "but nobody carries a tape recorder around with them all the time."

Indeed, "The Liars' Club" was not so named for nothing. The title comes from the group formed by her oil worker father and his buddies, who told each other nostalgic stories in the bar and pool hall where they relaxed after work. Only one of the "liars' club" stories in the book is her father's--taped by Karr as part of an oral history project; two are "completely fictionalized."

Karr finds nothing wrong with this, citing the tendency of "genre blur" in literature, whereby fiction sounds essayistic, essays like poetry and memoir like, well, fiction. Besides, she adds, her book is in its main outlines factually accurate. It's also "emotionally true. It'd be different if I'd intentionally lied about something important. You know, if I were the daughter of investment bankers or something."

Family members read the book before publication and changed nothing, she says. They included sister Lecia, 44, who runs an insurance company in Houston and who's "of the get-over-it school of psychotherapy." Yet, Karr says, "she said I'm her anti-repressant." Karr's 75-year-old mother, Charlie Marie--long sober and still living in Jefferson County, Texas--cried as she read the book on Karr's back porch in Syracuse and apologized for everything she'd done. "You were drunk," Karr replied. (Her father died in 1985.)

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Memoir will probably never go out of style because it is as cathartic for the writer as it is for the reader, Karr says. Normally a four- to five-hour-a-night sleeper, she found writing "The Liars' Club" so draining she slept nine hours a night, sometimes lying down on her study floor in mid-sentence for a nap.

These days, hearing other people's stories on her book tours, Karr only feels "advantaged." She chuckles when people say her childhood was Dickensian. ("It's not like I grew up in Bosnia!") Life is good for her now, a testament, she believes, to the redemptive nature of storytelling. The mother of a 10-year-old son, Dev, from a marriage that ended in divorce, she's about to get married again, to a publisher she will only name as "Peter"--he's an "upper-class Brit." She's also been given "a lot of money, more than I deserve" (from Viking) for her next book, "Cherry," a memoir of adolescence that she's in the throes of writing.

She's humbled that so many people continue to read "The Liars' Club." "Having been a poet for 20 years, to think of anyone reading anything you write, ever, is comical to you." In fact, all writing takes courage, she says. And she always keeps in mind the words of memoirist Tobias Wolff, whose letter of advice she thumbtacked above her desk:

"Don't approach your history as something to be shaken for its cautionary fruits. Tell your stories and your story will be revealed. Don't be afraid of appearing angry, small-minded, obtuse, mean, immoral, amoral, calculating or anything else. Take no care for your dignity."

It was, she says, "a great gift."

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