24 July 2012

Memoir and Novel

But what if The Liar’s Club were a novel? Had I acquired it as a piece of fiction rather than as a memoir then I would have approached the book with a different set of expectations and would have read it with a different set of strategies. It would have become a wholly different book. And I think I might have understood it differently and appreciated it more.As a memoir, Karr’s work narrates the events that comprised several years of her life that she learns had established the frame for the whole of it.  As in any good psychoanalytic session, the narrated story that makes up The Liar’s Club reveals the secrets in which Karr’s family has functioned and, those secrets, now revealed, explains the behaviors that then puzzled and terrified the eight year old and her slightly older sister, Lecia.  Unlike in a good psychoanalytic session, however, here Karr already knew the outcome before she set out to write: here her task was to construct the narrative appropriately so as to lead to the revelatory moment. In this memoir, the deus ex machina (that I’ve learned is an artificial, weak and unsatisfying technique to effect some resolution to a conflict) occurs with Karr’s mother’s story concerning the loss of her first two children to explain her resulting irrational, often bizarre even dangerous behavior throughout Karr’s life. In this memoir that actually takes place in not much more than several years, Karr intends in this revelation to offer rational explanation for what to the child at the time seemed irrational. The ultimate disclosurea lie of omission more than one of commissionserves as a comfort to Karr, and offers to her life the discovery that her life had actually been lived within the liar’s club, a club to which she thought she was not a member. Her narrative, constructed after the fact, offers a sane explanation for an insane life and replaces lies with truth.  
But, the movement of the book toward revelation is hardly revelatory: the rewriting of a life in light of discovered truths represents a commonplace in our present culture, and the discovery that we lie as much by omission as by overt (albeit false) declaration is hardly insightful. Indeed, I wonder if simply and conveniently editing a narrative can be considered lying at all. And if no story can ever be told truthfully in full, then aren’t all our narratives in a sense lies? Don’t we all live in the liar’s club? Every family lives by its secrets: they are formative even as they are summative. Isn’t it all fiction, then? Karr’s story finally is about the particular lies with which she has lived, and they are not my lies. Nor would I discover my lies in any way similar to the manner of Karr’s discoveries. This memoir has nothing to do with me because it is a memoir!!
Were The Liar’s Club a novel, then as I read it I would have participated in it differently than I did when I considered it a memoir. Then I would have attended to plot and story, to tropes and settings as more than attempts at explanation but as part of the constructed mise en scene. This memoir has a theme, of course, but it is particular to Mary Karr: I am not relevant to this life. But the novel The Liar’s Club facilitates my entrance because it is exactly about me who reads the book. But if it is really a novel, why not just call it one and enable the strategies I have practiced to read it.
Ironically, if I consider The Liar’s Club as a novel, I think that the ending contradicts the substance. The revelation Karr experiences at the novel’s end ‘explains’ the events she has been narrating; it is to this conclusion that the story has been directed. And Karr reflects that this truth should have ‘filled us, like the legendary grace that carries a broken body past all manner of monsters.” Despite the tortured grammar of the sentence of whose meaning I am still not clear, I think Karr suggests here that the revelations she has participated in should have been like “the cool tunnel of white light the spirit might fly into at death . . .” But I would have thought that the revelations would have led not to death but to life, not into but out of the liar’s club. The lie that she asserts that she can live with is the lie that somewhere there awaits some truth that would permit some blinding peace “till all your beloveds hover before you, their arms held out in welcome.” But if the lie is known as such, then what power does it possess? The revelation that offers Karr her explanation assumes the form of a lie: in a novel this insight might have been ground for serious thought. I think of the lives of Isabel Archer or Nathan Zuckerman. But in Karr’s memoir, her insight has little to do with me because the substance and details of the book have not been constructed to have anything to do with me. I can at times participate in life with Isabel Archer or Nathan Zuckerman or even Ishmael or Leopold Bloom. The Compsons can be my difficult neighbors, but I cannot share existence with the Mary Karr of The Liar’s Club. It is her memoir: the truths and the lies are hers. 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would say that one cannot share existence with ANY author nor even any character whom s/he might develop because we all live in our own perceived realities. A character, though fictional, is still created by an author through his/her own lens.

Can we not find some theme or experience in a memoir, autobiography, novel or any other piece of literature, however, that could resonate with our lived lives? Isn't that all we can ever do as we all create and live our own "fiction?"

I have been doing much writing as of late as it helps me work through particular struggles in life. Perhaps I should focus less on ideas and more on my past experiences to discover why I think the way I do and how it colors my present existence. How many lies would I find? Hmm...

Once again, I enjoyed reading your blog. Do you check your school email in the summer Dr. Block? My "corner is getting more lonely."

25 July, 2012 20:32  
Anonymous Alan said...

Yes, of course. Where is your lonely corner? I would arise and go there.

25 July, 2012 20:48  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would say my lonely corner is in my mind, created just by me and only for me. I've come to realize that I alone create my own hell here on earth!

Let me make sure I understand your meaning...are you saying you would arise and meet me in my lonely corner if I asked...politely of course?

Why is it that whenever I take one hesitant step forward I immediately want to turn and take several running steps back????

25 July, 2012 22:26  
Blogger Alan A. Block said...

I guess I'd qualifiedly say 'yes.'

26 July, 2012 07:01  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've never seen the word qualified used in that form before but it did make me laugh.

You sound unsure...I think? Do I need to meet certain conditions before you give a definite 'yes?' Would knowing who I am help? I fear you would respond with an emphatic 'no' if you knew who I was first.

26 July, 2012 19:52  
Blogger Alan A. Block said...

I don't know how to respond. That day dawns only to which we are awake.

26 July, 2012 21:03  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow...I think I just smiled and laughed for the second time today! That is why I miss you so. I experience joy when I read some of your thoughts and am challenged to figure out what your intended meaning may have been even as I construct my own meaning.

Yes, the day does dawn only when we are awake to experience it. And you cannot say 'yes' until you meet me and know where I am at. If you are at a similar place then we can connect and share a conversation...still existing truly alone but perhaps less lonely (myself anyway.)

Out of the painted corner for now,

Barbara...AKA Anonymous (for the past few weeks anyway. Let me know if you need more explanation than first name.)

26 July, 2012 23:04  
Blogger Alan A. Block said...

Turn this conversation into email.

27 July, 2012 06:06  

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