Deconstructing Mary

My post-mortem on The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr –via The Magnificent Seven Entry Points • We just finished up the two-part memoir study series (at the Mechanics Library, SF) with most of us thoroughly entertained and entranced by author Mary Karr. We had read two books for this study—hers and Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken. Both works showed us skillfully crafted creative non-fiction in similar and different ways. Beyond the obvious difference—Karr’s book is memoir, the latter is biography—we could still apply the seven entry points studied in our last memoir series. For those unfamiliar, a bare bones review of those portals to creative non-fiction: the story, the situation, the characters, the archetypal juice (as in current), POV/voice, narrative arc, and structure or format.

In sum, we found that Liars’ Club author excelled, off the charts, through voice and story. Consider a few of the phrases here from reviewers that hit those two nerves: Karr exudes “poet’s precision of language” (voice) and  “delivers a story confoundingly real”; her very voice is the agent of rebirth” and duly noted her “cadence of the region and poetic images” (voice) and her book is  “written with a songwriter’s ear for cadence, dialogue, place and time”; is “tough-talking book”; she has an “ear for bar-stool phraseology”; and on and on like such.

We discovered how both Hillenrand and Karr did something we had studied previously: wrote to the mid-point. In fact, both authors wrote to the mid-point (a phrase I have borrowed from script writing) more than once in their respective works. This skill alone helped them develop and craft story and arc or drive. In Karr’s case, the first mid-point comes on about page 117 in our edition, where Karr reveals why her mother was carted off in the first few pages.

We discovered how Karr could break rules—going off-story and on tangents but that she did it so well, as one reviewer put it, “her narrative meanders through tangents that sometimes more entertaining than the point she’s getting to.” We also admired Karr’s “time management.” Again, borrowing from another reviewer: “schoolyard rape gets little more than a footnote. Karr faces it down as she does cancer, madness, alcoholism and a vicious dog—with humor and a scrappy genius for survival.”

We also admired Karr’s ability to be telling a story, showing details up close and tight, then wave what I call a “banner sentence” to signal the reader she knew she was peeling back layers, getting to the marrow. Example: “when the truth would be unbearable the mind often just blanks it out. But some ghost of an event may stay in your head.” We understood the great challenge and agony of doing this. In sum, we all related. That’s what an author treasures. Other favored banner sentence: “Real suffering has a face and a smell . . . and it knows your name.” (p. 49)

We studied Karr’s book’s structure—no haphazard format. I’m sure she gave monumental thought to where to begin and end her book. The structure is in three parts, 1961 (Mary is 4 or 5 years), 1963, and 1980. But don’t be fooled by this timeline—Karr is no linear writer or thinker. She is as “webular” in her narrative as any great writer. And a brilliant one.

If any of this deconstruction intrigues you, has you curious, or hungry for more, consider my next memoir series in January. I haven’t yet scheduled it, but will do so soon, so check back.

Read another short post on memoir.