Sunday, August 25, 2019

Slightly deranged scrutiny

I'm not sure why I decided to read Mary Karr's The Liar's Club — tragically depressing memoir is not my go-to genre. Of course, I knew about it, and it must've been recently impressed upon me that this was the mother of my generation's memoirs. And what the hell, all reading is research.

But it is good — compelling and funny and full of quirky characters and attitude. Karr wasn't just born into a memoir, she finely crafted one. It's dark and disturbing and lovely.

Read it.

Karr's a poet, and I wondered that I wasn't finding more quotable passages, but I know that poetry isn't about a choice word, it's a rhythm, it's the timing of a punchline and a punch to the gut. It turns on a dime from charming dietary quirks to alcohol-fueled danger, from naive neighbourhood antics to sexual abuse. This is not an easy book.

What's magical about The Liar's Club is that despite her traumatic childhood, there's a whole lot of love, and something like awe for the parents who neglected her and failed her in so many ways.
Much later, when Mother could be brought to talk about her own childhood, she told stories about how peculiar her mother's habits had been. Grandma Moore didn't sound like such a religious fanatic back then. She just seemed like a fanatic in general. For instance, she had once sent away for a detective-training kit from a magazine. The plan was for her and Mother to spy on their neighbors — this, back when the Lubbock population still fit into three digits. According to Mother, this surveillance went on for weeks. Grandma would stirrup Mother up to the parson's curtained windows — and not because of any suspected adultery of flagrant sinning, but to find out whether his wife did her cakes from scratch or not. She kept the answers to these kinds of questions in an alphabetized log of prominent families. She would also zero in on some particular person who troubled her and keep track of all his comings and goings for weeks on end. She knew the procedure for taking fingerprints and kept Mother's on a recipe card, in case she was ever kidnapped. Grandma even began to collect little forensic envelops of hair and dust that she found on people's furniture when she visited them. Mother said that for the better part of a year, they'd be taking tea at some lady's house, when her mother would suddenly sneak an envelope with something like a dustball in it into the pocket of her pinafore. Whatever became of this evidence Mother couldn't say. The whole detective-training deal got dropped as abruptly as it had been undertaken.

When Grandma came to our house, she brought with her that same kind of slightly deranged scrutiny.
In her introduction to the 10th anniversary edition, Mary Karr observes, "a dysfunctional family is any family with more than one person in it." I've this summer had occasion several times over to corroborate this.

I love this story about Grandma and her spy kit because I read it while visiting relatives this summer, and my crazy aunt (by marriage) pulled out her shoebox of quartered recipe cards, on which she had jotted down everything she knew about us. Which wasn't much and was slightly wrong and oddly selective. For example, she had my ex listed as an accountant (not quite, but maybe if you squinted), and she didn't have a clue what I did for a living. So I know people, even family, do strange things for unaccountable reasons.

And Karr's family gets up to some crazy shit.

The Liar's Club is how she referred to her father's coterie — blue collar workers who drank together at the Legion and told outlandish tales. Her trips with Daddy to the Legion trailed off at puberty. She returns once when she's home from college.
Something about the Legion clarified who I was, made me solid inside, like when you twist the binocular lens to the perfect depth and the figure you're looking at gets definite. Maybe I just liked holding a place in such a male realm.
It's a peculiar thing to title this book, because it's her mother (in my view) who leads the book; with so many secrets, her mother is the biggest liar of them all.

You can read Lena Dunham's foreword to the 20th-anniversary edition at The Paris Review.

See "They're Liars, and That's Just the Least of Their Problems," by Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times.

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