Six years ago, Mary Karr wrote The Liars' Club, a wonderful memoir about her traumatic childhood in Texas. Now she has written another - Cherry - which picks up her story in adolescence. In both books, she has a warm, lilting voice and a spiky intelligence; she uses phrases like 'broke-dick', 'wild-assed' and 'done drop the cheese off his cracker' (meaning 'he's crazy').
Fans of the first will certainly welcome the second. Nevertheless, there's something rather peculiar about the idea of writing serial autobiographies: to write one memoir may be a way of regarding one's misfortunes; to write two begins to look like carelessness.
Mary Karr makes a living out of transferring her life onto the page. She also holds a chair in English literature at Syracuse University in New York State. Where her own writing is concerned, her perspective seems to shift uncomfortably between critical distance and self-absorption.
For example, the critic in Karr describes writing Cherry in response to a gap in the market: there are coming-of-age memoirs written by men, but 'women don't write about sexual activity between the ages of 12 and 18 - unless it's aberrant'. So the memoirist in Karr set out to write about the ordinary process of losing one's virginity. But she couldn't see that when it came to ordinariness, she hardly seemed the woman for the job.
As anyone who has read The Liar's Club will know, Karr was raped before she was 10, and her babysitter forced her to give him a blow-job. She comes to this universal event with personal baggage she has already declared. And yet the rape is mentioned in only two short paragraphs of Cherry : 'How odd, you'll later think, that you embarked on your first love affair... with such a large sexual secret in tow.'
How odd indeed; for someone who thinks about herself professionally, Karr seems to have made a remarkably disingenuous decision. 'It was not anything that I forgot, or blocked from my memory,' she says. 'I remembered that it happened. It was the kind of thing you brush over in your adolescent mind, but it wasn't forgotten. The problem with writing something like that is that I don't know what it's like to come of age sexually without it.'
Because events in The Liars' Club were so extreme, it's strange to come across her mother, the woman whose psychotic episode was central to The Liars' Club, as a portrait painter who leafs genteelly through art history books. 'It was different,' she says.. 'I think every family has a patch where the sources of the family are maxed out, and the flaws in everybody's character are thrown into stark relief. And my life really did get less chaotic.'
Interviewing Mary Karr is a strange business: on the one hand, you know a lot about her formative years already; on the other, you've just met. It's like meeting someone with their clothes on when you've only ever seen them naked.
Instead of asking more questions about her life, I find myself working backwards, as if it's my duty to protect the privacy she has left. Or I give her the benefit of literary doubt, suggesting, not that she might have made things up exactly, but that her self on the page is selectively chosen. She agrees to an extent - 'I think the reader understands that it's an act of memory, not an act of history' - but she is quick to defend her methods: 'I do have a really good memory. I mean, like I can remember all the phone numbers of everybody on the street I grew up on.'
It's as if there were some moral issue at stake, and in fact she does comment on this at one point, saying that 'there's a moral virtue attached to different forms at different times in history. The novel used to be thought of as reprehensible because it was made up. And now in some way, the memoir is often mocked because' - she rolls her eyes to emphasise the ludicrousness of this - 'it plagiarises reality, or something.'
Karr is a purist when it comes to memoir writing. 'It seems to me that the whole history of literature for the past two centuries has been about genre blurring, to some extent. But I've tried, within all that corruption, to say what I know, and to 'fess when I don't.'
There is no mistaking her then: the girl whose alcoholic mother thought she had killed her children, who was sexually abused, who tried to overdose, is before me, an attractive, successful, self-possessed woman in her forties.
It's hard to know how much to ask about what happened to Karr next, since there's always the possibility that she may be planning another sequel ('I don't know,' she says, 'they certainly wag a lot of money at me to try to get me to do that.')
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