Great books will be the death of me. A great book is a conversation waiting on you to arrive. You are connecting to another person across time and space. And with this conversation comes unlimited potential for change. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting when I finally received a copy of Mary Karr’s famous memoir, The Liars’ Club. One of my favorite Booktubers, ClimbtheStacks, raved about it as well as a few other memoirs, but I wasn’t sure what I would be getting myself into. I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy memoirs. After all, I really do not enjoy biographies or auto-biographies. In general my style of reading tends to take on a form of escapism; thus, reading a memoir that was guaranteed to be all too real wasn’t exactly appealing at all points. Literary fiction is sad enough.
I didn’t know much about Mary Karr going into my reading of The Liars’ Club. Honestly, I believe I naively expected a story of half-triumph, half-failure. A set up for the her next memoir: Cherry. This was not correct. This is not the story of a young girl raised in poverty by crazed parents who care about no one but themselves. This story does not take the form of an escape from a family who is doing nothing but holding you back. This is not the story of Mary Karr succeeding despite those around her. If anything, this memoir grounds me again, forcing me to come to terms with the fact that life is more interesting than fiction, and I am still hopelessly mired in tired cliches and expectations.
So what is The Liars’ Club? It is the story of Mary Karr’s childhood. What makes it the most beautiful is that it is not the story of an escape. If anything, it is a surprising account of her own embracing her childhood. I found it deeply satisfying yet completely upsetting. I suppose there were times that I chuckled, but after finishing it I don’t quite understand why the book was praised as “funny.” It’s all over the back cover. It’s the first thing every review but one says. The only one I agreed with was Stephen King’s, which mentioned funny as one of the traits of the book, but not a selling point. No, The Liars’ Club isn’t what I would recommend to someone who asked me for a funny book. Even Stephen King’s On Writing is worlds funnier in my humble opinion. The Liars’ Club is more than almost any book I’ve ever read: sad.
This book made me hurt at multiple times. I found it to be one of the most unsettling books I’ve read in my life. I can’t imagine what it must have felt like to write what was on the pages. I often wonder, in the midst of deeply troubling passages such as a rape scene or a murder scene, what it was like to write such a thing. A lot of great writing is getting out of your own way to let the characters speak for themselves, thus, in a paradoxical way, a writer gets closer to his/her/their characters the further he/she/they remove themselves from each one. Thus, when a character that is driving your writing has something happen to them that is simply abhorrent, it would be tough to not feel that in a deep way. Yet, in a memoir, when these atrocities happen, they… actually happened. It’s an entirely different way of writing. It makes fiction seem safe. In every chapter of The Liars’ Club I was simply amazed that Karr or her sister or her mother wasn’t dead yet. Her childhood, as the back cover said, was truly apocalyptic.
It is the type of book that really makes a person reflect upon their life, whether it has been abysmal or privileged. Bear with me here, but it brings to mind a question that Dan Carlin asked in his podcast, Hardcore History. In his series on WWI, he repeatedly asks his listeners the question: “Could you do this?” Could you run into No-Man’s-Land knowing full well you will die . That there was no chance of survival. After just watching twenty-five of your buddies do the same and all of them die horrific deaths; could you do what was asked of you? My answer was always a “no.” If the choice is a spray of machine gun fire and artillery that quite literally cooks my insides before I am officially dead or the captain of my troop putting a bullet in my head for insubordination… I’m taking the bullet from my leader. The same question kept coming to mind while reading The Liars’ Club. Could I do this? I really don’t know. I don’t understand how Mary Karr did this. If anything it was because she was a child and simply didn’t know anything else.
Regardless, the memoir itself is astounding. Karr writes and recollects with a clarity that has avoided me in my life. It becomes easy to remember tragedies in a life in which tragedies are few and far between. Yet, when your life itself is so terrifying that the greatest novelist on their best day couldn’t come up with it, what stands out to you? What do you retain? Do you just blot everything out? Karr’s childhood is the polar opposite to my own. I was her judgmental neighbor in this memoir; her difference causing me to develop resentment and fear. In the end, however, she captures a voice in her humanity that rings true in us all. She brought me close to tears more than once. Highly recommended, but not for the faint of heart.
Recommended to: those who are thinking about getting into reading memoirs but haven’t decided what to begin with, those who don’t think they will like memoirs, and fans of literary fiction.
Avoid as if it’s the movie Gods of Egypt with all its white-washed absurdity: The book is pretty intense. It’s a must read and you’ll be better having gone through it, but it’s just tough to stomach sometimes.