Memoir Queen 

Mary Karr's the Best Thing about a Crappy Genre

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ON NEW YORK magazine's article about Mary Karr's new memoir Lit, a commenter on the website writes, "Unfortunately, now that she's 'found God,' I no longer have any interest in what she has to write. Really. There is nothing more BORING than the late-life convert."

It's a sentiment that ordinarily I'd agree with. (Even the witty, irascible Anne Lamott grew complacent and dull after one too many books about God.) In fact, I'd take it one further—by rights, I shouldn't have any interest in memoirs exploring childhood family dysfunction and sexual abuse (Karr's first memoir, The Liars' Club) or a rebellious adolescence (her second, Cherry). Even in a genre as indifferent to literary standards as memoir is, these are clichés.

But Karr is so singularly badass that problems of cliché and subject matter and the tedious ubiquity of memoir-as-genre cease to matter. She's the perfect memoirist, graced with a richly populated life (Tobias Wolff and David Foster Wallace make cameos), an elegant yet accessible writing style, and no apparent tendency toward self-mythologizing. With Lit, Karr has officially chewed up her entire life and regurgitated it in memoir—the book recounts Karr's life from late adolescence through a marriage, motherhood, an alcoholic breakdown, recovery, and a religious conversion, finally coming full circle with the publication of The Liars' Club.

Most of Lit centers on Karr's gradual realization that she's not going to be able to stay sober until she takes the whole "higher power" thing seriously. In Karr's hands, religious conversion is pragmatic and thoughtful, a method of living life the way she wants to live it (she does not, like Lamott, wake up to find Jesus in her bedroom).

Karr's The Liars' Club is often credited (in her own press materials, at least) with kick-starting the current memoir craze. But before she was a best-selling memoirist, she was a poet, and her books are simultaneously elevated by her poet's respect for language, and grounded in her no-bullshit Texas upbringing. ("My junior high school principal had actually warned me that any girl aiming to be a poet was doomed to become—I shit you not—no more than a common prostitute.") There are about 40 terrible memoirs on the bookshelves for every great one—but Lit is one of the greats.

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