On Ken Kesey and Banging Kathy Acker 

Lidia Yuknavitch's The Chronology of Water

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Lidia Yuknavitch is an Oregon author, a member of the same writing group that harbors Chelsea Cain and Chuck Palahniuk—a group with a higher publication rate than average, and probably not a bad place to be if you're looking for a friendly book blurb. Cain wrote the intro to Yuknavitch's The Chronology of Water, and in it she quotes Palahniuk as describing Yuknavitch as a "big-breasted blonde from Texas," a former stripper and heroin addict, and a formidable writer of literary prose.

In Yuknavitch's author photo, her back is turned to the camera, coy, like she just knows that after reading Cain's intro, every single reader of her book will immediately flip to the back to see for themselves. I did, of course; it was the first step in the process of investigation and discovery that characterized my reading of Chronology, the first time I realized Yuknavitch was three steps ahead of me and knew exactly what she was doing.

The book's fragmented narrative describes, in scenes and chatty digressions and outbreaks of lyricism that flirt with poetry, Yuknavitch's life. Abused as a child, she found comfort and refuge in swimming, but she blew her college swimming scholarship, then dropped out and dabbled in heroin. She had a stillborn baby girl; she became a writer; she had a still-living baby boy. Oh, and she hung out with Ken Kesey and banged Kathy Acker.

Yuknavitch's childhood was shadowed by her abusive father. Because I am prurient, and because other memoirs have accustomed me as a reader to feel I have a right to this information, I found myself wondering if the abuse was sexual, and feeling guilty for wondering, and wondering some more. Once again, Yuknavitch knows what I'm thinking−and she provides details, but not the ones you'd expect. "This book is not about my sister," she writes. "But if it were, I'd tell you again that for two years before she could leave our Oedipal household she carried razor blades in her purse. I'd tell you how her colon was irrevocably messed up—how as a child I sat in the bathroom with her and held her hand every time she tried to poo. How she squeezed my little-girl hand so tight I thought it might be crushed. Because it hurt that bad to shit." Yet when Yuknavitch finally does directly address what happened to her as a child, it's a revelation so simple and momentous that it's as though the entire narrative pauses for a breath.

Yuknavitch's lyricism can translate at times to line after line of unpunctuated prose—a few times I just let my eyes slide until they found a period to rest on—but she's also capable of a breezy candor, particularly when she's writing about sex. "I got the mother-loving juice spanked out of my pussy until the bed flooded," she writes of her night with Kathy Acker. Or of being a horny bisexual teenager at swim practice: "I didn't want to have a slumber party. I didn't want to go to the mall. I wanted to use my hairbrush and rubber bands and make someone... whimper." Sentences like these—written by a woman, written moreover by a middle-aged married woman with long blonde hair—are surprising to read, startling to come across, and validate Yuknavitch's entire enterprise. Literary prose that embraces the experience of being a female, in a female body, occupying space in the world—it doesn't come along too often. But here it is, and it's worth your attention.

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