Mary Karr's "Cherry"
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Really, universally, relations stop nowhere, and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle in which they shall happily appear to do so.

– Henry James, Preface to Roderick Hudson

Is the autobiographer an artist? James’s statement of the artist’s problem – and, more particularly, the novelist’s problem – seems too much concerned with neatness and ‘apparent’ truth to be applicable to the autobiographer, who aspires to be classified under ‘non-fiction’. Autobiography is life as it was lived, linear and unrevised, not an perfect circle. The only circular design permitted of the modern memoir is the way in which the end implicitly points us towards the author blurb at the beginning: ‘this ended in that’.

But, at a basic level, some art is always necessary. Even the light-entertainers and sports personalities know this – they employ a ghost-writer to turn out their version of the popular tautology, My Autobiography. And although Autobiography is a genre which is responsible for many disposable books, it can also claim some of the most excellent. It is a medium which has allowed writers to express directly subject matter which has to find its way more obliquely into their other kinds of writing. Subject matter is not enough, though: whatever else its concerns, the serious Autobiography must also show some mature awareness of the paradoxical truth of fiction. Even John Stuart Mill’s concise, factual, avowedly ‘useful’ Autobiography has this at its centre. Chapter V, ‘A Crisis in My Mental History’, describes the depression Mill experienced as a young man wholly brought up in the habits and moral vocabulary of Benthamite Utilitarianism. His cure was to read Wordsworth, in whom he discovered ‘the very culture of the feelings I was then in quest of’. Mill realises that such feelings may be valued despite their factitious nature: ‘the imaginative emotion… is not an illusion but a fact, as real as any of the other qualities of objects.’

Without this revelation, it is hard to imagine that Mill would have written his Autobiography at all: it is an inherently Romantic mode. But the best autobiographers are also classicists in their respect for form. From a faith in the power of poetic effects, it is only a step to make a case for narrative structure, selection and shaping. The sophisticated memoirist is not in pursuit of the objective past, but the subjective apprehension of it – memory, not history. The art of Autobiography is to make it all feel like a mixture of ‘fate or grace or pure shithouse chance’ (Mary Karr), while remembering Nabokov’s sly maxim: ‘coincidence of pattern is one of the wonders of nature’.


He’s not trying to copy anything that’s real.
So he’s just making shit up?
And that’s an upside thing?

– Mary Karr, Cherry


Binjamin Wilkomirski’s Fragments trades on the prejudice that subject matter and ‘real’ suffering are upside things in a memoir – while making shit up is not. Disclaiming art – the ‘ordering logic of grown-ups’ which would ‘only distort what happened’ – it presents, in apparently random order, memories of a childhood spent in Nazi camps and a Swiss orphanage. First published in 1995, the book was revealed as a fake in 1999, to the embarrassment of the critics and prize-panels (the Jewish Quarterly in the UK, the US National Jewish Book Award) who had applauded it unreservedly. However, as one fiction was admitted, another was maintained: that the book was a ‘clever’ fake. Elena Lappin, editor of the Jewish Quarterly, sadly conceded, ‘It is a beautiful piece of work, but it is a fiction’. Her distinction is self-serving and unsubtle. Fragments is terribly written, both blunderingly fictitious and pitifully revealing. Wilkomirski’s modus operandi is simple: an innocent narrator who does not understand the adult world. Problems of language are avoided by making language the main problem: he does not speak German. The method is sentimentally foolproof. This is the Autobiography of someone traumatised at far too tender an age, in far too alien an environment, to remember names, dates, or telling details. Instead, he summons up a series of encounters with cardboard Nazis. Asking one ‘What’s that funny weapon you’ve got?’ the boy is struck across the face:

That’s how I learned what a whip is, and I understood:
The gray lady was lying: Majdanek is no playground.

The book’s simplistic structural conceit, executed with minimum skill, is to chop from memories of the camp to memories of life in the orphanage afterwards, where the scarred survivor is unable to believe that any playground might be genuine. In one elaborate scenario, Binjamin, now about eleven years old, gets the wrong end of the stick about a free ride on a ski-lift:

An immense iron wheel was turning inside like some merciless, indifferent mill. […] ‘The death machine,’ I heard myself saying. My nightmare was coming true.

On another occasion, he is unable to understand that a ‘painted lady’ at a fairground shooting gallery is not a real lady. Something similar to this inability to distinguish fact and fantasy is clearly true of the real-life author, though not in the way he intends us to understand. In a Swiss classroom, the narrator is mocked by his classmates for seeing a picture of William Tell aiming at his son’s head as another scene of Nazi brutality. The episode is quite possibly drawn from experience:

‘He’s raving, there’s no such thing. Liar! He’s crazy, mad, he’s an idiot.’

The pupils’ reaction prefigures the media response to the fraud. Confronted with overwhelming evidence that although he was once in an orphanage, he was never in a Nazi camp, and actually grew up in material comfort with Swiss adoptive parents, Wilkomirski has refused to admit to any deception. Fragments seems to be a case of False Memoir Syndrome, the expression of a private trauma through a simpler, more public language of suffering – Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire without the irony. Though the evidence suggests that he isn’t, Wilkomirski continues to believe that he may well be a Jew. He is a pitiful, paranoid figure – reminiscent of Nabokov’s Botkin, the academic in Pale Fire who has delusions about being an emigré king. (Wilkomirski’s first attempts to talk about his past as an adult were, he complains, met with ‘a finger tapping against the forehead or aggressive questions’.) An academic, aristocratic emigré himself, Nabokov’s own Autobiography is the antithesis of Fragments. Although Speak, Memory might lay claim to the historic stage on which his aristocratic family featured – his father was a leading Russian liberal, exiled and impoverished by the Revolution – Nabokov instead remains concerned with a geometry of his own. ‘The following of […] thematic designs through one’s life should be, I think, the true purpose of Autobiography.’ All memoirs are, he suggests, ghost-written, revisitings lit by glimpses of the moon. Remembering a group of peasant girls, bathing naked, whom he passed during a butterfly hunting trip, Nabokov evokes their unselfconsciousness by comparison with his own self-conscious art. They notice him ‘as little as if I were the discarnate carrier of my present reminiscences’.

But Nabokov does not ask for pity – as Wilkomirski shamelessly does, desiring the reader to ‘understand’ him in all his imperfection. Instead, Nabokov inserts fictional jokes at the expense of the credulous. Though speculating that he may have ‘transferred’ one memory onto another – in remembering how a tutor once declared his passion for young Vladimir’s mother – Nabokov continues to create the scene by adding a background detail. Through the window of the room, he recalls seeing a ‘huge custard-coloured balloon’ being inflated ‘by Sigismond Lejoyeux, a local aeronaut’. Freud, in German, means ‘joy’. Nabokov drily declares his own right to discover the patterns of his psyche, and not to have them dictated by the flights of fancy of ‘the Viennese medicine man’. Speak, Memory respects the individuality of experience, and insists that it deserves the effort of artistic representation. To revise the text of a memoir is, for Nabokov, literally to re-see the past. It is a process during which ‘the arbitrary spectacles’ (‘a mere dummy chosen at random and of no factual significance in the account of an important event’) are

…metamorphosed into a clearly recalled oystershell-shaped cigarette case, gleaming in the wet grass at the foot of an aspen on the Chemin du Pendu, where I found on that June day 1907 a hawkmoth rarely met with so far west, and where a quarter of a century earlier, my father had netted a Peacock butterfly very scarce in our Northern woodlands.

Compared to this precision sketching, Wilkomirski’s vague ‘soldiers’, ‘women’ ‘barracks’, and ‘mud’ seem like a distressed child’s crayoning, the figures all heads and legs and triangular teeth.

As elsewhere in Nabokov’s work, though, the refined artfulness can occasionally become wearing in its constant opulence. The ideal memoirist is perhaps the writer whose fame does not precede the memoir. Edmund Gosse was admittedly a much better known writer in his day than now, but his only enduring book is Father and Son, an account of his strict religious upbringing. Speak, Memory is interested in showing how conditions contributed to the author becoming a man of letters. Father and Son deals with how such a thing happens despite the most unpromising circumstances. Gosse’s father was a respected marine zoologist and fundamentalist Christian, who for a long time forbade ‘every species of fiction’ to his young son, in case it distracted from heavenly thoughts. Not surprisingly, when his son finally did encounter a novel he was instantly and deeply converted: ‘It was like giving a glass of brandy neat to some one who had never been weaned from a milk diet.’

Gosse’s experience is similar in many ways to JS Mill’s – whose father had him reading Greek at the age of three. But they diverge in their modes of presentation. Although Mill affirms his belief in imaginative writing, he does not ostensibly practice it, leaving the reader to wonder what strange sort of a childhood he had outside of the lessons that make up the history of his prepubescence. Gosse, on the other hand, concentrates on what is often the literary Autobiography‘s strength: the recreation of the emotional life of a child. Not the dumb terror and hysterics of Wilkomirski, but the truthful, cunning privacy of a developing mind. Wilkomirski offers impossible innocence, a childhood spent surviving and begging by a child who seems utterly incapable of learning or adapting. Even when the orphanage’s coal-fired oven, which Binjamin mistakes for, etcetera, is replaced ‘years later‘ [my italics] by an oil-fired one, he grudgingly concludes only that ‘this danger seemed to have been banished, but that didn’t mean people were to be trusted’. Gosse, however, knows that children are not to be trusted. Having been admitted by his father, the minister, into the Plymouth Brethren of ‘Saints’ as a child prodigy, he finds himself wanting to go to a tea-party. Told to ‘lay the matter before the Lord’ in his own conscience, the child calls his father’s bluff:

‘The Lord says I may go to the Browns.’ My Father gazed at me in speechless horror. He was caught in his own trap, and though he was certain that the Lord had said nothing of the kind, there was no road open for him but sheer retreat. Yet surely it was an error in tactics to slam the door.

The (dis)honesty of children is the honesty of fiction. Gosse chooses for his Autobiography a mode being developed during his childhood by the Victorian novelists: Eliot’s Mill on the Floss, and Dickens’s David Copperfield and Great Expectations, all offer disguised autobiographical childhoods as substantial parts of the narrative. In the memoir, the writer is liberated – to concentrate almost exclusively on this rich area. In this sense it is a modernist form, favouring the close examination of experience over the go-ahead plot of the nineteenth-century Bildungsroman.

It is notable that Mill, Gosse, Wilkomirski and Nabokov all divide their books disproportionately between youth and ‘The Remainder of My Life‘. So, too, does Mary Karr in The Liar’s Club, her best-selling 1995 memoir of a Texas childhood. Its success, like the more recent example of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, brought doubters out, but Karr has been quite frank in interviews as to the semi-fictional nature of the book. Some of the tall stories she claims to remember her oil-refinery worker father telling are, she has admitted, ‘absolutely made up’. Her defence is that they serve to evoke the charismatic nature of her father, who, even more than her eccentric mother, dominates the book. (It is an interesting fact that many literary memoirs are haunted, Hamlet-like, by a dead father. Speak, Memory‘s most moving chapter concerns the ‘tender friendship’ Nabokov had with his father; more recently, Martin Amis’s Experience lit up every time it touched on the subject of Kingsley.) Karr learned about the art of lying from her father; but she learned about the dangers of lying from the example of her irresponsible mother. The title expands from being a description of her family to an accusation directed at the hypocrite lecteur who might not want to be confronted by, for example, the emotional complexity of childhood rape – ‘there is something deeply familiar about a hard-on, even when the fundamental feeling coursing through you is that this is wrong wrong’. Or the reaction of a child to the death of a hated grandmother:

What was running through my head, though, was that song the Munchkins sing when Dorothy’s house lands on the witch with stripy socks: ‘Ding dong, the witch is dead.’

Karr implicitly justifies her approach when she discusses the way in which the oil-refinery workers threw a party for a man whose son was imprisoned and lobotomised: ‘Ignoring such misery […] was equal to lying about it.’ And, in a logical combination of Autobiography with established fictional tradition, she exploits throughout the implicit veracity of the American vernacular mode – ‘I shit you not’ – associated with unfoolable youths from Huckleberry Finn to Holden Caulfield.

Another characteristic shared many of the best memoirs is their one-off unrepeatability. Nabokov considered a sequel about his American years – Speak On, Memory – but never wrote it, and recognised even in Speak, Memory that earliest impressions often make the best memoir material, possessing…a naturally plastic form in one’s memory, which can be set down with hardly any effort; it is only starting with the recollections of one’s adolescence that Mnemosyne begins to get choosy and crabbed.

With Cherry, Mary Karr has decided to fill in her adolescence, only obliquely referred to in The Liar’s Club, which jumps at the end from 1963 to 1980. The eye for simile, ephemeral brand names, and childhood pastimes, which made The Liar’s Club so pleasurably credible, is again in evidence:

One day I sat on my porch sucking the long ears of my Bugs Bunny popsicle into a syrupless white dunce cap…

The rest of the sentence heralds the rest of the book, the new theme of Cherry: ‘…when a herd of boys my age on bikes pedalled into view’. Karr’s subject is not the family, but its temporary replacement, the social and sexual community of adolescence. Nabokov, writing at about the time Karr was living through Cherry, would have classed it with the modern genre of ‘”sexual confessions” […] which involve tiny tots mating like mad’.

This would not be quite fair. Although the book is full of dating, mating and drug-taking, friendship is actually Karr’s key theme, the effort required in maturity to maintain close personal relationships. It is, however, much more of a ‘confession’, a statement of guilt, than the previous book. The Liar’s Club features some bracingly unapologetic excoriations. The long parentheses of cool revenge directed at the boy/man who originally took Karr’s ‘Cherry‘, aged eight, is worth quoting in full:

(I picture him now reading this, and long to reach out of the page and grab ahold of his shirt front front that we might together reminisce some. Hey, bucko. Probably you don’t read, but you must have somebody who reads for you – your pretty wife or some old neighbor boy you still go fishing with. Where will you be when the news of this paragraph floats back to you? For some reason, I picture you changing your wife’s tire. She’ll mention in some book I wrote, somebody from the neighbourhood is accused of diddling me at seven. Maybe your head will click back a notch as this registers. Maybe you’ll see your face’s image spread across the silver hubcap as though it’s been flattened by a ball-peen hammer. Probably you thought I forgot what you did, or figured it was no big deal. I say this now across decades and thousands of miles solely to remind you of the long memory my Pale Fire always said I had.)

In Cherry, dealing with events nearer in time, Karr is notably less confident about her memory and her share of responsibility. The book is mostly told in the impersonal second person – ‘you’ – perhaps to soften the edge of the continuous self-accusation:

Maybe it’s only after your Pale Fire‘s been dead fifteen years that you create this longing of yours for him and his denial of it, because it’s easier to bear the notion that he rejected you than vice versa.

Such self-questioning is part of the serious memoir’s remit. But its root – the closing of the gap between former and present self – causes problems elsewhere. To reinhabit convincingly the country of childhood requires an effort of style which can produce extraordinary results. The emotions of adolescence are (in retrospect) less personalised. The highly accomplished vernacular swagger is still present, but in Cherry it is often inadequate for describing Karr’s maturation into an erudite young woman. To refer to The Waste Land as ‘this long crazy poem […] where in the best part a lady stretches out her hair in violin strings’ is a misjudgement of tone; the effect is disingenuously naive (as a professional academic, Karr has written an introduction to an edition of The Waste Land). Sexual desire, meanwhile – ‘this sharp luminosity’ – brings out the pseudo-Lawrentian in her:

And suddenly John is there, holding me lightly in his arms and breathing his Juicy Fruit breath into my mouth. Then the horse leaps between my legs, and that soaring fall enters me, and everything dissolves.

The Juicy Fruit is sweet, but the poetic prose is uneasy. Compared to her extraordinary childhood, determined for her by her extraordinary parents, Karr’s freewheeling 60s adolescence feels like a bit of cliché, and the text consequently attracts them:

The old flower-child pose of gentleness has decayed into cynicism. The bumper-sticker slogan Make Love Not War has been usurped by Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll.

Even the concluding set-piece of a bad trip cannot quite recapture the vivid intensity of The Liar’s Club’s prepubescent crises. It is when Karr steps back into her cooler-headed child-self, sceptically picking out the betraying trivia of a scene, that she shows how valuable a memoirist she can be. At a dance, she notices the overhead projector with a ‘Leechfield Library tag': it creates a psychedelic lightshow using glass plates, ‘salad oil and food colouring’. She captures the banality of a hippie picnic by recalling how, as which the boys enjoy themselves swimming, the girls self-consciously prepare sandwiches, ‘scribbling peace signs or stars on slabs of Wonder bread with yellow mustard till you suspect all the boys have submerged their accompanying dicks underwater’. And when Karr does give us more news of her parents, she continues to create two of the great characters of modern American literature. Although anyone who has tried to keep a diary will know that it is impossible to remember word for word what anybody said – even on the day that they said it – Karr’s parents speak on the page with the convincing oddness of transcription. In a few words, Karr conveys the confusion of two laissez-faire parents who are nevertheless disturbed by their daughter’s behaviour. Her father’s response to a planned trip to California is pathetically powerless: ‘You need to stay right here at forty-nine-oh-one Garfield. California’s ass.’ Her mother’s response to the discovery of her daughter being sick in the bathroom, the result of a secret, failed suicide attempt, is surprisingly maternal. She rocks her in her lap: ‘Once when you wake up she asks what are you doing in that old dress, and you say seeing if it fits. And she says, That would be a negatory.’

The literary memoir is a tradition of imaginative dissent, challenging cultural assumptions by asserting the uniqueness of experience. Cherry does this again and again – in one Nabokovian aside Karr snaps at psycho-analysts who would diagnose a case of ‘pecker envy’, ‘…o please. Of actual johnsons I had little awareness. What I coveted was privilege.’ But because the imaginative territory of Cherry is common ground to some extent, the memoir is a shade underpowered. It does not have to convince us so much of the unique. And so, compared to the best examples of the genre – including The Liar’s Club – engrossing though it is, Cherry falls short of being absolutely distinctive and therefore unforgettable for writer and reader alike.

Mary Karr, Cherry, Picador, 2001. Etc…

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