I’m a day late and a dollar short; The Liars’ Club was published in 1995, and I only just got around to reading it. It’s odd, though, the way I think of books—some of them remain newly minted in my mind long after publication date. In this case it’s because The Liars’ Club was such a huge critical and commercial success, lauded for its literary achievement as well as its readability; most significantly from a writer’s point of view, it opened the door for a rush of memoir writing and publishing that has yet to slow down. As is usually the case, the memoirs that followed The Liars’ Club didn’t come anywhere near its level of quality in either literary or entertainment value.
I’m sure I read reviews of LC when it first came out, yet somehow I got it into my head that it was one of those relentlessly brutal tales of dysfunctional families, a long whine against bad parenting. I’m going to have to stop giving credence to my preconceptions. The Liars’ Club is leading my list of Best Books 2008—and what a great way to begin the reading year.
There’s more love than dysfunction in Karr’s family story; her father in particular gets my vote for best literary Daddy of modern times. (Imagine—he doesn’t molest her!) I was crazy about the mother too—but her craziness forms the basis of Karr’s story, and is what separated their lives from the ordinary. It also separated the Karrs from their insipid neighbors in Leechfield, the swampy Texas oil refinery town where they lived, an American hell as foul-smelling and dangerous a place to grow up as Chicago’s meat market district, described by both Upton Sinclair and Tillie Olsen. Karr’s book belongs in the company of these writers for its working-class sensibility, acute attention to detail, and the kind of story-telling that makes for almost compulsive readability through much pain and suffering. The Liars’ Club has something else, too: a welcome dose of humor, expressed through the character of Karr herself as a smart, scrappy, rebellious little girl.
Lives in Leechfield are hard and bleak, relieved only by friendship formed in groups like the one Karr dubs The Liars’ Club, a loose consort of men who fish, hunt for squirrels, exchange bottles of Jack Daniels on Christmas, and entertain one another with preposterous stories claimed as true. Karr’s father brings her along to their gatherings, and among these hard-drinking, hard-working, hardscrabble men she learns about love and prejudice, comfort and friendship.
What blew me away more than the story itself was Karr’s writing. Rather than present a chronological life story the way so many memoirists and biographers do, Karr begins in the middle, moving backwards and forward from the dramatic opening. We don’t learn what’s actually happened in that scene for well over a hundred pages, but we don’t care: the story grips the reader from the start and doesn’t let go until the end–and what an ending it is. Those who’ve grown weary of stories that peter out lazily will be glad to know The Liars’ Club closes with a satisfying thump. Talk about payoffs! What’s revealed at the end puts everything that preceded it into a whole new context, so that I wanted to go back to Page One and immediately begin again.
I’d already decided that I’d re-read The Liars’ Club, next time paying close attention to Karr’s style and technique: like most people who love to read, I get too lost in a story to pay attention to its structure. I used to give my students an assignment called ReadingAs a Writer, with a
list of things to notice and questions to answer on a second reading, but I’ve never yet done my own homework. The Liars’ Club is the first memoir I’ve read that seems likely to teach me something about the art of true-life writing.
- Why Memoir Matters (oup.com)