Vote It Up: Book Blip

February 8, 2010

Waking up

I'm halfway through Lit (for the second time).  Midway through birthday season (my son's birthday was last week; my daughter's is next week), I've been distracted away from the task I've assigned myself on this blog - to read, write, and write about reading.  But, I'm back now baby!  And as I speed my way through the middle of Mary Karr's tumble into alcoholism, I realize that I wasn't just overcome by family priorities, I was also procrastinating from reliving the middle of this book, the section entitled "Self Help."

This section is painful.  There is no other way to describe it.  I read as a helpless bystander, unable to prevent her descent into drunken stupor, horrified that she drove her child around with two beers tucked in her coat and another sidled next to a juice box in her purse.  But as I re-read this section something that Sarah said as a response to a previous post screamed in my head: yes, Karr is naval-gazing and self-involved . . . because she's an alcoholic.  Not until we reach Chapter 21 ("The Grinning Skull"), when Karr attends her first AA meeting, does she have any form of self-awareness and humility.  Not that she spends the first half of the book gafawing about her drunken exploits.  Quite the opposite.  She seems embarrassed and apologetic that she was such a terrible insert noun (mother, wife, teacher, writer, etc.).  In Chapter 21 she actually talks about a light coming on (an allusion to the title, perhaps) while she listens to other alcoholics talk about their disease at the church basement meeting.
We're asleep most of the time, I once heard the writer George Saunders say, but we can wake up.  In that instant, for no reason I can discern, I wake up  (p. 190).
As she laughs at the horror stories of her new peers - a woman in a Chanel suit admits drinking straight from the carcass of a frozen turkey where she had hidden a whiskey bottle, a man tells the meandering tale of two botched suicide attempts, one of which exploded him into a neighbor's yard, singeing off his eyebrows - Karr realizes that she is laughing in good company at "the specter of human frailty" (p. 192).  This is significant because she is for the first time not wallowing alone in self-pity and hatred, and also because she is able to laugh about mistakes.  It's the first step in her recovery, despite her resistance to the spiritual nature of the meetings and her mistrust of the group's kindness to her, a virtual stranger.  I believe Karr was self-pitying to a degree, but she is telling the story of who she was and who she was was a messy narcissist.  If I remember correctly, she continues to make mistakes and feel like a wreck for a good part of this section of the book, but simultaneously, she attempts to make real, lasting changes.  By the end of the book, I believe she is truly humbled by her journey and her success.

As a side note: when I saw Karr read from this manuscript in 2003, she was a model of humility.  I was drawn to her scathing wit and her unpretentious attitude about her successes.  She spoke to the small auditorium filled to bursting with students and professors like we were hanging at the coffee shop, or bar for that matter, trading stories and one-upping each other.  There was no scholarly jargon, no haughty air of superiority, and a whole lot of laughter.  When she signed my book she wrote, "To Amy: Kick ass and take names."

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