Teenage confessions


Mary Karr <em>Picador, 276pp, £14.99</em>

ISBN 033048575X

Mary Karr tells us, on page 25 of Cherry, that her ambition aged 11 was to write poetry and autobiography - the exact literary path she later followed. When a pre-pubescent decides to make a career in memoir-writing, autobiography clearly ain't what it used to be.

Karr fits well into the great confessional-writing craze of the late 1990s. In the modern memoir, what you have done counts for less than what you feel; there are book contracts out there for all highly strung emotional literates. Ghost-written lives of the already famous have been replaced by diaries of the unknown anorexic or abused child.

To her credit, Karr does not peddle the straightforward "victim lit" of many of her contemporaries. Her prizewinning memoir The Liars' Club recalled her childhood; Cherry, the sequel, is an amusing, warm account of growing up in late 1960s Texas, with an unorthodox but loving family, poetic aspirations and bucket-loads of recreational drugs. If Karr's lack of trauma is refreshing, it is also the problem with her book.

A "proper" autobiography is interesting because its subject is interesting - if you are intrigued by Geri Halliwell, you can forgive 300-plus pages of terrible prose. An anorexic's memoir is compelling, however gross, not least because the question "To eat or not to eat?" invites some kind of conclusion. But Cherry is simply a collection of well-written personal observations. Part three - Karr's teen-drama-queen, pseudo-suicide attempt - is titled "Limbo". In fact, the whole book seems to exist in limbo, and the "so what?" factor reigns supreme.

Halfway through, Karr inexplicably switches her narrative to the second person, perhaps to expand her coming-of-age story into a wider comment on the lifestyle and thinking of Sixties teenagers. The effect is peculiar. Having set herself up as an unusual child with an unusual story to tell, Karr cannot then leap into generational generalisations. Her attempt to do so misses out some of the most interesting aspects of her own life. She talks often about her poetry, but there is no exploration of the creative process. Instead, we get lots of stories about drugs - to appreciate which, you probably had to be there.

Cherry could be a very good book if only it had a plot. So why go for a memoir? The Liars' Club was impressive because of Karr's vivid recreation of her life aged seven. But there had to be an element of fiction - nobody, surely, remembers entire conversations verbatim. Likewise, a faithful recollection of a chunk of your life spent stoned out of your mind - which forms the latter part of Cherry - must strike some readers as a contradiction in terms.

So why not go for the time-honoured tradition of a first-time novel based on personal experience? The book might lack "authenticity", but it would be a better read, and a greater challenge for Karr's talent and imagination.

Jennie Bristow is commissioning editor of spiked (www.spiked-online.com)

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The slow death of Tory England