The Four Questions of the Narrator in Memoir
MARGUERITE DURAS’S THE LOVER AND MARY KARR’S THE LIARS’ CLUB
Contemporary memoir has borrowed many techniques and principles from fiction, particularly when the memoir employs a narrative structure. While many critics have noted this borrowing, it is less obvious how a study of memoir can benefit from a consideration of four questions regarding the narrator: Who is the narrator? Whom is the narrator telling the story to? When is the narrator telling the story? Why is the narrator telling the story?
With memoir, the answer to the question, Who is the narrator? seems obvious at first: The narrator is the person writing the memoir. In actuality, however, this question is more complicated than it appears. Memoirs recount events and experiences of a past self. Thus they re-create not just those events and experiences but also that past self, who exists in the text as someone different from the present narrating self.
In a way, then, the present narrating self approaches this past self as if the past self were a separate character, which in a way she is. What is not always clear is that the present narrating self is both a creation of the writer and a character in the memoir.
Most literary memoirs then invoke two selves: who you were then and who you are now telling the story of who you were then. These are two different selves and in a way two different characters. To grasp the implications of this difference, it might be helpful to consider fictional narratives where the narrator is different from the main character: The past self is Kurtz, Ahab, Gatsby, Oscar Wao; the present narrating self is Marlow, Ishmael, Nick, Yunior.
Many beginning memoirists fail to understand this dialectic, and their portrait of the present narrating self can often be vague or disembodied. Moreover, they fail to see how the present narrating self is the vehicle through which the writer addresses the four questions of the narrator, particularly the last question, Why is the narrator telling the story?
I’ve spoken here of the present narrating self as a somewhat stable entity, and as captured in the text, she is. But my former Stonecoast MFA student, Helen Peppe, author of the memoir Pigs Can’t Swim, has reminded me that the process of establishing that present narrating self is a messy and complicated one, subject to the movement of time. As she observed in an e-mail to me, “I think one of the challenges of memoir writing is to tell the story in a way that takes into account how we change everyday, that the difference between then and now can be only a second. When I go to these presentations on narration, the presenter talks about the then narrator and the now narrator as spanning years, but we change in some way every day. If we didn’t, we’d be dead.”
Among other things, Peppe is alluding here to shifts in the ways she understood and configured her racial identity as a white person and the sexual abuse she endured as a child. It took time and struggle for her to explore and understand these aspects of her experience, which were fundamental to the creation of the present narrating self in her memoir and what that narrator focused on in telling the story of her past self. Thinking over the process of writing her memoir, Peppe implies that she herself and thus her present narrating self went through crucial shifts and re-formations of her identity and her relationship to her past self. All this took time. Sometimes these shifts also become part of what is recounted in the memoir.
In memoir then, a crucial and revealing question is: When is the story being told? How much time separates the present narrating self from the past self?
When I teach writing memoir to undergrads, a problem often arises. If they are writing about an event or experience when they were sixteen, there is often not enough difference between the present narrating nineteen-year-old self and the past sixteen-year-old self. The present narrating self doesn’t possess sufficient distance or perspective, hasn’t lived enough to be able to understand her experiences at sixteen in a new light. She isn’t able to uncover aspects of that experience or ways of looking at it that might reveal something unknown or undiscovered, nor does she generally have enough distance or maturity to crack the denials and defenses of her sixteen-year-old self and regard that self as a separate person, a separate character. Thus she often cannot then see those around that sixteen-year-old self, particularly her parents, in a different light, as more three-dimensional human beings. I’ve found that this problem, which stems from a lack of temporal distance, can occur even with writers in their twenties.
By way of contrast, it’s useful to look at Marguerite Duras’s autobiographical novel, The Lover, which begins:
One day, I was already old, in the entrance of a public place a man came up to me. He introduced himself and said, “I’ve known you for years. Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you I think you’re more beautiful now than then. Rather than your face as a young woman, I prefer your face as it is now. Ravaged.”
With that opening, the reader feels assured that enough time has passed for the narrating self to develop a considered perspective on the events of the past. The present self is not just much older and decades removed from the experience she will write about, but she is also past vanity. Note too how this opening remark characterizes the present narrating self as someone who is ready to welcome the truth, no matter how harsh it might be. Then there’s the other change that time has brought to the circumstances of her writing: all the principals, that is, her family, are dead. She has no one anymore to protect: “I’ve written a good deal about the members of my family, but then they were still alive, my mother and my brothers. And I skirted around them, skirted around all these things without really tackling them.”
In these circumstances of her old age, Duras returns to a period of her life that she’s written about before. But she tells us that she is going to explore a different layer of that experience, aspects that have long been hidden—in her writing and perhaps in her memory, a silence she has been living with. To break this silence is the purpose of this autobiographical novel, which reads so like a memoir:
The story of one small part of my youth I’ve already written, more or less—I mean, enough to give a glimpse of it. Of this part, I mean, the part about the crossing of the river. What I’m doing now is both different and the same. Before, I spoke of clear periods, those on which the light fell. Now I’m talking about the hidden stretches of that same youth, of certain facts, feelings, events that I buried. I started to write in surroundings that drove me to reticence. Writing, for those people, was still something moral. Nowadays it often seems writing is nothing at all. Sometimes I realize that if writing isn’t, all things, all contraries confounded, a quest for vanity and void, it’s nothing.
Nearing seventy, Duras’s narrating self describes the past from the perspective of the present, from someone who knows what eventually happened to her teenage self, that is, someone who knows her fate. In this way, she can function as one of Berger’s storytellers with a godlike perspective looking at her past self traveling through time: “Now I see that when I was very young, eighteen, fifteen, I already had a face that foretold the one I acquired through drink in middle age.” In the pages that follow, the present narrating self will describe what her fifteen-year-old self knows about her beauty and her sexuality. Then she describes what her fifteen-year-old self does not know. This dialectic between the present narrating self and the past self provides a resonance and depth to the writing that would not otherwise be present if the knowledge and understanding of the present narrating self were not given voice to. In the distance between the past moment when, at fifteen and a half, this French colonial girl meets her first lover, a Chinese banker, while crossing the Mekong River, and the present moment of the telling, more than a half century later, time becomes a third and very palpable character.
One final advantage that Duras employs in writing The Lover also stems in part from age (well, age and talent). Her narrator knows whom she is telling this story to—to the readers of Duras. Throughout the narrator makes reference to previous works. Sometimes she does this to contrast with the present work. At other times it’s a sly and knowing nod to her longtime readers. Describing the limousine of the Chinese bankers, she writes: “It’s a Morris Leon-Bolle. The black Lancia at the French embassy in Calcutta hasn’t yet made its entrance on the literary scene.” Given the nature of her work and her career, Duras’s narrating self knows whom she is addressing quite intimately, since they are intimate with her work. It’s a nice position to be in.
On another level, though, her choice of audience here is not so different from the one Díaz makes with his narrator, Yunior: She is writing to the members of her tribe.
Now some “tribes” may contain more people or seem more powerful or prominent than others. But that doesn’t mean a writer of memoir can’t make an aesthetic choice and assume that her narrating self could be speaking to members of her tribe, whatever that tribe may be.
In the opening of The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston makes an address to her imagined readers that focuses the economy of explanation of her text and acknowledges whom she is addressing her tales to: “Chinese-Americans, when you try to understand what things in you are Chinese, how do you separate what is peculiar to childhood, to poverty, insanities, one family, your mother who marked your growing with stories, from what is Chinese? What is Chinese tradition and what is the movies?”
Through these remarks, Kingston not only designates the immediate or prime audience for her tales but also the purpose of her memoir, why she is telling these tales—she wants to answer these questions. In the end, she never comes to final or definitive answers; in a certain sense, from the very beginning, she knows these questions are impossible to answer. Still, in another light, the asking is the answer.
But The Woman Warrior also posits a deeper reason for its narratives. In the opening chapter, “No Name Woman,” Kingston tells the story of an aunt who back in China gave birth to a baby out of wedlock, how the aunt’s adulterous affair ended in disaster for the family—the villagers attack and ransack their home—and in suicide on the part of the aunt. Like Díaz’s Yunior in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Kingston is haunted by a death that, in the light of Chinese customs and culture, can also be regarded as a curse: “My aunt haunts me—her ghost drawn to me because now, after fifty years of neglect, I alone devote pages of paper to her, though not origamied into houses and clothes. I do not think she always means me well. I am telling on her, and she was a spite suicide, drowning herself in the drinking water.”
Kingston is telling the stories of her past then as antidote or counterspell, a zafa to ward off any curse from her aunt’s ghost and her ancestors.
As I’ve watched student writers begin memoirs, I’ve witnessed how at first they labor hard just to get down the events of the past, working against gaps in memory, against their own denial or that of others in their family; this part of writing involves struggling to connect with and unearth the painful memories of the past, traumas, and secrets. In the midst of such difficulties, it’s understandable that the question, Why am I telling this story? might be neglected. But at a certain point, the writer of memoir must ask herself this question.
When Díaz was working on Oscar Wao, he and I had a discussion one night about the motif of the curse. Eventually, he saw it as a way of binding together his tale of three generations of one family. It seems to me that many memoirs are, at their heart, a zafa—a counterspell to ward off or end a curse, to transform the past into something more than a burden or a sentence of doom. This is, I’ve suggested, part of the raison d’être for Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior.
A similar purpose lies at the heart of Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club. The memoir opens with a chaotic night when Karr is seven. The family doctor is questioning the young Karr, asking her, “Show me the marks,” and assuring her that he won’t hurt her. The sheriff is at the door, and the young girl thinks, “I done something wrong and here’s the sheriff.” Further details are presented, almost randomly: A fireman moves through the room, there’s an ambulance outside. Doors slam. She’s being led away by the sheriff. Neither of her parents is present. Her dad’s at work. Her mother has been hauled away “for being Nervous.”
The implication here is that the mother has done something to Karr and her sister, has hurt them, but the exact nature of what has happened is unclear, at least in the mind of Karr at seven, as she is pictured. Instead, the young Karr is more concerned with where the sheriff will take her to stay. Despite the young Karr’s worry that she and her sister don’t go to the Smothergills’ home, the voice of the narrating present self informs us, “I don’t remember who we got farmed out to or how long.” And then this narrating present self takes firm control over how she is going to present the story of Karr’s childhood and her family:
Because it took so long for me to paste together what happened, I will leave that part of the story missing for a while. It went long unformed for me, and I want to keep it that way here. I don’t mean to be coy. When the truth would be unbearable the mind often just blanks it out. But some ghost of an event may stay in your head. Then, like the smudge of a bad word quickly wiped off a school blackboard, this ghost can call undue attention to itself by its very vagueness. You keep studying the dim shape of it, as if the original form will magically emerge. This blank spot in my past, then, spoke most loudly to me by being blank. It was a hole in my life that I both feared and kept coming back to because I couldn’t quite fill it in.
I did know from that night forward that things in my house were Not Right, this despite the fact that the events I have described so far had few outward results. No one ever mentioned the night again.
The events of this night become a tipping point, a turn toward the “Not Right” that make it a significant, if not the significant, event of Karr’s childhood. Karr, or rather the present narrating self, states that she’s not going to tell us at this point what exactly happened that night because that night lived on in her childhood, as she describes it, as a “blank spot . . . a hole in my life that I both feared and kept coming back to because I couldn’t quite fill in.”
The present narrating self wants the reader to experience that night and its memory the way her past self experienced it while growing up. At the same time, the present narrating self is aware that she’s setting up a question in the reader’s mind, one that the reader will want answered by the end of the book: What really happened that night? Thus, this question becomes part of the narrative drive of the book. Implicitly, the present narrating self is assuring us that, eventually, she will tell us what happened. Note that narrative drive can often stem from an announced and/or deliberate withholding of information. The reader continues on to obtain key revelations. (At other times, information—such as a warning or prediction or prophecy—can create narrative momentum.)
As the book proceeds through two designated time periods, Texas 1961 and Colorado 1963, the present narrating self recounts more events and experiences that further amplify the ways the family is “Not Right.” There are hints at the existence of secrets that might explain why this is so, and why the family seems haunted not just by the ghost of this night but by other ghosts who occupy other blank spots in the family’s memory, other zones of silence.
The key revelations in the book take place in the final section, “Texas Again, 1980,” when Karr is twenty-five; her childhood is over; she has moved away from home but has returned. Her father’s dying; he’s had a stroke. Her father’s old commander visits him and suggests to Karr that if she can find her father’s army medical records confirming that he was wounded in World War II, perhaps she can get the army to see his present condition as a result of those wounds and thus pay for his medical care.
Searching in her parents’ attic, Karr finds a box of photos, with labels, and this leads her to question her mother about her past. Before she does so, though, she calls her therapist, who tells her to write out her questions, and in this list, Karr reveals casually the nature of what happened on the night which opens the memoir, the night her mother was hauled away: “Whose wedding rings were those? Who were the two kids Grandma Moore showed me school pictures of? After she died, why did you go nuts? What were you doing with the knife that night? Why did you tell Dr. Boudreaux you’d killed us? What happened to you in the hospital?”
Eventually Karr gets her mother to talk about her past; they go to a bar where they both begin drinking and the mother tells her tale. She reveals she had been married several times before she married Karr’s father. Moreover, one of those marriages resulted in two children, but her mother’s husband and his mother took those children and disappeared. By the time Karr’s mother finally found them, her children reacted to her as if she were a stranger, and she decided it would be best if they stayed with her father, since she felt he was far better equipped, both financially and because of his mother, to care for the children. Taking in this past and this revelation of her mother’s pain, Karr asks her mother about “the night”:
These were my mother’s demons, then, two small children, who she longed for and felt ashamed for having lost.
And the night she’d stood in our bedroom door with a knife? She’d drunk herself to the bottom of that despair. “All the time I’d wasted, marrying fellows. And still I lost those kids. And you and Lecia couldn’t change that. And I’d wound up just as miserable as I started at fifteen.” Killing us had come to seem merciful. In fact, she’d hallucinated we’d been stabbed to death. “I saw blood all over you and everything else. Splashed across the walls.”
After her mother’s confession, Karr and her mother, both drunk, drive home from the bar:
The sunset we drove into that day was luminous, glowing; we weren’t.
Though we should have glowed, for what Mother told absolved us both, in a way. All the black crimes we believed ourselves guilty of were myths, stories we’d cobbled together out of fear. We expected no good news interspersed with the bad. Only the dark aspect of any story sank in. I never knew despair could lie. So at the time, I only felt the car hurtling like some cold steel capsule I’d launched into onrushing dark.
It’s only looking back that I believe the clear light of truth should have filled us, like the legendary grace that carries a broken body past all manner of monsters. I’m thinking of the cool tunnel of white light the spirit might fly into at death, or so some have reported after coming back from various car wrecks and heart failures and drownings, courtesy of defib paddles and electricity, or after some kneeling samaritan’s breath was blown into stalled lungs so they could gasp again. Maybe such reports are just death’s neurological fireworks, the brain’s last light show. If so, that’s a lie I can live with.
Still, the image pleases me enough: to slip from the body’s tight container and into some luminous womb, gliding there without effort till the distant shapes grow brighter and more familiar, till all your beloveds hover before you, their lit arms held out in welcome.
The curse of the past has been lifted by Karr’s insistence that she and her mother descend back into the past. But at the time this occurs, it doesn’t quite feel that way to the twenty-five-year-old Karr.
It is only nearly fifteen years later, when the present narrative self is coming to the close of her memoir, that the present narrating self can see what happened on that drunken afternoon between the twenty-five-year-old Karr and her mother as the end of something, as the granting of some sort of grace and absolution. In this narrative framed and created by the forty-year-old Karr, she possesses a perspective on this moment that the twenty-five-year-old could not achieve. Thus, she ends this tale of her childhood, this tale that has served as her zafa, her counterspell to end her family’s curse. And we the reader know finally why she has told us this tale.
In my work with writers of memoir, I’ve found that they often have not asked the question of why the narrator is telling the tale of the past self. Sometimes such a question seems superficially obvious to the writer, and the writer may believe at first that the themes or subject matter of the memoir answer this question. But by confronting this question as a direct part of the memoir’s narrative and purpose, writers I’ve worked with have found that it forces them to think more deeply about their material, about the dialectic between the present narrating self and the past self; this, in turn, helps the writer to present the past in a more complex and investigatory way.
Often this question leads to a reconsideration of how the memoir structures or introduces its narrative of the past self. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the memoir answers all the questions the narrating self poses about the past, but it does mean that those questions anchor and illuminate the narration of the past and the structure of the narrative. In the process, the writer draws readers into her memoir, helping them to understand why it’s important that the narrator is telling the story she is telling.
At the same time, the questions that the present narrating self asks at the start of a memoir—that is, the reason why she is telling the tale—can imply or posit a goal for the present narrating self. In this way, as the present narrating self tells stories about the past self, the present narrating self is also setting out on a quest. This quest is for the truth or the deeper truths about the past, or for a fuller understanding of the past, or to answer particular questions about the past.
The process of the telling then becomes its own story, and thus the present narrating self can evoke or resemble certain figures—a detective, an investigative reporter, a historian, a therapist. That is, the present narrating self is trying to solve or discover a crime; to reveal a lie or the true facts and circumstances; to research and create a deeper understanding of the past; to reach a reconciliation with the past, find a way to heal the wounds of the past. Thus some memoirs often have two story lines, one involving the past self and one involving the present narrating self.