The Climax Revisited…Or Not?

The Liars’ Club opens in medias res the night the narrator’s mother is carted Away (note the capitalization, as if Away is a specific place) for being Nervous (again capitalized, alerting us to the term’s importance). The memoir drifts from this image back much further in time in the narrator’s childhood, a childhood so filled with drama and conflict that the reader (or at least this reader) is slow to realize we’re re-entering the opening scene five pages into chapter seven, when the narrator comes home to the unusual open front door.

We’re another four pages—or roughly halfway—into chapter seven before we see the first hints of images recurring from chapter one. The sight of the narrator’s mother burning the grandmother’s belongings in a wood stove might remind us of the flames the narrator saw from her bedroom window in the book’s opening scene if only we as readers weren’t already somewhat numb at this point to shocking images of the narrator’s mother.

A page later we encounter more images—exact language even—that strike a familiar chord. “She drags our mattress on the floor, then lifts our bare box spring over her head…it hits the wall with a deep-throated clang.” (149) This might remind us of the narrator “on a mattress on the bare floor” (3) and “the bed frame tilted against the wall” (4). The narrator references bonfires in both chapters: “I have been to football bonfires…this stack is almost as tall as that” (159) and “I saw in my own backyard flames like those of a football bonfire.” (5) References to strewn toys and overturned furniture also occur in both chapters: “Our room is scrambled and holds no order…Mother earlier smashed all the lightbulbs in our room with a broom handle…You can’t quite decipher the individual pieces of furniture tipped over and flung around…” (154) and “…the tallboy was tipped over on its back like a stranded turtle, its drawers flung around. There were heaps of spilled clothes, puzzles, comics, and the Golden Books…” (4)

Even the reference to her father’s indifference, the narrator’s imagined scene of her father at the refinery, placing the telephone receiver back in its cradle after hearing what’s happening at home—or even possibly seeing it from the tower—did not immediately remind this reader of the father’s noticeable absence and the narrator’s calm acceptance of this fact in chapter one.

For this reader, the realization that this scene absolutely matched the memoir’s opening didn’t come until chapter seven’s final reference to Dr. Boudreaux and the revelation that the mother thinks she killed her children. And even now, this reader isn’t completely convinced. Are these two memories indeed of the same night? Such things imaginably could have happened repeatedly in the Karr home. After all, in chapter one Lecia “had her pink pajamas on…” (4), but in chapter seven, “My stick-figure sister is breathing deep in the chest of her white PJs…” (156) My best guess is that the scenes are the same, but trauma was so plentiful in the narrator’s childhood that the exact facts blur, the moments of terror run together, and she purposefully wanted to acknowledge that fact, albeit subtly.

Thinking about this scene and its (possible) reappearance in the memoir, I am reminded of a scene in my own emerging manuscript. I’ve written the scene of my brother’s first time slipping into insulin shock—while I was trying to wake him from his afternoon nap—twice. In an early version of my manuscript (my graduate school application, in fact), that scene appeared at the very beginning. I originally wanted it there because I thought it epitomized many of our family dynamics and foretold how Tim might have died. I also thought my confusion over Tim’s death in adulthood was not unlike my witness of his insulin shock in childhood. But later I decided this scene might be more effective placed in the midst of my grief, when the memory vividly resurfaced to me in a dream (you saw this in an earlier submission this semester). Now I wonder if I can’t somehow combine the two, splitting the scene into two parts at the opening of the manuscript and later. I have not yet attempted this, but inspired by Karr, I’m letting the idea percolate.

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