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Craft Notes & Reviews

On Memoir and Experiment: The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch

I’ve spent the two days reading and re-reading Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water. After years of avoiding memoirs and thinking they were not for me, the past several months, I’ve been reading all kinds of memoirs and learning about the many different approaches to the genre. I might have to admit I really love memoirs. I don’t know if it’s because I’m very curious about the lives of others or if I am drawn to the confessional in nonfiction as much as I am in fiction but right now memoirs are speaking to me pretty seriously.

I first heard about the book because I saw the cover here and last week I read this awesome essay on The Rumpus, by the author, about the cover and the heresy of a woman’s bared breast, nipple and all, on that cover. Then I heard about the book from a friend so I ordered it and the book arrived and I read it almost immediately and then I read it again and one more time for good measure.

The book itself is a fine, heavy object both literally and figuratively. The cover is gorgeous and when you read the book you’ll realize how appropriate it is to the writing. But even more than that, the paper is thick and slick and the design is clean and the cover has a nice matte coating. I enjoy these small details that contribute to a sensual, in the very sense of the word, reading experience.

In my previous posts about memoir, I’ve discussed how I find it difficult to review memoirs because it feels like you’re doing more than critiquing the writing, you’re also critiquing the life lived. This isn’t a review as much as it is me talking about a book that is really powerful and unlike any memoir I’ve yet read.  I’m also interested in how this book can be used for teaching because it challenges the traditional memoir in really interesting ways and because, selfishly, one of the graduate students I’m serving on a committee for is writing a memoir as his thesis and these notes will help me in my work with him. As I’ve thought through this book, I’ve considered the various elements that really mark a shift from what I traditionally see in memoir writing: how the narrative deals with the body, how the memoir can be read as an open text through the use of absence, language invention, an alinear narrative structure, and decadent but controlled descriptions of emotion. Of course I’m going to end with emotion.

Body

In Laugh of the Medusa, Hélène Cixous is ecstatic in her celebration of women and the female body and how women (should) write women. In that essay, Cixous states that, “Woman must put herself into the text—as into the world and into history—by her own movement.”  Memoir is certainly a genre that explicitly allows women to do that, to insert herelf into texts by her own movement and so Cixous’s ideas were really useful as I read this book. So much of The Chronology of Water is about the body, its basest functions, what it can endure, how it heals and fails, but the body in question is deliberately inscribed as the female body, which is important in that this story then, cannot be read as anything but a woman’s story. Gender is not irrelevant in this text.

Cixous also writes:

I have been amazed more than once by a description a woman gave me of a world all her own which she had been secretly haunting since  early childhood. A world of searching, the elaboration of a knowledge, on the basis of a systematic experimentation with the bodily functions, a passionate and precise interrogation of her erotogeneity. This practice, extraordinarily rich and inventive, in particular as concerns masturbation, is prolonged or accompanied by a production of forms, a veritable aesthetic activity, each stage of rapture inscribing a resonant vision, a composition, something beautiful. Beauty will no longer be forbidden.

I kept thinking about these lines of Cixous over and over as I read Yuknavitch’s very intimate and frank, almost obsessively recounted details about her body, about masturbating herself raw, about pissing and bleeding and vomiting and drinking and feeling and hurting and searching for numbness. She talks about her mother’s broken body, the physical attributes of other women’s bodies like how swimmers bodies are hairy, the pregnant body and the space it takes, fucking and the body’s fluid responses to fucking and on and on. All of these descriptions are precisely detailed, presenting bodies as they are but there is a real sense of celebration in the frankness that you do not often see in writing on the body.   These confessions created the resonant vision Cixous speaks of, reaching for the beauty that cannot be forbidden. This exhibition of the body is pretty uncomfortable and intense and awesome but it’s also really instructive to see how a writer engages in what Cixous terms the “passionate and precise interrogation of her erotogeneity” in a broader context.

In graduate school one of the questions I asked most was about how to apply the highly theoretical work we often read in seminars in practical ways. So much academic theory feels detached but this memoir evoked the tradition of l’écriture féminine and serves as a useful example of how you can take something as theoretical as Cixous’s work and shift it into the practical realm.

Absence

I also continue to think about Christopher Higgs’s discussion of open and closed texts (and yes, I am totally that person who will use a new word or concept she has learned a hundred and one times because I am so excited about it) because it continues to be such a useful framework for thinking about texts. I tend to think of memoirs as closed texts. That is not a bad thing. I enjoy closed texts, and the satisfaction of a finite way of interpreting that text. In a memoir, a writer is saying this is a story about some part of my life and this is what I need you to understand from my telling of this story. That is a fairly closed approach. You’re allowed to look but there’s not a lot of room for intellectual participation, not really.

I would argue, though, that The Chronology of Water is a very open text for a few reasons. Yuknavitch is definitely recounting the story of her life and the memoir actually ends with a chapter, “Wisdom is a Motherfucker,” where we get that sense of what we need to understand from her telling of her story. And yet, as much as Yuknavitch reveals in this book, as much of her skin as she peels back, there is also a marked sense of absence in what she does not reveal. Throughout the memoir, she writes about her mother and her sister and her abusive father and there is no doubt, whatsoever that very bad things have happened. However, the abuse is not named. There is an absence of information. We are voyeurs without the ability to see. The absence of detail tells its own story. That use of absence was such an interesting choice for a memoir because so often in memoirs about abuse and incest, it is the naming of the abuse that is the point of the thing. In most of those memoirs, there is an almost fetishistic and confessional need to detail, explicitly the where and what and how of all the terrible things that can happen to a girl (or boy) child.

In The Chronology of Water, the abuse and the pervasive reach of the abuse are ever present but we are left to wonder about what happened and why the author made that choice to create such deliberate absence. It is a bold choice to create that absence without acknowledging it. That absence also creates a sense of presence like the one Christopher describes in talking about absence and how difficult it is to render. He used the example of the chalk outline and wrote, “The absence it attempts to demarcate only serves to engender a presence.” That same sense of presence is very much engendered in The Chronology of Water but it opens the text up in ways that I simply don’t think other memoirs are opened up. It invites a certain intense intellectual participation within a personal history and that’s a really interesting move. This is not a memoir that can be read passively or in a contained way and I really liked how the text invited the reader to work with the absences and openness.

Language

The Chronology of Water has a lot going on at the language level. The book is marked by a density of prose that is almost erotic . The writing is relentless and the ferocity of the language is so immediate that the experience of reading the book is physical and, at times, overwhelming. There’s a really interesting juxtaposition of the poetic and the profane. In one moment Yuknavitch is writing about these seriously intellectual thinkers and ideas and in another instant, she’s writing about the heat of lust and how it is all consuming or blood and piss and shit . There were instances where Yuknavitch developed her own language to tell her story, a personal vernacular that could better express her (hi)story more than any other language. This invention of language is something I don’t see a lot of and especially not in memoir but it makes a lot of sense. There is nothing more personal than a memoir so it makes perfect sense to see a memoirist creating their own vernacular but what is really interesting here is how there’s no explanation. This unique language is simply used and within the contexts that language is used, the meaning is readily clear or it isn’t but that’s not the author’s problem. I love books that teach you how to read them as you are reading them and this one has that going on.

Structure

How do you tell a life story? I imagine that must be the overarching question of anyone who sets to tell the story of their life. Most memoirs I’ve read take a fairly traditional approach. I was born, I lived and eventually I will die. Is that how we reflect on our lives though? Yuknavitch writes, “I thought about starting this book with my childhood, the beginning of my life. But that’s not how I remember it. I remember things in retinal flashes. Without order. Your life doesn’t happen in any kind of order. Events dont have cause and effect relationships the way you wish they did. It’s all a series of fragments and repetitions and pattern formations. Language and water have this in common.” As the writing unfolds, the story is indeed told in fragments but even with the alinear narrative, by the end, there’s a really visible and interesting structure.  By the end of the book, I got the sense that I was looking at the whole of something and not just fragments. Another device I noticed was how a story would be told and then retold. The Chapter, “Distilled,” for example, which literally is a distillation of her second marriage that she has already discussed and will discuss again later in the book in a way that contributes to that interesting structure. When you step back from this book, that’s when you see the whole picture. The best way to describe it, I think, is that the book is structured like a stereogram. When you finally see what’s there, it’s stunning.

Emotion

One of the main things Yuknavitch writes about in this book, this memoir, is the rage so many women hold in their skin, rage that starts when we are girls and just grows and grows and becomes this all-consuming thing.  When she writes about her rage, the pages are practically incandescent. This book is wild with rage but it is also wild with joy and love and sorrow. I love emotional writing but in addition to this affecting writing that immerses you in the writer’s history, there’s a real sense of control in how emotion is written throughout The Chronology of Water. The use of emotion isn’t indulgent or gratuitous. It just serves the story.

And because I’m ending this series of notes on emotion, I will just say I fucking loved this book and I strongly encourage anyone reading this to buy the book immediately and then keep it beneath your pillow or shove it down your pants or crack open your rib cage and hold the book next to your heart. It is really that beautiful and brilliant and any number of superlatives I will spare you from for the sake of decorum.