There is so much hype surrounding Lidia Yuknavitch’s memoir The Chronology of Water. Some of the words used to describe the writing are “dazzling, brilliant, raw, lyrical, baptism by fire.” A Huffington Post review started with “Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water is the kind of book that people don’t just read, but become converted to.” Countless reviews online talk of the dazed stupor they’re in after reading the book, how sacred it is, and I guess because of the title, there are a lot of responses that include weeping, or drowning in sorrow while reading, or ending the book in a “flood of tears.” Chuck Palahniuk, who I love, writes on the cover of the book, “I’ve read this book, cover to cover, a dozen times. I am still reading it. And I will, most likely, return to it for inspiration and ideas, and out of sheer admiration, for the rest of my life.
You can see why I was excited to read it. I should tread carefully, I know, in writing about a memoir. This is someone’s life, after all. But this book was such a failure and utter disappointment, I feel I must write about the very different experience I had reading it.
Most people write memoirs at a time when they decide they have a more acceptable perspective about their life as a whole. Lidia Yuknavitch seems to be operating under this generalization, but unfortunately, she does not seem like someone who has gained perspective at all. Incredibly self-aggrandizing and immature, this is not the voice of someone who has grown up. To be sure, there are a few beautiful sentences and ideas, but in a book of about 300 pages, one hopes to gain a little more than (in my opinion) 3 good sentences, and 1 good idea.
The book is mostly an account of the terrible things that happen in her life including the loss of her Olympic swimming dreams, a stillborn, abusive father, passive and suicidal mother, and eventually, the art, life, and love she finds. You would think it would be easy to feel empathy for someone who has gone through so many truly horrific things. However, it is not easy. The reader never has to put Yuknavitch in the place of being a victim. She does it for you, all the time…constantly. When she isn’t victimizing herself, she’s self-destructing and making sure everyone around her will light up in flames too. She loses her Olympic swimming dreams because she parties too hard, losing her college scholarship her second year. She constantly abuses substances, causing irreparable damage to others and alternates her time between graduate writing classes, jails, and rehab centers. I don’t have any qualms with that. Substance abuse, hurting others, hurting myself, victimizing myself…these are all things I have had some experience with- maybe not to the extent she or others do, but I’m familiar with them and I’ve seen plenty of it in the lives of others. The problem I have with her is her inability to be self-aware. To take any responsibility for her actions without having pride in them. She’s so proud of having a messy narrative…a real backstory, that she can’t see herself as anything besides a protagonist. She can’t even see how contrived and cliche the “backstory” or the “life experience” she has cultivated is. She thinks of herself as a kind of prophet for all fuck-ups.
(PS. We already have one, his name is Burroughs.)
She is extremely narcissistic. I don’t think I’ve encountered anyone in my life, real or fiction, more self-centered. The most extreme example of this is the following-
At age 37, after years of reckless self-destructive behavior and drunk driving, which she admits to earlier, she gets a call from an ex-husband and responds by drinking an entire bottle of scotch and then driving onto the six northbound lanes of the freeway in SoCal and she’s “laughing and flooring it” and she lets go of the steering wheel.
She hits a pregnant woman, who speaks no English, and has no airbags.
She doesn’t tell us what happens to the woman….she ends the chapter with, “In my head I thought take me away from this woman. I can’t be near her. I can’t look at her. I can’t even accept that she exists. The image of a grieving mother is one that could kill me.”
It gets even more self-centered in the interview at the back of the book by the publisher:
“I never say in this book what happened to the woman I hit head on with my car. I have deferred that information purposefully. Because I want you to stay with me- me drunk driving across eight lanes of freeway traffic at midnight in my car- stay with me inside my own pain and grief and vodka breath and pee and barf- stay with me as the gunpowder smell from the airbags fill the car.”
Have you read anything more self-centered in your whole life?
So we never find out what happens to the pregnant woman she hits. She’s definitely not asking (nor do I think she needs to, for the record), but do we really need to forgive a woman like her? Who continues to self-destruct in a way that fatally brings harm to so many around her? After decades of it already? Is there a point in time where we should not allow ourselves to be victims of our pasts and families? We are all people not worth loving at certain points of our lives, but is there a grace period for how long we are allowed to be that way? I find the above quotes especially jarring because they are from Yuknavitch unfictionalized. This isn’t just bad writing, this is just her being…a bad person.
But speaking of bad writing- let’s get to that now.
In her interview, she says of language, “But language always falls short of the body when it comes to the intensity of corporeal experience. The best we can do is bring language in relationship to corporeal experience- bring words as close to the body- as as close as possible.”
She follows this with two examples which are pretty terrible-
“Close enough to shatter them. Or close enough to knock a body out.” …
She continues, “To bring language close to the intensity of experiences like love or death or grief or pain is to push on the affect of language.”
I agree that it is difficult to make language have the same kind of intensity as corporeal experience, but if you believe that it is how you are meant to express, and that it is necessary, it is your responsibility to at least try. I generally found her descriptions amateurish, cliche, and repetitive.
“My rage became nuclear. ”
“Do you know how it felt? Like being dead.” (She actually ended a chapter this way! It was supposed to be dramatic in a meaningful way, I think…)
“Here it is. I’m the reason we went busto.” (She also used “thingie” to describe something later. I’ve seen xangas and tumblrs with 1000 times her descriptive ability.)
“I wailed. Epically. ” …
“The things she made me do made my skin hot and prickly.” (This one in particular is repeated so many times. Her head is always getting hot, and different parts of her are always getting itchy or prickly.)
This kind of writing from a woman who proudly proclaims that
she’s “a weird writer. (Experimental’ sounds dumb, and ‘Innovative’ sounds strangely snooty.)”
Don’t worry, no one would think to call you any of those.
Besides the above examples of bad writing, she does so many things to alienate readers.
Example: On her early masturbation: “Yeah? Have you ever tried it? Then shut up.”
She seems unconscious of the ways she is defensive, hypocrital, and egotistical-
On cannibalism, “Gross. I’m no cannibal.” (This reads very judgmental and hypocritical considering some of the other things she does in the book. You can’t proclaim yourself the queen of fuck-ups if you aren’t also going to back up the cannibals!)
Examples of her defensiveness in academia:
The third to last sentence of the memoir, “I’m not talking out of my asshole.” (Super eloquent.)
“Sorry, that’s the goddamn academic in me.” (This, after another random fact she’s spewed to try and show/prove her literary knowledge)
“What I thought was, fuck you, Mingo. How many books have you written, big sexy looking guy?”(Besides the gross assumption that having books written or published has anything to do with our actual worth as human beings, another constant annoyance about the memoir is how shallow Yuknavitch is. I had to remind myself I wasn’t reading Twilight or 50 shades at certain times because she’s just so quick to generalize that good-looking people and messed-up people are worthy and ugly and less messed-up people are unworthy.)
And on that matter, of course you wrote a book that was published, Yuknavitch. Your book is a memoir with all the other words that sell- wild sex, substance abuse, gender, S&M, sexual abuse. Any book with that content will be picked up and disseminated, especially if you parade it as an R-rated Eat, Pray, Love…something cohesive, with depth…something redemptive and epic in nature as is to be assumed with the word chronology. She later talks about the importance of telling her own story about alcohol and drug abuse…not the “right” one that publishers and consumerists want, yet she hypocritically never talks about her incest “directly” because publishers and editors warn her that it isn’t the “right” one and besides, incest is so popular right now “it’s running out of meaning.” So of course, she doesn’t mention it directly, incest is so over…Yuknavitch only wants to write what’s going to shock you. The other reason her book is guaranteed to sell- her tits are on the cover. You know, the huge tits she refers to constantly in the book, so much so that you’re confused because she sexualizes herself as much as everyone else she complains about doing it. It’s fine with me that she has big breasts, and that she refers to them a lot, and that she sexualizes herself. Thinking about her big breasts was an opportunity to take a break from the size of her much-larger ego.
There is a difference between art, brought about somewhat consciously, or even unconsciously, and just smearing a bunch of shit together, believing something comes of the juxtapositions. (An example of such shit-juxtapositions from her first literary journal- “poems interrupted stories and giant photos of tits interrupted the white space and lyric line of poems.”) Though that method shows a beautiful belief in what art is capable of and how much is permissible, I can’t accept that this is Yuknavitch’s method because only people who have led similar lives with her are deemed permissible or worthy of her. Though she runs to everything and everyone that is messy in life with open and accepting arms, she is extremely judgmental towards people who haven’t searched or experimented the way she has. The only way she thinks people can arrive at the culture, art, and life that she thinks so highly of is the wild experimentation, drug use, and sexual experiences she’s gone through. In this way, she doesn’t make art, but limits it. She limits her own capacity to experience art (and everything) by looking down on things or people that come from a place too sanitized for her, and she limits art to certain experiences and the expression of those experiences.
At the end of this book, I felt like I was expected to have witnessed growth. She does that whole trick that starts with…”I’m not wise, but…” which is supposed to be followed by the sage revelations of someone who has gained perspective. But her revelations, like her obsession with counterculture, age her. They are tired. They are all things we have been exposed to, and exposed to better. This didn’t seem like the truth about anything, just all the most shocking parts of a life written in a childish way.
This book is a memoir, but it is hard to believe. One thing Lidia mentions which is wonderful, is how “language can help us narrativize over our fears.” Language can also, however, pander to how we want things to be remembered for the sake of our own perspective-narrative and eventually even alter our memories and ideas of truth. When reading this memoir, you can’t help feeling like everything has been altered; that you are being lied to and every situation is being controlled. It isn’t done very well, however, so it is clear early on that everything is written by someone who has victimized themselves their whole lives and continues to do so.
This book could have been an anti-memoir (and maybe even an impressive one) for readers who see the book as one without redemption because of Yuknavitch’s seeming inability to grow up and to stop being a victim. However, Yuknavitch clearly thinks she has been saved, no, finally deigned the love and life she has been worthy and deserving of and waiting for her whole life. How is she rescued from her fate? Does this proud and loud-proclaiming feminist finally dig herself out of the prison of victimization and nearsightedness she has kept herself in all these years? No, she meets a wonderful (albeit married and a decade younger student of hers at the time) man who wants to be husband number 3 and to have a baby with her. That happens in the chapter “conversion.” Because the book isn’t cliche enough…she needs to be rescued, saved by a man.
Not that I don’t believe love can change things, and that I’m not happy for her; I do think we are all worthy of the love and life she seems to have at the end of the book. But for me, the genre of this book is really a tragedy. Because she can’t take responsibility for herself, she can’t move on, or grow up. She can’t narrativize over her victimizing, or at least, isn’t aware enough to know she should try. She loves her past so much, she can’t see a need for change, and most likely wouldn’t be capable of one.
The first sentence of the Acknowledgements is “If you have ever fucked up in your life, or if the great river of sadness that runs through us all has touched you, then this book is for you.” I thought this was a beautiful sentence, and I was excited. I know now that this book is not for me. This book is not for anyone except her. This is not a book that people need to read. Yes, we all mess up and are messed-up to varying degrees, but there are more appropriate responses than blind pride to all the ways you have hurt, hurt yourself, and hurt others. I am completely against unnecessary feelings of shame and guilt, but a little remorse at times (or even just once!) from Yuknavitch would have mitigated the intense dislike I gained for her by the end of the memoir. Speaking of shame, Lidia Yuknavitch made me feel ashamed of being a woman. She embodies all the stereotypes of manipulative, always messing up, self-destructive, emotionally unstable and reckless, selfish, self-complicating, and self-aggrandizing women. This book was less a Chronology of Water and more a Chronology of Pride. Of how pride steeped so deep in the blood veins can be poison keeping you from any kind of truth about yourself, others, and the world.
I don’t mean to diminish everything about this book. She had real hardships in her life and I’m sure she has created things of beauty, this book just isn’t one of them. She did beautiful things for parents she hated (and saw herself as a constant victim of)- she forgave one and housed the other in his old age. She wrote about them, and imagined their stories, which for her was a way to have compassion towards them, and to seek understanding. Unfortunately, the stories she imagined for them were still ones where her own identity and narrative took precedent. I believe in her life and story, but it’s a shame it wasn’t expressed better. I truly believe she could have done it, could have been capable…if she had been capable of remorse. If she had just been honest. Told the truth about things, saw the truth about things. Not pretentious or contrived, this book and her story could have been something. If she could have seen more complexity in her life, instead of reducing herself…
I could have loved her,