The Chronology of Water – an Un-book Report

As a writer, a woman and a human being I’m finding it hard to know what to say about The Chronology of Water, a memoir written by Lidia Yuknavitch.

Maybe I’ll start with this: this woman has had an incredibly messed up life, some of which was completely out of her control, some of which was in her control (but she spends most of the book telling us she’s been out of control for most of her life, regardless.)

Here’s the litany: she was sexually abused by her father, had a severely alcoholic mother, dropped out of school, did drugs, drank, slept around (no really, really slept around) and did just about everything she could to self-destruct. (In one chapter of the book she describes how she was drunk, got in her car, and hit another car with a pregnant woman driving. She never tells us what happened to the pregnant woman or how the accident was resolved.)

I don’t read many memoirs, but whenever I’ve read memoirs or auto-biographical material, I usually get the impression the author is trying to convey events as they happened and that, to the best of their ability, they are telling us the truth. Throughout Chronology of Water, the author tells us she is not telling us the truth about certain details. She’ll say one thing, then she’ll add something like but it didn’t happen that way or similar verbage to let the reader know she’s blurring the lines between what happened and what she is telling us happened. She wants us to know she is untrustworthy, which is a strange trait to want to convey in a memoir.

Also unusual is the lack of linearity in the book. Like water, the chapters ebb and flow between different parts of her life. She’ll drop something very casually in one chapter somewhat out of the blue and then tell us later the background of her casually dropped previous comment.

As a reader and a writer, I think it’s brave to talk about yourself ‘honestly’ on the one hand and focus on how the messed up events in your life have shaped you, but on the other, the book (with few exceptions) is almost entirely about that. By the time I got to the end of the book, I wasn’t sure I liked the “character” (?) of the writer or person who was speaking in the book.

I didn’t find these anecdotes describing a “strong” woman, even though I wanted the book to be about that. It was more like someone who has been through hell in her family, something horrific I’d never wish on anyone, to someone who had those experiences and then spent 30 more years killing herself with marathon drinking, drugging (including heroin) and the most irresponsible sexual behavior.

I could say some of the writing is lovely, and some turns of phrases are interesting and clever. That would be true. My comments aren’t about the writer’s ability to write well, which she does.

What I’m struggling with, and still struggling with, is what to make of the book. Honestly, I still have no idea what to make of it. I take that as a sign I need to think about it more, and consider the ramifications for writing about such brutal content in such a straight forward way – albeit with a writer’s voice that we’re told many times throughout the book, is unreliable.

4 Responses

  1. Since I am a big memoir fan – the more brutally honest the better – I’m interested in reading this. But I’m not sure I’ll like it either. I like my brutality with a dose of humor. I want to feel that the person is at least not completely giving in to raging depression and an outcome of “oh, what’s the point?” Also – the whole this may or may not be the truth thing is a little weird. Maybe it’s a cool device? I dunno – gotta see.
    I want to get a feel for what you’re talking about with this book. One hugely successful memoir that I had to walk away from – and almost at the beginning – was “Prozac Nation”. It struck me as a non-stop whiny, suicidal missive, but without the balance of some good-old fashioned self-deprecating, or observational, humor.
    Maybe I’m off base here, but when I read things like “Running With Scissors”, “Naked”, “Angela’s Ashes”, and “Liar’s Club”, I don’t feel as though I don’t have a grasp on horrible true stories. Actually, one very difficult one, that was still a great read, was Augusten Burrough’s “A Wolf at the Table” about his insane and abusive father. That one didn’t do as well for him, precisely I believe, because the humor wasn’t the main theme.
    As with fiction, the writer’s voice has to be one you can relate to, and that in and of itself maybe the main resaon you didn’t vibe with this.
    Thanks for your review.

    • Thanks Wren. I don’t read nearly as many memoirs, and I haven’t read any of the book’s you mentioned above, but I’m interested in reading Burroughs Running with Scissors because I thought the movie was brilliant and I’d like to see how he writes.

      I’m glad you’re interested in reading Chron. of Water because you’ll have a deeper basis of comparison with the other books, and I want to hear what you think.

  2. It is bad when someone is abused. However there is more than that. I am talking ONLY FOR MYSELF. I think that I have been through abusive situations in my youth and I never until recently thought that I have been abused. Not from parents or family environment but from outsiders.

    I see how abuse has affected my current behavior and I see that it does in a very subtle way, especially my connection to intimate relationships. Here I find that although we are not responsible for being abused, we may discover that we attracted the situations. And we have to find out why. I dont know the case but many victims erroneously think that they will attract “sympathy”. May be they will but we rarely feel respect or value people for whom we feel pity for their misfortunes.

    • I really hope, as you say, that you are able to find out the reasons you think this may have happened to you. But beyond understanding “why” there is the way you, or anyone who has been in that situation, chooses to deal with it.

      In many ways our reaction to a situation does strongly help determine how we are, or perhaps not, able to cope with the original situation AND the outcome.

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