"Viral" is a good meme for a memoir about the body, and seems appropriate for a small book published in 2011 that's still breaking 50,000 on Amazon, and keeps popping up on blogs and social media feeds. Lidia Yuknavitch's The Chronology of Water is the kind of book that people don't just read, but become converted to. The Goodreads reviews (over 1000 ratings, over 300 actual reviews) say things like "this book is holy" and "I am sitting here in a dazed stupor." I myself have so far bought five, and keep giving them to people. I keep describing the book as "fiction," though, and then at some point in the conversation I'll recall myself and say, "well, it's a memoir, actually," and then the person's eyes glaze over. And this is very annoying, because if we drop the categories and say "Lidia Yuknavitch is my favorite new writer," we're getting somewhere.
Technically, this is a memoir, and it's about a woman, and there are stillborn babies and tales of sexual abuse and drug and alcohol addiction in it, like all craptastic ploys for literary credibility, and yet still I am lit on fire by the new. This brilliant, rough, mad woman has stuffed an actual female body into language and written her book that way. Without exploiting herself. Without game-playing about language. Without being coy, without being theory, while still being artful and intelligent.
It's so genius I'm not quite sure how she did it. The tone is a combination of high and low, with some of the writing literary and metaphorical, some conversational and shock-jockey, all of it fueled by rage and pain and love and art and transformation.
I am the kind of uptight person to be suspicious of books that are in-your-face about rage and pain. Like, that much emotion is something we all learned to shut up about our sophomore year of college.
I had a good friend who wrote poetry my sophomore year of college, and she showed me some melodramatic work about being raped by her brother, and I was all like "this isn't very realistic and it's kind of a cliché." And later it turned out she had been raped by her brother.
Lidia Yuknavitch is not afraid of the stories we have to tell. Before the end of the first paragraph we have visited the special shower in the hospital where you end up, eventually, in your first shower after childbirth, hobbling, stapled, peeing and bleeding on yourself, wearing a fluid-stained gown. She invokes "ripped from vagina to rectum." I've been in that shower, too, but I never thought to meet it in literature.
This is the kind of woman's story that shatters off into other women's stories, and lifts us up, and cradles us, and feels like someone is finally talking about life.
And what she's talking about, of course, is totally defined by the way she's talking about it, this bombshell-good style that can spit out theory in words that make easy sense. Like so:
All the events in my life swim in and out between each other. Without chronology. Like in dreams. So if I am thinking of a memory...there is no linear sense. Language is a metaphor for experience. It's as arbitrary as the mass of chaotic images we call memory-but we can put it into lines to narrativize over fear.
She can talk about theory, but she can also embody every feeling-an "immovable weight in the belly," "crying great waves," colleagues in the English department who try "not to look at or smell my ever enormous tits and belly bulge...". (This when she is pregnant with a married student's child. Whee, I love her.)
It's a delicious, rare joy to see any writer do something original with language. Especially when it's coming up with something fundamentally new, to say new things, in this case as much an emotional and physical reality as a narrative one.
This is a memoir, but it's not about personal identity (fucking yawn), it's more about the soul or the sacred, not who we are or what we are but how, maybe.
A Chronology of Water, to end in a flood of tears. Pass it on.