March 2011

Caleb Powell

nonfiction

The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch

Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water opens with Emily Dickinson’s epigraph, “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.” Dickinson’s words represent quite an understatement as, despite the title, Yuknavitch's prose flows in its own direction. Yuknavitch weaves lucid stories with lyricism and experimental flourishes that never seem overloaded. She travels from the heartbreak of stillbirth, unhappy childhood, and a reckless coming of age; intertwines aquatic sports with various addictions and sexual escapades; and pays homage to the ghosts of literature, chief among them Ken Kesey and Kathy Acker. In doing so, she has created a simply beautiful work.

Yuknavitch grew up in Oregon, a gifted swimmer who competes at an early age, the younger of two daughters, yet her household is ruled by a cruel father. Her mother, both victim and enabler, chooses inebriation over any attempt to “save” her daughters. Tensions explode further after they move to Florida. Yuknavitch hopes to escape like her sister, eight years senior, who has already left without remorse or much contact. When she receives an athletic scholarship from Brown, her father’s reaction encapsulates their relationship: “Shaking with anger… Finally, he spoke. A ride. At a Snob school. A snob school for silver spoons and rich assholes.” She responds internally: “I thought: this is your daughter leaving, motherfucker.” When she receives a full-ride scholarship to a university in Texas and freedom, though, different troubles arise: “…chlorine and vodka and Nivea and sh sh sh shaving cream and Suave conditioner.” And: “…dorm dinners they taste like shit and you have to sit with a bunch of West Texan fuckwaddery lets go out early and drink lets hit the Rock-Z and dance and dance and drink and barf and screw every day every night.” Her youth runs reckless, she loses her scholarship, and subsequent passages are filled with erotic bisexual encounters, her failed marriage, and the fated pregnancy.

She returns to Oregon, enters the creative writing department, and becomes one of 13 authors, with Ken Kesey as guide, that became O. U. Levon (for Novel, University of Oregon) -- their product the book Caverns. Though the novel isn't a masterpiece, the experience proves to be formative: “At the coast house we got high, some of us fucked some others of us, we wrote in little notebooks.” She bonded with Kesey: “In 1984, Kesey’s son Jed, a wrestler for the University of Oregon, was killed… My baby girl died the same year.” And shares heartbreak: “I was listing (to Kesey) all the horrible things people said to me since my baby died… my personal favorite, from my father’s sister, fascist catholic: ‘The saddest part is that she’ll go to hell, isn’t it, since she wasn’t baptized.'” Kesey gave her what she needed, genuine concern, and she reflects: “It’s what a loving father should ask.”

But perhaps the greatest influence comes from Kathy Acker, the writer and person, as Yuknavitch notes in this reflexive statement: “So if you’ve never read Kathy Acker’s books, then you don’t know how often fathers rape their daughters.” Yet The Chronology of Water sidesteps the conventional “survival” or “abuse” memoir; an eventual healthy relationship overshadows a past she has conquered. The book concludes with a conversation between Hawthorne Books publisher Rhonda Hughes and Yuknavitch, a lovely touch to this original and satisfying memoir.

The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch
Hawthorne Books
ISBN: 0979018838
268 Pages