Applying the Tools of Memoir to Fiction – Mary Karr and Jeff Zentner’s The Serpent King
In The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr writes of the need to burrow deeply into the writer’s psyche, to dig beneath the surface of how we want to appear to write with an authentic voice. “The author of a lasting memoir manages to power past the initial defenses, digging past the false self to where the truer one waits to tell the more complicated story” (102).
Karr also stresses the carnal connection in writing: the sensory moment that joins the writer and reader at a psychic or neurological level. “Getting sophisticated about carnal writing means selecting sensual data—items, odors, sounds—to recount details based on their psychological effects on a reader” (72).
Even when we’re not writing a personal memoir, applying these two techniques: carnal details and telling the more complicated story, helps the fiction writer elicit authentic voice and connect with the reader emotionally. Jeff Zentner’s book The Serpent King uses these techniques to full effect, lending authenticity and depth to characters that could have otherwise been shallow or unsympathetic southern caricatures. The result is a novel that expresses the universal truths of its characters—grief, loss, and the decision to take courageous action—in a way that connects with the reader’s personal experiences.
The 2017 paperback edition of The Serpent King sports a step-back cover with the most-quoted line of the book in bold text: “If you’re going to live, you might as well do painful, brave, and beautiful things.” This quote is the backbone theme of the book, reinforced through stories of grief, longing, and family expectations. The book is told from the point of view of three high-school students, Dill, the singer-songwriter son of a convicted snake-handling minister, Lydia, a thrift-shop-fasionista-blogger, and Travis, the staff-wielding-fantasy-novel-devoté.
From the first chapter, Zentner uses sensory engagement to connect the reader with the small-town Tennessee setting and characters. The air conditioner in Dill’s house wheezes against the humidity (2), Lydia smells “like honey, fig, and vetiver” (5), and her car, a frequent setting in the story, has its own fragrance of “Vanilla car freshener mixed with French fries, jasmine-orange-ginger lotion, and heated makeup” (9). Travis’s father perspires in the gravel driveway, casts a “briney glare” at the two teenagers picking up their friend, who comes loping outside dressed in black, “Ambling, perhaps. Whatever bears do” (9). Zentner maintains this sensory engagement throughout the book, including precisely rendered visuals, scents, and sounds.
In several instances, a smell triggers a flashback as on page 102: “The air smelled like kudzu, mud, cool gravel, and dead fish. *** That smell. Suddenly Travis is fourteen. He’s….”
We’re carried through our senses to the end of the book. In the last scene, when Dill says goodbye to his mother, he hugs her, feeling the bones of her “afflicted back and shoulders. She smelled like knockoff Ivory soap and powered laundry detergent from a yellow box labeled “Laundry Detergent”. (369)
Karr reminds, “The great writer trolls the world for totemic objects to place on a page. In every genre, it’s key.” (72) In the above examples, Zentner uses precise carnal details that are authentic to the setting and the characters. Knockoff Ivory soap and the yellow box with generic labeling speak to the family’s poverty in a way that soap alone would not. These details support the true selves, the authentic voices, that Zentner digs up for his tale, the soap further echoing the theme of baptism and second choices at the heart of the story.
Karr reminds would-be-memoirists that “Self-deceit is the bacterium affecting every psyche to varying degrees, especially in youth. We like to view ourselves a certain way.”(158) “We want to be what we’re not.” (159). She urges writers to go deeper, tossing aside the easy interpretations for the deeper, truer version.
Zentner’s characters take this journey, and the repetition of key elements in the story functions like a chorus, reinforcing the themes with slight twists or modifications bringing us deeper into the story and the characters’ evolving understanding of their family inheritance and what those stories mean for their own choices and lives.
The story of The Serpent King, Dill’s grandfather, is told to Travis on page 71, with the reflection “Folks is afraid of grief. Think it’s catchin, like a disease.” Grief is characterized as “darkness in [Dill’s] bloodline” (71).
Dill battles with the idea of innate grief and poison on page 267:
“It’s in my blood. It’s like each of my cells has this poison inside it, and the grief chemical from my brain dissolved whatever kept the poison bound up. So now it’s starting to flow free and poison me. Like it did my grandpa and dad.”
This theme returns on page 282, “Dill lay awake that night, thinking about exits and escape from pain” and page 294, “The crushing weight of destiny. The ossifying conviction that he was living out some ancient and preordained plan, encoded in his blood, built into the architecture of his name.”
The counterpoint to grief, courage, appears equally often.
“Why should I do it? (play the talent show), Dill asks.
“Because we should do things we’re afraid of. It makes it easier every time we do it,” Lydia responds (191).
The book turns between these two themes, pushing further into each one until it reaches the pivot point when Dill, sitting on top of a column remembers his baptism below, “The river writhes around his calves, knees, thighs, and then waist. It feels alive, like a snake,” (296). In the moment before deciding, he remembers performing on stage creating the same sense of freedom and cleanliness as his baptism, releasing him from his past. “Then he stood, gathered his courage, and decided to end this life and take his chances on the next.” (296).
The combination of authentic sensory details and a deeper exploration of the characters’ stories create a strong, emotional text for the reader. Great details combined with the more complicated story connection with the reader in ways that resonate with their own life experiences. Like a good song, the music of this combination lingers in the reader’s mind long after the notes have faded.
Karr, Mary. Art of Memoir. New York: Harperperennial, 2016. Print.
Zentner, Jeff. The Serpent King: A Novel. New York: Ember, an Imprint of Random House Children’s , a Division of Penguin Random House LLC, 2017. Print.