Lidia Yuknavitch is a self-proclaimed language bandit. Other writers purposely disturb their readers' comprehension, because, well, they want to change language as we know it. Yuknavitch's The Chronology of Water plays with language, but it also brings an extra dimension to the wordsmith memoir: it's a sputteringly good read.
Yuknavitch offers pieces of her early life dripping—no, reeking—of cigarette-filled rooms and chlorinated pools. In 1978, when she was 15 years old, she was accepted into the Florida Aquatic Swim Team, where, she says, young girl swimmers were taught discipline through punishment and competition. Yuknavitch contrasts fabled FAST coach Randy Reese with her childhood mentor, Ron Koch, who was a father figure to her and a refuge from the abuse and anger she attributes to her real dad. Later, Yuknavitch attended Texas Tech in Lubbock, on an athletic scholarship. When she conjures Lubbock's "endless Barbie Texans with hairspray and drawls," you can smell the Aqua Net.
In the course of recounting her experiences as daughter, sister, championship swimmer, wife, lover, and artist—not necessarily in that order and with frequent doubling back and revisiting—Yuknavitch upends the language of our culture's pat, commercialized narratives about abuse, addiction, self-destruction, promiscuity, domestic violence, and incest. She relates painful memories, never for a moment letting you forget that they're uniquely her own.
Tiny chapters create an idiosyncratic yet organic pattern of fragmented revelations. Some are cliff-hangers, others end in surprising calm. Yuknavitch's University of Oregon classmate, novelist Chang-Rae Lee, called her work "trite" once during a fiction workshop; devastated, she fumed, fantasized punching him in the face, and avoided creative writing for a year. Here, she addresses him directly: "Chang Rae? Sorry I thought those things. Thanks for pissing me off all those years ago. Beautiful random nemesis." Moments like that convey the sensation that Yuknavitch is picking up a worn stone from her creek-bed memory, turning it over in her palm, and then lovingly, gratefully putting it back where she found it.
Other experiences can't be put down so easily, and they seem to push Yuknavitch's language into badassery. An ambivalent recounting of her violent relationship with a former girlfriend yields innovative word embroideries like "female headed slow-poke." A vignette about swimming with her hero, Kathy Acker, features an exchange of "motherloving juice." . One five-page chapter comprises eight very long sentences mimicking the alcoholic haze Yuknavitch shared with her second husband.
Writing is Yuknavitch's lover, her hot sex, her companion, and with it she builds a "wordhouse"—a structure made of her own invented language, based on the authenticity of her experience rather than the notion of home that our culture hands down to us, with its patterns of rage, silence, and victimhood. She describes her life in fragments because she distrusts the scripts and myths of the nuclear family, marriage, and dichotomous sexuality. Occasionally she'll stop and scold herself for trying to "story over things."
Toward the end of The Chronology of Water, an urn full of ashes appears. Yuknavitch calls it a "motherbox," and she and her sister use screwdrivers and hammers to get at its contents. But it won't be pried. This memoir is a motherbox, too. Just when you think it's going to open up into a traditional redemption story, just when you're ready to get closure and cry your eyes out, it changes course and offers you still more roles, addictions, and tales of abuse. Yuknavitch refuses to define her story. She reminds us that there are endless ways to die and endless ways to be reborn. Plural, fluid, she strokes her strong, loving, fighting, swimmer's body across every page. Her escapades will probably make you horny even as they make you ponder big questions about motherhood, sex, love, the machinery of memory, and words.