Last night I finished reading How to Murder Your Life, which started a few trains of thought. To be clear, it’s OBVIOUSLY one of the greatest things ever written. It’s like her columns, but a book. It’s about fashion magazines and name-dropping and this:
1990s exploration of the same territory, for men. I’m roughly the same age as Marnell:
Cat Marnell is the Marilyn Manson of Lucky magazine. I was into Marilyn Manson and being a depressed weirdo, and I was into skateboarding. It turns out the title of her book comes from Jason Dill, of Alien Workshop fame. I had this t-shirt of theirs at one point…
Things like that are really helpful in childhood, preparing you for the adult world. I was so pissed when my mom wouldn’t let me get the “Exalt the New God” shirt.
I got the computer version a few years later…This was my first deck when I moved back to the States, in a sort of life foreshadowing:
I used to watch Trilogy with my friends before we went out to skate. Jason Dill’s (later, late) teammate Dylan Rieder was super into fashion and almost lost his skateboard career due to a benzo addiction…While the act of skateboarding has high autism appeal, the industry of skateboarding amounts to getting teenage boys to pay for different sorts of imagery. With people like Ed Templeton, the art scene overlaps.
Cat Marnell is waaaay smarter than Emily at xojane. In a way, it’s also a great book about neurodiversity and the problems of being “high-functioning.”
If New York magazine had put my name into orbit, this rocketed it to the stratosphere. Everyone wanted to interview me. And I could barely get out of bed. I couldn’t keep up with all of the emails. I’ll never forget groggily opening my laptop in bed and seing the headline “Cat Marnell Needs to Get Some Sleep Before She Can Talk About Leaving xoJane.com” on New York magazine’s “The Cut.” They’d just reported my email, blowing them off. I was that big of a story. What the hell was going on?
I was so sick that I’d been put on disability and dismissed from my job, yet my career was on fire. I was a mess just like I’d always been, but now everyone loved it. Magazines and websites were contacting me not only to talk but to ask if I’d write for them. I’d worked in media too long not to cash in on the moment (plus, I was about to be broke). But where? For whom? I thought of Lesley Arfin and chose Vice. I made myself leave my apartment-cave for lunch in Williamsburg with the editor in chief, Rocco Castoro. He offered me great money to do whatever I wanted…
I was too sick to be a media star. It was all too much. I started refusing to be photographed for the big interviews I gave (sorry, The Telegraph), then I’d stopped responding to the editor’s emails. My agent was pressuring me to do a book proposal, but I could barely string sentences together. We sent a gibberish writing sample to an editor, and it was returned quietly to us, along with advice to yank it off the market. Eventually I couldn’t even handle my once-a-week Vice column. The last ones were so druggy and incoherent that they rhymed–badly (“The Boom Boom Room was full of doom…”). Still, people loved it: Rolling Stone put me on their 2012 Host List alongside Riff Raff and the Ying Yang Twins and called me “Hot Bukowski.” I could do no wrong. Vice even sent me to a glamorous rehab in Thailand and then made me editor-at-large–I signed the contracts and everything–but I didn’t show up my first day, and then never again.
It took me until spring 2013–almost a year after my career really popped off–to get a decent proposal together. But I finally did. Then I got a book deal. And now–two more rehabs, one overdose, two boyfriends, another pregnancy, two apartments, and approximately fifteen thousand fucking years later–here you are, holding that very book in your chic little hands.
I read Constance Grady’s review of the book while I was still reading it, and knew I’d want to respond. Imagine my surprise to see the book I couldn’t put down (except to read negative reviews of it) described as “surprisingly dull.” Who is this Constance Grady person, and what does she have to say? Her summary of the book sounds a bit like she’s reading it like a rival’s resume, which she basically is. How did life bring her to the book?
But Marnell kept producing, and readers kept clicking. I was one of them; I was 24 and sublimating a lot of intellectual energy into learning about makeup, and I hadn’t read anything quite like her writing before. Sometimes it was like watching a train wreck, but when she was on, her posts were unlike anything else in the beauty writing world: They had a kind of electricity that made them compulsively readable. The beauty tips were almost beside the point, but the woman undeniably knew her stuff; I still use products she recommended years ago for my go-to concealer and perfume.
How to Murder Your Life is honest, but it is not thoughtful and introspective. It’s actually a little bit boring.
That intimate, slightly manic, I-am-probably-on-speed-right-now-as-I-write voice Marnell cultivated at xoJane worked brilliantly for a 500-word beauty blog post, but it cannot sustain itself for a 375-page book. All the caps lock and italics and onomatopoeias (“AHHH!” and “AUUUUGHH” for screams; “BLLLLLARRGGGH. Slosh” for vomiting; you get the picture) are at first charming and then annoying and at last wearying, and so are all of her other spacey verbal tics…
That she was able to get herself together enough to finish a book — even if it’s coming out five years after it was commissioned — is a victory of sorts for her ambition over her addiction. But as a book, How to Murder Your Life is very much controlled by her addiction. And addiction, in real life, is pretty boring: That’s part of what makes it so awful and destructive. An addiction memoir written by an active addict is bound to be boring as well.
The whole reason How to Murder Your Life is an interesting book is that Marnell is insightful. She must’ve done, like, so much therapy in all that rehab. The stuff about style is the problem discussed in a previous post. Marnell is communicating deep things, but Grady can’t listen because of the typographical conventions.
Like autism, addiction is an intense emotional experience that interferes with daily functioning, which you have to hide. Repetitive behavior, flat affect, sleep problems, easily overwhelmed, isolated, etc. You can’t share important, intense parts of your experience in settings where everyone else is totally calm. Look at the use of the all-caps, etc.:
I was wearing those ridiculous twenty-three-inch-waist high-waisted Sergio Valente jeans I’d ordered sophomore year. They’d fit me once, but now they felt like they were compressing my insides. To this day, I blame them for what happened next.
I was giving my cast final notes when the cramping began. I went to the girls’ bathroom, sat down in a stall, and pulled down my jeans.
I apologize in advance for what I am about to describe.
Imagine a jellyfish as big as an ashtray. Now turn that jellyfish dark bloodred and multiply it by a few hundred. Now imagine pulling down your Sergio Valente jeans and seeing hundreds of ashtray-size bloodred jellyfish pouring out of you. That’s what happened to me.
“AUUUUUUGHHH!” I started screaming. “AUUUUUUGHHH!”
The bloody pieces–the lining of my uterus, I guess–kept gushing from my body and into the water. It was like my insides were falling out. I tried to catch them in my hands, to stop it. There was too much. Plunk, plunk, plunk, plunk. It was endless. A deluge!
…”You’re still pregnant,” the doctor confirmed. I stared up at the fluorescent lights…
[eventual late-term abortion]
A few hours later, it was my turn. I put my legs into the stirrups. The doctor injected my cervix with a numbing agent, but I was awake the entire time…It was brutally painful. More than pain, it felt like…torture. I was splayed out there on this table just…vibrating–all guh-guh-guh-guh-guh-guh from the sheer force of the vacuum machine. Remember the scene in The Princess Bride where the mustachioed bandit guy is getting pumped full of water–is that what’s happening to him?–and his whole body is thrashing and shaking and straining? And it’s almost unbearable to watch? That’s how I see me in this memory of my life. I also saw what was coming out of me, since there was a tank that was covered by a paper cone with a slit in it, and the paper cone was off-kilter. I saw it all….
[a few pages later]
I was still only seventeen, but my dad didn’t care what I did anymore. He couldn’t even look at me. Half the time I didn’t even sleep at home. That August, Oscar took me to the Hamptons for the first time. We went shark fishing and snorted heroin off old issues of Robb Report. The glamorous surroundings worked like drugs: they made me forget how ugly I felt on the inside. Yes, I’d devastated my family. Yes, I’d murdered that baby. Yes, I’d totally fucked up my future. But wasn’t it lovely here off Amangansett? Didn’t I look fly in my Calvin Klein bikini, smoking Camel Lights? The boys caught a shark and cut it open at the belly. The blood spilled out all over the deck.
Addicts usually have A LOT OF TRAUMA, which it helps to deal with by going through life in a state of critical distance in which things are funnier because the dopamine is doing things to your attention and pattern-recognition. The cleverness and the life dysfunction go together with stimulants just like they do with autism. Said life dysfunction is supposed to filter you out before you even get to more privileged circles. Her writing is refreshing because, at last, one of us, one of the bad kids, made it into an unusual circle and she can report from behind enemy lines what it’s like there. You’ll never hear it straight from the normals.
It pisses Constance Grady off that Cat Marnell can be drunk and cracked out and write something epic in 25 minutes. She doesn’t just do it herself, though, despite it being “so easy.” “Real life is for people who can’t handle drugs.” Cat Marnell is some people’s spirit animal, but she’s not Constance Grady’s. She doesn’t want to endure the agony that would make observations like Marnell’s occur to her.
In dismissing Marnell, she’s defending against empathy. Marnell’s writing is explicitly trying to get the reader to imagine what it’s like to BE her. Instead, Grady is complaining about all caps. There’s a single section of the book where there are pages and pages of dialogue in all-caps. That’s the point where she impulsively goes to an NA meeting all cracked out and shamefully confesses everything. The person who hooked her up at Vice was there…
Maybe Grady doesn’t understand why you’d write about turning your non-slip socks inside out in rehab so that you can, like, slide around and live dangerously in an environment that infantilizes you.
It’s not that communication is breaking down for lack of effort on Marnell’s part. Kirkus Reviews was similarly dismissive:
A memoir of addiction and the millennial high life.
The short answer to the instruction implied in the title is this: do a lot of drugs, drink to excess, be flaky and unreliable on the job, and take stupid risks. A one-time junior fashionista—“I always wanted to be a beauty editor. To me, being a beauty editor was better than being president of the United States!”—Marnell checks off these obligations dutifully, having been trained by a childhood of privilege and bewildered, clueless parents (“My mom was in there—snooping!”). From the manicured suburbs to trendiest Manhattan is but a short step, with an infinitely more interesting medicine cabinet than the usual Ritalin regime. Landing a gig at, yes, a fashion magazine, Marnell soon developed an “amphetamine work ethic” and learned the ropes of the trade, including how to land Vicodin and Percocet and hide her habit effectively—at least at work (“I kept the orange bottles in the zipper pocket of my mom’s Chloé Silverado bag—hidden away”). Naturally, the author also learned that the people who surrounded her chemical life were not the most dependable or nicest, four to a couch and doped to the gills (“ZZZZZZZ, one of the dudes snored. At least that meant he was alive”). Writing in her early 30s on the other side of it all, Marnell ends her account with the expected truisms (“Strong, healthy people just don’t interest the sickos of the world as much”) and Scarlett O’Hara–isms (“Someday I’ll find a man who treats me right”). It’s all delivered with studied earnestness and an eye to shock value, though there’s not much left that can shock us in this sad world: not Japanese pornography and not the louche vision of addicts with Jean Paul Gaultier gym bags.
What’s missing is humor. Every generation needs its Carrie Fisher, perhaps even its Hunter S. Thompson, but this isn’t it.
The reviewer clearly decided ahead of time there was nothing of value documented in the book. Saying “the people who surrounded her chemical life were not the most dependable or nicest” is an insulting way of trivializing a memoir about terrifying abusive relationships and the internalized shame from people like Kirkus Reviewer that kept her in them. What the reviewer doesn’t understand about the book’s humor is that ridiculous things about being described matter-of-factly because that’s what it’s like to be crazy. Whenever the boss came by her desk, she’d eat some more speed. It might be “shocking” to write about stuff like that in an ironically cheerful, breezy tone, but that’s just the everyday reality of using drugs to keep up the appearance of normalcy. The spectacular public fuckups come from situations of valiantly trying to act normal when your life and your mental state are completely chaotic. There’s also an element of masochism.
The reviewers see reading the book as an exercise in fault-finding (which is a fun way to read!), but I don’t see the point of reading a memoir if you’re not going to try to see things from the writer’s point of view.
CAN normal people see things from crazy people’s point of view? Why do they resist trying so hard? For me, it’s always been interesting to think about things like “what does psychosis feel like?” The writing style conveys “exotic” states of mind like anticholinergic delirium and PCP psychosis. “Which is interesting because you can watch yourself behaving in this terrible way, but you can’t control it.”
The reviewers seem to struggle with the idea that there’s something behind the way crazy people act. “She does these terrible things, so she must be stupid.” From Rolling Stone’s review:
“There aren’t any big words in the book,” she emphasizes, tapping at a tower of advance copies. “And it’s not that I don’t know those words. I just don’t talk like that. When I went to Hope Rehab in Thailand to write the book, my counselor Simon Mott let me use writing it as part of my recovery. He let me have affirmations like, ‘My book is fun to write! My book is fun to read!’ I was trying to write a book that was as readable as celebrity gossip.”
Celebrities rule Marnell’s perceptions of culture as well as politics. “I think people are going to get obsessively creative under Trump,” she says. “Like what happened in the Eighties under Reagan. Symmetry, Instagram, Kardashians – it’s over! Money is over. Rich people need to get weird again, like Diana Vreeland used to be. Like, why don’t you quilt yourself a coat of white monkey fur and meander around your apartment?”
You don’t read Cat Marnell’s book for political advice, although I will say it’s likely that she’s at least spent more time with poor people than the average rich person. Does she know Neck Face?
Maybe the normals pick up on all the rage that makes it so gratifying to shock them?