Cat Marnell
How to Murder Your Life

The non-fashion world met Cat Marnell in a New York Post column in June 2012 headlined “Drugs More Fun than Work”, which reported that Marnell, a “drug-addicted beauty columnist” for online site xoJane, had declined a request to clean herself up in order to keep her job.

At that website, as an “unhealthy health writer”, Marnell wrote frank stories under excellent headlines such as “I Spent Two Weeks in a Mental Institution, but Left with Better Hair” and “The Art of Crack-ttractiveness: How to Look and Feel Hot on No Sleep”. But in her emails to the Post, Marnell set herself apart through her refusal to be apologetic, much less guarded. “I’m always on drugs,” she told the reporter. “Look, I couldn’t spend another summer meeting deadlines behind a computer at night when I could be on the rooftop of Le Bain [a New York club] looking for shooting stars and smoking angel dust with my friends”.

She promised the reporter she would write a book, and now here it is, a brave and stylish mess. On the second page, she introduces herself through a story from her time at a Condé Nast magazine, before she moved into the blogosphere, and when her habits were already bad (though they would also get worse). “I was twenty-six years old and an associate beauty editor at Lucky, one of the top fashion magazines in America, and that’s all that most people knew about me. But beneath the surface, I was full of secrets: I was an addict, for one. A pillhead!”

And so she begins the project of building How to Murder Your Life’s tonal world, which sometimes suggests an author of thorny emotional texture, at once blissful and spiky and skittery and glib. If reading is a means of accessing world views different from your own, then style is one of the most effective ways for an author to communicate those differences. Marnell’s is a popular voice, and if you like it, here you will get it in spades. “I may have been a drug addict, but I had my dignity! You know?” This is a representative sentence. Marnell works very hard to make you feel like you’re having a fun, trashy conversation with her, and you can say one thing about the result: it’s not dour.

As a narrative that paints a grand sweep from Marnell’s birth “under a crack-rock white moon” to the authoring of this memoir, it is possibly too messy to be effective; too much is crammed in. Marnell’s life has been full of horror and drama. As she climbs from internships at major magazines to editorial positions at others, she is constantly waylaid by addictive endeavours, often shared with a frightening man named Marco.

Part of the horror is in the repetition, but there could have been more drama in the telling, perhaps through focusing on particular scenes at the expense of others. She falls into a kind of professional love with Jean Godfrey-June, a mentor figure at that Condé Nast magazine, Lucky, who gives her constant rope and remarkable understanding, and to whom she lies constantly. A beautiful passage tells how Marnell spends 24 drug-afflicted hours trying and failing to write a short paragraph about goat’s milk, and you want to cheer when “JGJ”, as Marnell calls her, finally writes it herself in two minutes. It’s evidence of how strong Marnell’s voice can be when it’s telling a single rich story; she has a precise sense of pace and a wonderful eye for detail.

And yet the messiness elsewhere is part of the argument. I admired Marnell’s refusal, evidenced in that New York Post email, to decouple what’s fun and interesting about drugs from what’s sad and bad about them.

On the one hand, these drugs make Marnell throw fits at work. At xoJane, she constantly complains that it’s no Condé Nast, and constantly tells her new editor that she’s not Jean Godfrey-June. In that same article, her emails explain why these editors keep her around: “Drug addicts undeniably bring editorial black magic to the table like nobody else”, which almost makes it worth their being “coddled emotional vampire nightmares”. Drugs make her believe that she has killed mice that never existed, and to scream at people, over and over again, “I SAW THE BLOOD SPREAD!”

On the other hand, when she’s high, she likes making collages, which does sound quite fun, and time and again, she makes living a broke, overworked, high-functioning life “full of secrets” appear outright charming. Coming out of one “sobriety fog”, she decides that she needs “discipline, structure, and limits! That is, a plan for controlled use.” To effect this control, she buys a pill organiser. She writes rent cheques in highlighter pen.

On the one hand, she has quite serious things to say about the kind of guys who like high girls (especially Marco).

On the other hand, “those were the bad guys”:

The good guys were good. My favorite was a really grungy cokehead Calvin Klein model named Michael. Gosh, I’m still in love with him! He had greasy brown hair that hung in his face and wore glasses and beat-up Marc Jacobs clothes. Oh, and he had just a perfect body. Perfect. God, Michael was so hot. And no matter how much blow he did back then, he always had this glowy, gold-flushed skin tone, like he went to tanning beds or was part Cherokee or something. And his cheekbones! Ugh.

This is a small moment in the scope of the book, but I find it a beautiful passage, proof of Marnell’s commitment to showing the raggedy parts of life. In moments like these, her style is both spacious and quick; it reminded me of Eve Babitz.

In a long postscript, Marnell reports that she still gets high but also sleeps eight hours a night. We want addiction narratives to end in either tragedy or triumph; perhaps what’s most interesting about Marnell is that she insists on delivering neither.  CR

Ebury, 320pp, $35

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 11, 2017 as "Cat Marnell, How to Murder Your Life". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: CR