Cat Marnell’s “How to Murder Your Life”: a book review

I might be way out of line when I consider a book review because I typically rate a book based on one thing; how well the book was written. Sometimes the material covered is horrific, or dry, or I disconnect with it one way or another. Can the writer reel me in and make me want to read about it anyway? That is a good book. (And clearly if I want to read it from the first sentence that is also usually a good book).

Ms. Marnell’s book has been widely acclaimed to be a fabulous/tragic retelling of her life as best she can remember it as an addict and editor with a wild trajectory to the top and then down again. MMMMMM. Not quite in my opinion, but more on that later. As I finished the last page in the early hours of this morning (a straight through read, much like “The Girl on the train” by Paula Hawkins, with a little more this-girl-is-a-train-wreck bent) I couldn’t quite describe how I felt about it.

It was a compulsive read, to be certain. I wanted to know what happened and how it ended (with the security net in place that I knew, in fact, she was at the very least alive to tell her tale). But more than ever I wanted to know why. Why someone who appeared to have it all would debase herself and lose herself over and over in addiction before somehow unsorrowfully proclaiming that she was a scaled-back addict at this point in her life.

Before I started to read the book – I flipped to the back cover of the book and saw a photo of the author, a fairylike, real-life version of a Margaret Keane painting with an electric blue Lil Kim wig and matching, tousled blue slip dress threatening to fall off her cultivated, thin frame and I felt incredibly sad for her. She looked less like an in demand author and one time beauty editor than a tiny, broken bird. “She could use a friend”, I thought, which was a sentiment Ms. Marnell would go on to reincarnate often through the book.

There is plenty of shock in the book, the abuse she not only accepts but seems at times to welcome (in an effort to outshine her own self-loathing) seemed to be more catastrophic than all the drugs, prescribed and otherwise that she consumed and routinely consumed her. Privilege and social class play a large part in this book too and Ms. Marnell never tried to shy away from pointing out how well-aware she was of this “opportunity” – though she does this with a wink and a nod, the way spoiled children sometimes do. Not that I blamed her for it, but a steady stream of cash and the freedom she routinely ensnared herself with were often courtesy of her family, who enjoyed a certain financial autonomy not available to all addicts. I found myself enraged at her parents, who were not cited for much more than poisoning her and paying her to stay out of their way (which is easy for me to say because my children are still very young and far away from making any catastrophic mistakes). She circles back by the end of the book to thank her parents for their love and dedication to her and in that I found myself almost changing sides and determining that they loved and cared for her in the only way they knew how.

In “My Booky Wook” Russel Brand lyrically and fantastically laid bare this particular type of addiction memoir (there were several overlapping themes in the two titles) and detailed it in such a way the writing itself seemed more urgent and gripping than the events (an incredible feat to say the least). “How to Murder Your Life” was written as I imagine Ms. Marnell might have candidly talked to a trusted source (or random person sitting beside her on a flight, depending on her mental state?) and her dedication hints at that.

In the end, the “why” of this whole tale haunted me the most as I pieced together that her secrets kept her sick for far too long because she was able to hide in plain sight for years. The indignation that some felt about her open drug use (and paid dispatches about it) was dwarfed by the readership and interest the public and media had for her after her truth was revealed.

She “got away with it” because, simply, she could. Often times, in revealing one’s truth, there is a social shunning; in her case, there was a book deal. It can be argued that this is a disservice, to say the least, to less fortunate addicts, who don’t have the same monetary or social position that Ms. Marnell has (as evidenced by the vast majority of the 23.5 million Americans who are addicted to alcohol and drugs (http:///www.drugfree.org) and aren’t given a $500,000 book advance based on their essays).

I felt less conflicted, I suppose, because I borrowed her book from the library and didn’t directly contribute to what might be considered the oversimplification and glamorization of addiction, but again, I was at odds with what level of support, if any was appropriate. In the end, I felt like she was in on the joke and still scorched from it. It was as if her disease was grotesquely masqueraded as “antics” and almost encouraged by all but one or two people. Personally, I felt less of a kinship with her as a woman, though she is just a few years older than I am and more of a maternal instinct to take care of her. Admittedly, I am not her target audience. She wrote her truth, put it all out there, owned her mistakes and shared her heartbreak for anyone that might be comforted by it. She did all of this in a way that begged for it to be compulsively consumed the way she obsessed over and gorged on approval, validation, celebrity, food, alcohol drugs and sex and all the trappings that each of those things held. There is art and dark magic and painful beauty in that.

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