The blurbs on the backflap of Ann Marlowe’s memoir give the impression that the author lived through hell and miraculously returned with enough lucidity to chronicle the chaos. But if you’re expecting a messy confessional about abjection and vomity recovery, you’ve got the wrong book. In fact, in How to Stop Time Marlowe never hits bottom. Her anti-abject shtick gives us the “recreational heroin user” as entitled consumer, a yuppie control freak living in the cool East Village via an unnamed M.B.A. program, via Harvard, buffered in an apparent money cocoon as a part-time Wall Streeter and music reviewer, using drugs to construct her “specialness”: “It robed me with a mantle, however thin, of transgressive glamour. . . . When I ducked into the ladies’ room at an expensive restaurant, I could bet no one else had the goal I had. My friends might often hurt and disappoint me, but at least they were not tame people with predictable lives. Nor could I be prosaic, because I USED HEROIN.”
Marlowe’s a boho Prufrock measuring her lifestyle in plastic baggies rather than coffee spoons while she chases the dragon of hipster cred on the fringes of the Downtown music scene. Her heroin moment lasted from 1988 to late 1995, coincidentally the end of indie culture chic per se. Now, in her first book, the fortysomething Marlowe explores how she sniffed away her youth “to replace the unpredictability of life with the familiarity of something that’s always available.”
In refreshing contrast to the emotional spew characteristic of less classy memoirs from the dark side, Marlowe’s spare prose affects an aloof mastery. Marlowe renders her “identity as a heroin-user” not as an addiction (with all the messiness and loss of control implied) but as a consumer choice. Like the ideal purchase, dope represents glamour and control. She never portrays the drug as more powerful than she is. Analyzing dope, like money, as eminently “fungible,” one day she tossed her habit as coolly as deciding to return a sweater: “I was starting to feel imprisoned rather than liberated by my identity as a heroin user.” So she stopped. Though Marlowe doesn’t deny that heroin is physically addictive, she calls 12-steppers whiners. Her take on dependency is a rationalist one: “We choose our addictions. . . . What allowed me to quit and not do it again was giving up on the psychological pattern of need.”
How to Stop Time is cleverly organized in a quasi-cute, quasi-authoritative glossary format: Short passages devoted to a single word or phrase are arranged alphabetically (e.g., “Cool,” “Copping,” and “Crime”) and ultimately coalesce into a chilling self-portrait. The most striking aspect of the book is the way Marlowe presents herself as the consummate slummer, always able to leave: “It had begun to seem funny and a bit shameful to me that I recorded my East Village bar pickups in my brown leather Bottega Veneta appointment diary, that I played tennis in Locust Valley the day after getting high.” She’s self-aware enough to suspect her pot-dealer then-boyfriend perceives her as a “wannabe bohemian,” yet still enough of a reverse snob to see her dealings with marginal types as a kind of achievement. She bravely lays herself bare as such a priggish, boho creep. With patrician smugness she patronizes her wreckier associates, while treating her own deep “attraction to the underground” as a philosophical problem.
Yet no matter how much Marlowe puts her slumming on the table, sometimes she slips too far into the role of voyeur, snidely distinguishing herself from other users. She derides their “typical junkie speak” and downward spirals, as if their real affliction were predictable behavior—a paradoxical peeve for one who admittedly used drugs to blot out life’s uncertainties. In a macabre passage entitled “Dentistry,” she recounts with contempt how ex-gorgeous, locally famous rocker Zack had nosedived into the life “pop psychology and talk show truisms had predicted he would.” When she finds him pitifully selling his records on the street, she invites him to lunch, and coldly reports, “I did enjoy the story about how he lost his front tooth.” The drug-addled former beauty decided to pull it out with pliers to cure a toothache. “The cost of the homemade dentistry was $50 in dope, $20 in coke, and three hours,” she reasons. “Going to a clinic would have cost half that. Zack didn’t seem to think this story was an illustration of heroin-induced madness; he viewed his actions as ingenious.” But to expect a junkie to make choices like an accountant is no less crazy. Marlowe’s emotional disconnection here, too, is inadvertently eloquent. As she smirks at the disorder of less fiscally sound smack-sniffers, it’s strikingly transparent how she projects the skanky aspects of dope onto them and retains the tragique allure for herself, snuggled safely in the mantle of her yuppie morality.
Marlowe’s snarkiness brings up an aesthetic issue peculiar to memoirs vs. fiction as vehicles of insight into character. While novelists like David Foster Wallace and Bret Easton Ellis write compellingly from the p.o.v. of prigs, the writers themselves aren’t necessarily the assholes they depict. In the memoirist’s case, one struggles to sort one’s aesthetic response to the book from one’s reaction to the obnoxiousness of its narrator.
Turning the drug into her muse and mirror ultimately enables Marlowe to retrieve the scraps of her driven, alienated life, to construct her “specialness” by writing about it, rather than snorting it from plastic bags. In that sense the book is a real accomplishment. Nonetheless, there’s something revolting about a yuppie smirking at the other wrecks while she plays native informant to the “underground” and ennobles her own habit with lofty intellectualizations. “Our culture has lent dark powers to narratives of drug use, more than to drug use itself,” she pompously declares, “and I am taking advantage of them, like a painter using the severity of northern light.” I was as moved by the author’s oddly redemptive revelation of her sterile “specialness” as I was haunted by its smarmy aftertaste.