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i-D book club: cat marnell details her chaotic existence in how to murder your life

Four years in the writing, New York's most infamous beauty editor Cat Marnell has finished her memoirs, and they're not for the faint-hearted.

Philippa Snow

Philippa Snow

In Cat Marnell's just-released memoir, How to Murder Your Life, we discover that the two books on her nightstand were — at one time, anyway — "Norman Mailer's Marilyn Monroe biography and Ooga-Booga by Frederick Seidel." Cat Marnell, reading a book about a gorgeous, druggy blonde, and a collection by a poet whose preoccupations are hip, rich, and borderline-sociopathic: what could be more perfect?

Marnell rose to prominence as a beauty editor, first at Conde Nast, and then at Jane Pratt's now-defunct confessional essay farm, XoJane. She is also an unashamed, these-days-functional drug addict. Several years ago, the New York Post ran her letter of resignation, or something like it. "Look," she told the reporter, "I couldn't spend another summer meeting deadlines behind a computer at night when I could be on the rooftop of Le Bain looking for shooting stars and smoking angel dust with my friends and writing a book, which is what I'm doing next. Drug addicts undeniably bring editorial black magic to the table like nobody else, but obviously we make the worst staffers. We can fake it [for a time] . . . before we turn into coddled emotional vampire nightmares."

DRUGS MORE FUN THAN WORK, the headline summarised; to which I believe the correct response is: duh. They're also better fodder for a memoir than a desk job, which is why How to Murder Your Life is so readable even when it isn't especially easy to read. Unlike her columns at VICE, and a little more like her columns at XoJane, the style is loopy, conversational, and colloquial.

Cat cracks goofy jokes, and spells out yells and screams ("EEEEEEYYOOWWWWWNAUURGHH," or "AUUUGHHHH," as if she's Captain Caveman trapped in the body of Edie Sedgwick). All of her relationship stories are ones that put the "brute" in "brutally honest." All of her glamorous evenings end like they're scripted by Cronenberg. Somebody "slurps" a nosebleed out of her neat little nostrils; she starts hallucinating rats in the fashion closet, and under her desk. "It's cosmopolitan slapstick delivered by someone so relentlessly cheerful she doesn't even hold a discernible grudge against the various men who rob and assault her," Charlotte Shane writes at The New Republic. "As a piece of writing, it's rushed and full of holes, but Marnell is charismatic enough that it almost feels wrong to complain. She makes me want to be her friend."

No wonder. Frederick Seidel and Marilyn Monroe are two psychic sides of the same coin; the coin representing, I guess, a big, hot, helter-skelter self-ruin. Hedging her bets, Marnell flips it. A major gambler in the mode of all addicts, she plays things as they lay, and she rarely gets laid in an enviable way. "Girls on drugs," she writes in the afterword, offering advice to young addicts, "attract bad guys like a wounded baby deer attracts vultures." At the Poetry Foundation, there's a piece about Frederick Seidel by the writer Molly Young that both predates and predicts the connection that's made by Marnell's nightstand: "Like that of Miller and Bukowski" — or like that of Rolling Stone's own "Hot Bukowski," Cat Marnell — "Seidel's style is one of incriminating self-exposure coupled with an exacting (and therefore imitable) aesthetic."

"But here's a funny thing," Young continues. "Writing a poem about lust, pride, imprudence—about ordering a call girl or staying at 'literally the most expensive hotel in the world' or racing a bike at 200 mph—has a way of neutralizing the unpleasantness of that vice. To write a good poem about an ugly thing, as Seidel does often, is not to write an ugly poem."

Do I remember, or did I dream it, a Tumblr charting Marnell's XoJane posts with the designer names excised? The point being that they are, partly, the point. Writing a funny, tuned-in Pop Art memoir about drug addiction, or hitting rock bottom: about the abuse of terrible men — about "feeling very dead indeed" or "sleeping through March"— has a way of neutralising its own unpleasantness, too. To write an entertaining memoir about an ugly thing is not to write an ugly memoir. To write a drug addiction book with lines like: "the only thing in the house with any curves was the baby grand piano," and: "my brains were so scrambled I could have ordered them for brunch at Sarabeth's," and with the looks of a china doll and the style of a boozy society debutante ("I only have a gown closet," Marnell tells Emily Gould in New York magazine) is not to write an ugly memoir.

I'm not saying that Marnell has the same kind of nasty-lyric sensibility as Frederick Seidel, exactly — a style that The New York Times' David Orr compared to "a violinist who pauses from bowing expertly through Paganini's Caprice No. 24 to smash his instrument against the wall." I am saying you know her when you read her; and you want to read her, even when the subject is miserable. Fuck it — I'm saying I like her. "If you Google Cat Marnell,"an interviewer points out in another piece at the NYT, "the predominant image is of you in a slip, with smeared lipstick and matted hair and words written in Sharpie on your forearms. Is this the result of a bender or was it your intention to go for a full-on Courtney Love look?" It's a blunt question, and Marnell is hardly contrite. She has good grace; good humour. "I've always homaged," she shrugs. "Let's just say it was one night, and it was intentional. It interests me that women paint their face every day. So I was at an event, and I just smeared it." 

How to Murder Your Life is the rare drug memoir that isn't redemptive. It's better because of it. All this time, I've told you nothing about the story, because you already know the story

This might make her the beauty editor equivalent of "a violinist who pauses from bowing expertly through Paganini's Caprice No. 24 to smash his instrument against the wall," where the violin is "YSL Rouge Volupte lipstick, #17, a bright coral," and the "wall" is her face, whose loveliness no writer can go without mentioning. Cat is somebody who favours, just as Orr also said about Seidel, "[a] combination of barbarity and grace." (That "face" and grace," is one of the same kind of swingy and offbeat rhymes I used to enjoy in her columns at Vice, albeit by accident. "Little Miss Bones on Great Jones," she intones in one, "ignoring both of her beeping cell phones, sucking down Marlboro Ultra Lights. Need an axe to break the ice." Maybe she really is Frederick Seidel?) Like most addicts, she is liable to be both used and abused, but she's also an adult. You have to respect her for being The Most Like Herself, even if The Most Cat Marnell isn't totally functional. 

"When I sat down to pee," she recalls near the end of the book, "I saw blood in my underwear. I'd forgotten about periods. I'd forgotten I was a woman." It can be easy to forget. Sometimes it's a boon to. Nobody writing about drug-abuse ever, however, seems to forget when an addict is female. It's seen as perverse: as if women, all being mothers-in-waiting, are empty real estate to be maintained. "I'm going to tell you right now that there is a voice that comes out in me…that says 'I'm getting better,'" Marnell says in an interview with VICE, "like, all reassuringly, which caters to women—and I do it without realizing it. Sometimes it's true. But I'm really not planning on getting better. It's like everyone is always encouraging my recovery. Women do it in real life and online." 

They aren't allowed, she means, to be both graceful and barbaric, the way that a male violinist or poet or drug addict is. I am mixing, like pills or prescriptions, my metaphors. I don't know why I'm being defensive: maybe it's because Marnell, whose greatest crime has been a systematic wasting of most of her greatest advantages, has been treated with utter disdain for the same kind of ruthless and charming self-centredness that, in a man, might be seen as ambition. "I was annoyed when I heard we were changing XoJane's tagline, 'where women go when they are feeling selfish,'" she wrote in a post for the site about being "not bitchy exactly, but…not, you know ... not-negative." "It has been a comfort to me from Day One: I always feel selfish."
(Where do men go to be selfish? Don't bother to answer that question.)

How to Murder Your Life is the rare drug memoir that isn't redemptive. It's better because of it. All this time, I've told you nothing about the story, because you already know the story: Marnell is born rich, and has frightening parents; she becomes a magazine editor and an addict, then a website editor and an addict, and then an addict and nothing else — and then she writes the book, and she still isn't clean. She'd like to be one day, but not now. ("I live a life of appetite," Fred Seidel writes, "and, yes, that's right/I live a life of privilege in New York.") I don't worry about her, mostly because I don't worry about other grown women I'm not related to. Like Britney Spears, her heroine, Cat has lost her hair since filing her memoir; she's bald lit-ney for real. In the New York magazine piece, it gives her a great line: "I have everything, except hair. And a man." 

Several nights ago, coincidentally, I saw the new Paul Verhoeven movie, Elle: a bleak and funny film about dire circumstances befalling a glamorous woman who's too tough to ever be pitiable. "Shame," Elle's antiheroine says to a friend, "isn't a strong enough emotion to stop us doing anything at all." Thank God - or women, who're the ones meant to feel it most keenly, would never do anything. We'd stay suspended in boring, societal aspic. Marnell puts it differently: "Float like a bimbo, sting like a bee."

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Text Philippa Snow
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