Wednesday 13 December 2017

Confessions and chaos: the nine lives of Cat Marnell

Memoir: How to Murder Your Life, Cat Marnell, Ebury Press, hdbk, 384 pages, €17.99

Teetering on the edge: Cat Marnell admits her life was teetering towards ruin. Photo: Christos Katsiaouni
Teetering on the edge: Cat Marnell admits her life was teetering towards ruin. Photo: Christos Katsiaouni
How to Murder Your Life by Cat Marnell

Tanya Sweeney

From one-night stands to pill popping - no subject is off-limits in this ­blistering ­memoir by the hellraising ­socialite and darling of the New York ­media scene.

When the online website ­xoJane tweeted in the hopes of recruiting an 'unhealthy' health writer, Cat Marnell knew that she'd found a calling of sorts.

By then a disgraced beauty editor at Lucky Magazine, she had been in rehab a number of times at the behest of her bosses, and was divining a very fine line between beautiful and damned. Already a fixture on New York's nightlife scene, Marnell brought no end of attention to herself with beauty and health columns that were blisteringly confessional. One-night stands, prescription drug use, rehab, stints in hospital… no subjects were off-limits in her pithy columns, and Manhattan's media scene couldn't get enough of the now 34-year-old. So when it came to writing her memoirs, it wasn't a case of 'if', but 'how soon'.

After a reported $500,000 advance, and a false start or two, Marnell has laid her life bare in How to Murder Your Life (the title comes from a designer T-shirt she owns). All told, the account is not so much about a trainwreck as a clifftop fall. Born to a psychotherapist mother and psychiatrist father in well-to-do Washington DC, Marnell lived in an ultramodern house 20 minutes from the White House.

Yet despite the trappings of wealth, hers was a dysfunctional, chaotic and unpredictable childhood. The young Marnell rebelled, culminating in a stint at a prestigious prep school in Massachusetts.

It was here that she tried ADD medication for the first time (her 'overcooked brain' recalls her father filling out her prescriptions; an account he disputes). Her grades improved, yet Marnell's appetite for destruction saw her young life almost capsize before it had begun.

However, money and class have a way of making the vagaries of addiction not just sustainable, but borderline glamorous. Marnell's double life is genuinely a thing to behold; by day, she enjoys the many glittering benefits of beauty and fashion journalism; by night, her life is hanging by a thread. (In case you are wondering, she is buffered by cheques from her parents, and occasionally, the odd cash injection from her grandmother.) It's a remarkable high-wire feat by anyone's yardstick, and one that makes for a stressful reading experience.

At one point, Marnell befriends Marco, a heroin addict who has constantly black fingernails and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of Dior Homme outfits.

The pair embark on a Sid & Nancy-style friendship; all chaos, hellraising and duplicity. Things get to a point where her drug use is so commonplace, so intrinsically a part of who she is, that she casually mentions that she's on heroin to her boss, famed magazine publisher Jane Pratt. Even more strangely, she is surprised at the immense fallout from this seemingly innocent remark. Already, Marnell has been likened to Bret Easton Ellis; another author who worshipped at the altar of Manhattan glamour's vapidity. And given the easy, effortless way that Marnell drops designer names into her account, it's easy to see why. The writer is less forensic in her account than is Easton Ellis. This allows for a slightly more soulful, spirited telling of New York's underworld.

How to Murder Your Life calls to mind the Danny Sugarman memoir, Wonderland Avenue. The drug-taking vignettes are plentiful, seemingly inexhaustible, and only made palatable by the sweetening of unabashed glamour.

Just as Marnell's life reached terminal velocity, a heroin overdose in September 2013, six months after she signed her book contract, saw her spirited away to the famed Cabin Chiang Mai detox facility in Thailand ("who [sic] also treat Pete Doherty, FYI"). The afterword of How to Murder Your Life sees Marnell in much more contemplative and pragmatic mode. It's a welcome chink of relief after the chaos of the preceding 350 pages.

It's a bewildering, breakneck book, and Marnell's writing style is an acquired taste. The writer, now as ever, is a polarising figure. Many applaud her white-hot honesty; others dismiss her as a pill-head bimbo ruined, and abetted, by her own upper-class privilege. The truth is probably somewhere in between.

Marnell seems painfully aware of her entitled persona, often playing up to it and refusing to apologise for it. But there's no escaping the fact that hers has been an extraordinary tale. Not many youngsters can afford to languish in three Condé Nast internships while someone else pays the rent. Even fewer spend those internship years, in her own words, rushing to ruin. And yet, Marnell's climb up the magazine ranks has been as stealthy as it has been unlikely. She's long been an enigmatic figure of wonderment for New York's media clique, and with good reason.

"I was also an alcoholic-in-training who drank warm Veuve Clicquot after work alone in my boss's office with the door closed… a salami-and-provolone-puking bulimic who spent a hundred dollars a day on binge foods when things got bad… I took baths every morning because I was too weak to stand in the shower … and I never, ever called my grandma," she writes.

The honesty that is Marnell's stock-in-trade is all over every page, with only the barest trace of self-pity. Instead, her storytelling style is spirited, and authentic.

Mostly, Marnell appears to be in slight wonderment herself that she has lived to tell her tale at all. And now that she has laid the details bare, the reader is too.

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