Wednesday 16 October 2019

How to be Famous - Caitlin Moran pens a love letter to youth

Fiction: How to be Famous, Caitlin Moran, Ebury Press, €15.75

Caitlin Moran's 'How to Be Famous' is a funny, riotous novel about a young woman making it in a world where men hold all the power
Caitlin Moran's 'How to Be Famous' is a funny, riotous novel about a young woman making it in a world where men hold all the power

Bridget Hourican

The second novel in Caitlin Moran's How To trilogy continues where the first, How to Build a Girl, left off: narrator Johanna Morrigan, late of a Wolverhampton council estate, is busy taking London by storm as the capital's newest, brashest, youngest music critic, writing under the pseudonym Dolly Wilde. It's 1994, 'Britain is in the middle of a collective, homoerotic love-swoon over Oasis' and there's no better time to be young, gifted, single, and working class.

There is nothing so distant as the recent past. Moran brings it all back: the cheap rents, the brilliant gigs, the even more brilliant clubs, the excellent drugs (though Johanna doesn't partake), the camaraderie with all types and classes engendered by those excellent drugs, the indoor smoking and, of course, most nostalgia-inducing of all: no internet, no mobile phones, no social media! Sigh. People paid for CDs.

The magazine where Johanna works has a library where journalists check facts. When people want to reach her, they phone her local pub and leave messages with the landlord (her own phone is cut off because she forgets to pay - no direct debit either).

How to Be Famous is a love letter to youth and to London - "London is a fruit machine and you are the coin you put in - with the prospect of it coming up all cherries, and bells" (lovely description except why the Oxford comma? This book rains commas!) The energy, exuberance and sheer love is irresistible when combined with Moran's exceptional honesty. Her gift has always been to say the unsayable.

She's now done masturbation to climax but there is a wonderful, witty, poignant passage on Johanna's body issues: "It gave me a despair so deep I could not acknowledge it - for the sorrow of being a teenage girl who is not slender, and sexy, and hot is so great… so fundamentally the opposite of what a teenage girl should be - that I could not go near it." But about two-thirds of the way through, the book becomes another book: it stops being about lovely, freewheelin' 1990s London and becomes about today's hard, despairing, online slut-shaming world. The dates don't change, mind. It's still 1994 and Johanna is still 19. She's had a one-night stand with a creepy comedian which he filmed and the tape is going around London. Technically, I guess this was just about possible in the mid-1990s but it didn't ever happen. The first sex tape to go viral was One Night in Paris [Hilton], shot on a tripod in 2001 and circulated online in 2004. The book ends on another anachronism: Johanna giving a righteous 'woke' speech on women, sex and shame. You cheer along - so funny! so true! - but Moran has turned God, with Johanna her emissary from the future. Nobody was woke and angry like that in the 1990s. We didn't lean in; we didn't say MeToo; # meant 'number'. Sigh.

Moran has the settler's passion for London. She notices stuff. She can write killer lines - here's Johanna watching herself in the sex tape: "Jerry is pumping away, behind me, as I stare at the wall, with an expression that is…stoic. I look like an 18th Century shepherdess, walking through a storm to find my sheep." So could she write something approaching that great classic of London yoof culture, The Buddha of Suburbia? No, but she could give it a better shot than most, if she wanted to, but she doesn't. Moran is on a mission and literature is ancillary. The final book in the trilogy is called How to Change the World.

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