Cat Marnell is difficult to pin down, but after weeks of on-off appointments followed by an hour delay (she missed her train), she finally answers the phone. “Oh my God. How much do you hate me?” says the 34 year-old American author from her Zurich hotel. “I push every single person to the absolute limit and then I come through at the very last second. I’m so sorry.”
Marnell is in Europe for two reasons. Firstly, to follow Pete Doherty’s tour. (“I am the biggest fan. I love being a fan, which is different from being a groupie. I’m a real fan.”) And secondly, to recuperate from publicising her recently published, New York Times bestselling addiction memoir, “How to Murder Your Life.“ “I’m supposed to be resting, but I’m not,” she says. “The book was stressful, I have serious PTSD. I left my apartment to hang out in Europe to recover. I walk around, mostly at night, charging like a cell phone.”
Marnell’s prose is simultaneously glossy, gossipy and harrowing. She has been compared to Charles Bukowski and she voices the deadpan tract of her youth. In 2013 she landed a book deal with a half-million-dollar advance and a year to write it. Having spent all the money, she only began to write it the day before the first draft was due. Typical Marnell: she’s made good out of doing the wrong thing, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
Marnell’s career has been frantic. Having landed an internship at Lucky magazine as a teen, she went on to become their beauty editor at the infamous Condé Nast building in Times Square, New York. Here, she worked with her beloved mentor, then editor at large, Jean Godfrey-June. Despite this productive apprenticeship, Marnell left Lucky after countless conflicts, unable to hold down her job and her addiction simultaneously. Drugs became her muse, and in 2011 she began documenting her experience alongside contentious anthropological views in her now infamous column, “Unhealthy Health Writer”, for American lifestyle website, xojane. In “How to Murder…” she describes what it was like going from being an intern to getting high for a living. In one episode, she recounts snorting a huge line of Napoleon Perdis jasmine bath salts for one of her traffic-generating online endeavours. This was at the height of the designer drugs boom, and the clicks on this article alone earned her a $20,000 raise.
Marnell has, through this approach, embraced a style of journalism usually reserved for men, the first-person gonzo approach of Hunter S. Thompson. She uses it to perform social critique with a healthy dose of self-parody accessorised with Chanel compacts, red lipstick and thrift-shop furs. In doing so, she seems to have tapped into a shift in the collective consciousness: today, we are constantly subjected to first-person narratives via Instagram, Facebook etc. The personal essay has, for better or worse, become one of the most dominant journalistic formats, too. This barrage of selfies and hashtags creates a narrative that’s as intoxicating and distorting as the substances imbibed by Thompson’s semi-autobiographical protagonist in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”.
Marnell’s infamy has earned her many enemies who accuse her of oversharing, an accusation she tosses aside as a misogynistic slur. “I’m like, yo, over sharer? I wrote a book. I wrote down every single word in that book. Men are under sharers. Gay men will go there but straight men won’t write anything because they’re all shady– they cheat on their girlfriends and masturbate all the time. When I was younger, I would look at women who spoke in angry ways about men and be grossed out that they didn’t know better. I wanted to tell them to be more feminine and play the game. But we all get here at some point.” Referring to being victimised, she laments: “All these pieces of shit in my life, these guys who stole from me, who beat me and threw me in closets, who fucked me while I was sleeping, I don’t get to go beat them up. If I could I would. They are all garbage. Rapists. Thieves. Narcissists. Predators. Stalkers. But what I can do is talk about it. I’m a woman and I’ll say that to other women”.
Marnell is a not the first woman to write in a confessional tone. In American letters, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Chris Kraus and Kathy Acker did it before. But her prose goes some way to prove Acker’s adage that “All things are sexist! Pornography is sexist, books are sexist, magazines are sexist. For many historical reasons there is this fear of sex in women.” Her drug addictions and career documenting them did not, after all, spring from nothing. Marnell, it seems, is maintaining her rage against patriarchal oppression in order to resist it. And this is what makes her writing compelling. Marnell is someone people love to hate, much like her idol Courtney Love. “I was writing letters about [Love] to Vogue when I was in the eighth grade, I loved her so much”, the author says, before adding that she’s now more wrapped up with Sharon Stone’s role as the crime novelist Catherine Trammel in “Basic Instinct”. Another femme fatale, Trammel is a lonely bisexual narcissistic psychopath who murders her rock-star boyfriend with an icepick. One can’t help but wonder if this obsession with fatalistic characters is one reason why Marnell is the way she is–if she is just acting out as a homage to failure.
Marnell’s memoir is as paradoxical as the system her writing implicitly addresses. She is the illegitimate child of success, of failure-as-success, and maintains that drugs have effectively created a life for her. “Before I smoked PCP my brain was at the Condé Nast building or just worried. After I started smoking that was when shit really started to happen.” Her writing is troubling because it isn’t presented through the filter of recovery or looking for redemption. She just wants to be heard, to bear witness. In some respects, her memoir glorifies her exploits – sure. But it also speaks of a system that condones hidden drug-use and tells women if that if they go off the rails they should do so quietly and behind a full-face of makeup.
Pushing limits is not in the past. “Last week I nearly died,” she says. “I was drinking and swimming in Basel and then drowning, screaming at the top of my lungs. A rescue boat came for me and took me back to my hotel. That was the closest moment I have ever felt to dying besides being on drugs.” Her European trip is in preparation for a follow-up to her debut novel, a series of audiobook travelogues. From the sly glint in her tone, one can only imagine how she intends to top her debut. “I don’t know what the Europeans think is cooler,” she continues. “My Eurail pass, my writing journal, my festival bracelets, or my cheerful disposition. I’m just getting hated on but it’s okay”.
“How to Murder Your Life: A Memoir” by Cat Marnell is available to purchase now.