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the Complete Review
the complete review - memoir

How to Stop Time:
Heroin from A to Z

Ann Marlowe

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To purchase How to Stop Time: Heroin from A to Z

Title: How to Stop Time: Heroin from A to Z
Author: Ann Marlowe
Genre: Memoir
Written: 1999
Length: 297 pages
Availability: How to Stop Time: Heroin from A to Z - US
How to Stop Time: Heroin from A to Z - UK
How to Stop Time: Heroin from A to Z - Canada
Gerade Linien - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

B : a different kind of junkie book, well written, though from an unusual perspective.

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Independent . 5/10/2002 Christopher Hirst
The New Yorker . 18/10/1999 .
The NY Observer B 20/9/1999 Adam Begley
The NY Times Book Rev. B 21/11/1999 David Gates
Reason . 10/2000 Jacob Sullum
Salon A 1/10/1999 Craig Seligman
San Francisco Chronicle . 17/10/1999 Courtney Weaver
Time Out B 20/10/1999 Peter Carty
The Village Voice B 30/11/1999 Rhonda Lieberman

  Review Consensus:

  Praise for her intelligence, writing, and unusual approach, while not finding her very sympathetic. All find some flaws, but generally like it.

  From the Reviews:
  • "This makes for a powerful anti-drug conclusion, but, unfortunately, many lives are remarkably barren of amazing events." - Christopher Hirst, The Independent

  • "Ms. Marlowe’s writing is very good, fresh, varied and surprising, especially early on and in the sections about New York. (...) But the last two-thirds of How to Stop Time are repetitive and increasingly monotonous." - Adam Begley, The New York Observer

  • "(I)f How to Stop Time isn't always the rational and trustworthy disquisition it affects to be, it's something ultimately more memorable: a self-portrait of a cooly cantankerous woman, reformed but unrepentant." - David Gates, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Her book contains what is probably the least histrionic, least hysterical writing about heroin to be found outside medical literature. And on top of that it's engaging and it's smart." - Craig Seligman, Salon

  • "In their best moments, the entries can be fascinating in their coldness; at worst, they are laughably pretentious. Certainly Marlowe takes herself seriously, and there's no denying that her decision to enter the world of heroin addiction makes for compelling reading." - Courtney Weaver, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Her prose is elegant and her register intimate." - Peter Carty, Time Out

  • "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." - Rhonda Lieberman, The Village Voice

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       A few years ago Ann Marlowe published an account of her heroin habit in The Village Voice. Not what is considered your typical consumer of the drug, Marlowe shed a somewhat different light on junkie culture, and now she has parlayed that into a book. In this alphabetical memoir, divided into short sections, most only a few pages in length, mini-essays on, for example, "colds", "cool", "copping", "crime", she reveals much about herself, and a little about her drug of choice and New York drug culture.
       The form is, to say the least, forced as it proceeds through the alphabet in sometimes far-fetched fashion, but Marlowe gets away with it, more or less. She is a fairly smart lady, and a fine writer, and she has enough interesting things to say (and says them well enough) to hold our interest. There are, of course, also little pieces that try to explain or excuse the framework of the book ("alphabet", "vertigo"), reminding the reader that the ABCs are an early imposition of arbitrary order on our lives, and that the alphabetical framework of this memoir is "completely arbitrary."
       Her choice of this particular framework is almost convincing, though Marlowe seems to tire of the idea as she goes along: the first half of the alphabet (A-M) covers more than three-quarters of the book, the entries trailing off after that. Q and X are, predictably (and unimaginatively) ignored, Z merely stuck on at the end.
       Heroin is meant to be the hook here, what sucks us is and makes us curious, but Marlowe is as atypical a user as one might find. Indeed, she seems a fairly peculiar soul, and the book's success and failure ride on her, not her habit. Most of the pieces are connected to her drug use, and there are some interesting insights here -- but all through her fractured view. Marlowe did not shoot up her fix, and her habit never seems to have hampered her career. She lived on the Lower East Side, but never in proverbial junkie squalor -- indeed, she was making piles of money, as an investment banker, consultant, and sometimes (drug) money launderer. She represents the far end of the wide spectrum of drug (ab)use, and while it is also interesting to read about this it is far removed from, for example, the general problem of drug use in the United States. Similarly, Marlowe's repeated claim that heroin brought her in touch with all social classes may be true, but the contact was, to say the least, superficial.
       A control freak, Marlowe managed to control her habit as she did everything else in her life. She makes some interesting arguments about heroin use, including that it takes a certain work ethic to be a junkie: "taking heroin never struck me as showing a lack of willpower -- after all, what is a habit but self-discipline ?" Her attitude towards the why of choosing to take heroin is also refreshing, if not fully convincing, as she argues that the knowledge that heroin is addictive drives one to use it: "if heroin were non-addictive, it wouldn't be a good enough metaphor for anyone to want to try it."
       Marlowe is an incredibly detached narrator. Seeking to be "cool" she achieves a distinctive frigidity. There is almost no emotion in this book, and her relationships seem to lack any depth. While she seems to like (and to some extent even need) them she seems to have only an unemotional bond to her parents, friends, and, especially, lovers. One hesitates to describe an autobiographical narrator with such words, but if this were fiction there's no doubt that she would be considered one cold bitch.
       She is, however, an interesting character. Raised in an educated household, precocious and literate, she graduated from high school early, went to Harvard, to graduate school, worked as an investment banker. She is obviously intelligent and well read, though she is aware that she is completely out of place on Wall Street. A night owl, she is drawn to the "cool," artsy crowd in New York's East Village. Her desire to be "cool" sounds more out of junior high than real life, but she describes the New York scene accurately, fitting in as one more insecure and lost soul there.
       She lays on her intellectuality a bit thick as well, reminding us countless times that she studied and reads classical Greek and fancy philosophers. Some of this intellectual credibility (as well as faith in her memory generally) vanishes with a puff when she writes about her father's shelf of pornography, a volume of which she describes (in a Freudian slip ?) as The Life and Loves of Frank O'Hara. We know the fat, Grove Press book she means, but it is, of course, Frank Harris who penned the infamous tome. (Needless to say this slip should have been caught by the publishers, but even though they are able to spend a nice heap on publicity for the book they are apparently too cheap to hire an editor.)
       The alphabetical form leads to an odd chronology, as we go back and forth in Marlowe's life. Her father's mysterious illness (and death) is mentioned long before we are told what ailed him. More effectively, a darker family secret surfaces far into the book: much as a very young Marlowe couldn't quite see what her father was getting at when he gave her Thackeray's Henry Esmond and Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables the reader doesn't see it coming. Unfortunately, relatively little is done with the revealed secret, one that suggests a far more complex emotional family life than Marlowe describes. Clearly the disjointed style is a means of covering up some of what she pretends to reveal. In some ways it works, but it can also be annoying.
       Marlowe's drug use is described from all angles, in no particular order. Though she offers a number of explanations of what drew her to heroin, she treats her drug use as almost incidental and never describes the transition to her adopting a heroin habit. And while she describes some of the reasons for her kicking the habit it too is portrayed as incidental and not much of a big deal.
       Marlowe's unusual life is, certainly, interesting, but ultimately too little of it is revealed. The collage she has assembled is entertaining enough, with lots of fun little druggy vignettes, but it does not add up to all that much. Voyeuristic readers will enjoy it immensely, as will those who think drug culture is "cool" (though they might be disappointed by the fact that Marlowe is not down and dirty enough). Others will probably be baffled by her bizarre lifestyle, disappointed that so little that might explain it is fleshed out.
       An odd, often well-written, but ultimately unsatisfying memoir.

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How to Stop Time: Reviews: Other books by Ann Marlowe under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American writer Ann Marlowe graduated from Harvard and has an M.B.A. from Columbia. She has worked in investment banking and consulting, done heroin, and written for numerous publications, including The Village Voice and Artforum.

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© 1999-2010 the complete review

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