How to Stop Time: Heroin From A to Z , by Ann Marlowe. Basic Books, 297 pages, $24.
In the popular imagination, heroin is bliss and death. There’s the spike in the vein, then the divine rush, then addiction and overdose–or the virus. This mythic mix of danger and delight spells glamour: It’s the drug you yearn to try but don’t dare.
Or maybe you do. Ann Marlowe did: For seven years, from 1988 to 1995, she snorted heroin, as much as a bag a day, meanwhile capably pursuing her career as a business consultant. With one foot in the world of white-collar professionalism and the other in the East Village rock music scene, she wrote a confessional cover story for The Village Voice and was roundly excoriated for glamorizing her habit. That’s not at all what she does in How to Stop Time: Heroin From A to Z . In this icy, cerebral memoir, she makes dope seem less blissful and less dangerous than the myth will allow: “The biggest, darkest secret about heroin is that it isn’t that wonderful,” she writes. The memory of her first taste, however, still cues a rhapsody: “And then came a surge of astonishing pleasure, in which I could think of nothing but how oddly benign the drug felt.”
You learn scads about heroin from How to Stop Time ; you learn even more about Ms. Marlowe. Sheer brains is what you notice first. (It’s no surprise to learn that she went Harvard College, tried graduate school in philosophy, also at Harvard, then snapped up an M.B.A.) She’s tough, too–a survivor–and honest with herself and with her readers. The dope she’s selling is “clean,” not cut with self-pity, self-justification or self-promotion.
You also learn that Ms. Marlowe is not a pleasant person, and that her unpleasantness was accentuated by the drug. That isn’t something the reader infers; on the contrary, Ms. Marlowe is right up front about all her nasty habits. The disagreeable impression lingers, a bitter taste at the back of the throat. I believe it’s quite deliberate: The reader’s opinion of Ms. Marlowe helps shape, in the end, the reader’s opinion of heroin.
Born into a joyless New Jersey family, Ms. Marlowe grew up with the hush of ill-kept secrets. When she was 8 years old, her father developed Parkinson’s disease; for five years, he hid his ailment from Ann and her younger brother, and he hid other, murkier psychosexual stuff as well. In this emotionally and financially pinched atmosphere, Ann sprouted anxieties about time and death. By the time she got to college, she was the kind of person who budgets her day and accounts for every minute of every hour.
How to Stop Time is arranged alphabetically in sections of varying length; thus, for example, in 10 pages she covers “sex,” “skin,” “slow,” “space,” “specialness” and “spoon.” As you get to know Ms. Marlowe’s powerful, structure-loving mind, this unorthodox approach to the telling of a story begins to make more and more sense: She has imposed on the narrative an arbitrary and ultimately spurious order. It looks neat and logical but as she admits near the end (in a section entitled “vertigo”), the possibility of endless accordion expansion–”you can always sandwich another word in”–mocks the notion of calculated control.
The book’s sham structure resembles a heroin habit. According to Ms. Marlowe, addiction organizes “otherwise pointless and fragmentary time around the ‘need’ for a drug.” Dope structures the junkie’s day; the regularity of its demands seems
to “ward off chaos.” But you can always sandwich another bag in …
Her section called “junkie” begins like so: “I wasn’t; the need was not great enough.… For years I kept just this side of what I considered the junkie divide, carefully calibrating the amount I snorted so I could always quit without medications and rehab.” If, as she claims, “dope use is mainly a power struggle,” then she won, and earned the right to call herself a “recreational heroin user” (dubious distinction!). She seems inclined to believe that the drug released her to write, first about her solitary travels to exotic countries, then about East Village rock bands and, at last, in her 1994 cover story, about dope.
Heroin, as she sees it, promises to neutralize time and death. The drug imposes a chronology based “on the waxing and waning of heroin in your bloodstream.… Time, concretized as a powder, becomes fungible, and thus harmless. The past is heroin that has been consumed, and the future is heroin that you have yet to buy. There is nothing unique about the past to mourn and nothing unique about the future to fear.” But there’s a catch. “The chemistry of the drug,” she explains, “is ruthless: It is designed to disappoint you.” As your body learns to metabolize heroin, matching that first, wondrous high gets harder and harder: “You cannot fool your body into opiate virginity,” Ms. Marlowe observes. She calls addiction “a form of mourning for the irrecoverable glories of the first time.”
Ms. Marlowe’s writing is very good, fresh, varied and surprising, especially early on and in the sections about New York. “Heroin inflects the East Village,” she tells us; she calls it an “urban drug, an accessory of life lived all night, under artificial light, among indifferent crowds always in a hurry. It belongs with the all-night cafeteria, the after-hours club, the taxi, the tenement, the alley; it answers to the melancholy and feelings of displacement these spaces embody.” She notes: “Cool and dope inform each other; they share an underlying banality of blank affect.” She writes about getting “splendidly high” on “a tender snowy night at the start of winter’s steep slope, the kind of night that makes New York feel cushiony and without corners.” Tripping on LSD, she sees an “unremarkable stretch of Lexington Avenue” transformed: “The buildings glistened, they dazzled, they were so high, it made me happy just to watch them being tall.”
But the last two-thirds of How to Stop Time are repetitive and increasingly monotonous. The book itself is like heroin addiction: The reader is quickly nostalgic for that first great rush. But the novelty wears off, and you’re left with unappealing company: Ms. Marlowe on heroin. “[I]t wasn’t easy to be my friend,” she writes, “you had to be desperate to put up with my crankiness and malaise.” This was her response to personal phone calls during business hours: “I’ll call you back,” she’d snap. “This is not a revenue-generating conversation.” As she argues elsewhere, “Only those with an inclination to greed and a fascination with money become serious about dope.”
As the high fades you notice, also, what’s missing from this book about the meaning of drug addiction: any serious thinking about the less fortunate class of junkie, those heroin users who aren’t white and well educated and who don’t share with Ms. Marlowe the comfort of an East Village loft and an Amagansett beach house.
Ms. Marlowe sings the same tune as Heraclitus: A man’s character is his fate, she believes. A certain type of person is drawn to addiction, and a certain type of addict-to-be is drawn to heroin. Ms. Marlowe employs a harsh technique to teach this vital lesson: It’s not a club you want to join.