Thursday, September 15, 2011

How to Stop Time - Heroin From A to Z

by Anne Marlow
Virago Press

This is an obscure book which I like for lots of reasons. Firstly the presentation is really quite terrible. Judging by the front cover you would expect yet another non-fiction book about heroin. Then, reading the back cover you learn that heroin is a "controversial white powder". Finally when you're half way through the book you realise that it isn't strictly about heroin at all, it's more like a philosophy of drug subcultures. Strangely enough the clumsy presentation actually endears this book to me. I like it precisely because the cover is so terrible.

How to Stop Time is a series of twenty-six (or thereabouts) vignettes, each a reflection on the New York heroin culture of the 1990s. They focus particularly on the author's own experience, and the experiences of her friends, largely middle-class artists and drop-outs. This is a scene which for many of us living in other western cities is hard to imagine - heroin is cheap, reliable, easily accessible and doesn't require full-time devotion. Marlowe and her friends are remarkably tame users in comparison to the media stereotype. For example she never injects the drug, only snorts it, and never has withdrawal sickness that lasts longer than a day. Despite this "tameness" or perhaps because of it, Marlowe consistently makes observations which apply not only to heroin users, but to human nature in general.

Some of her better ideas involve heroin addicts quitting because they realise it won't kill them, people taking up heroin so they have something to lie about and people becoming addicts to prove they are immortal. There's also another meaning to "How to Stop Time" - for example you could write a philosophical novel about yourself and your friends. Marlowe is very conscious of her role as a writer and in many ways this book is a time capsule - circa New York 1996.

Ultimately I suspect this book has a limited audience. Many middle class readers will find a philosophical exploration of heroin use distasteful. There are also people who clearly want drugs to remain demonized. Unfortunately for them, this is a great book.

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