Arts & Culture » Culture

In the grip of letting go


How to Stop Time: Heroin from A to Z
by Ann Marlowe
Basic Books, $24, 297 pp.

I've never thought of heroin as a thinking person's drug, even though I've read great things by and about its alleged minions, from Charlie Parker and William S. Burroughs to Kurt Cobain. Yet the lucid, informed precision of writer and ex-junkie Ann Marlowe's autobiographical reflections on eight years as a user still pushes me to ask the most obvious and unanswerable question: Why?

Maybe this perplexity has nothing to do with the now ex-junkie laying down such a clear picture of what must have been a very hazy stretch of life. I've never put heroin into my body, but I imagine, and gather from Marlowe's stories, that the dulling effects are no myth. But even at this distance, I understand Marlowe, who closes the gap between our experiences — the user's and the nonuser's. It's as if she wrote 297 pages about heroin merely to tell outsiders like me that heroin isn't important.

How to Stop Time, despite its alphabetically ordered structure, doesn't need to be instructional. It doesn't mean to make us hip to the differences between black tar and white powder, or to recognize the clever brand names (Backdraft, Body Bag, Elevator, Hellraiser, Homicide, No Way Out, etc.) stamped on glassine bags and pinned in urban art installations. It only confesses a failure to thrive.

That anybody can understand.

Somewhere in the A's — abstention, addiction, aging, alphabet, arrest and athletics — Marlowe sets up a faux chronology. She starts with nice, if morally paranoid parents, tsk-tsking the alcoholic neighbors yet still open enough to have a copy of Burroughs' Junky on the shelf in the study. Maybe she is asking why, too.

The search for hidden childhood memories that might explain her addiction yields nothing. Not even her youthful curiosity about an uncle who was a junkie reaches out far enough. It leaves Marlowe — and me — to the frustrating arbitrariness of her relationship with the drug and its moribund culture. In it, I can hear the clash of desires, one for dangerous thrills, the other for a sedative that shields the mind and body from reality.

For Marlowe, doing heroin is about surrendering to a form of self-destruction that makes a person feel especially alive; the fun-house mirrors of junkie lovers; copping in dangerous places around her home in the East Village; and, for extra kicks, laundering money for dealers. Around this life, she builds theories about space and time, at times pondering the self-deception that makes her believe she can hold herself in place.

The stopping time paradox is paralleled by the structure of Marlowe's book. The topics are deceptively ordered from A to Z, but they are hyperlinked by parenthetical references to one another. Often time is thrown into reverse or thrown out altogether like unnecessary baggage. Seeing any order in the chaotic system is as futile as trying to hold life still or to escape from the self, two desires behind the symbol that fascinates and horrifies at the same time.

The only reference to cogency or continuity comes under the heading "thread," obviously near the end: "There's something arbitrary about looking at my life and our time through the lens of heroin," Marlowe writes. "I might have picked tennis, or shoes or cooking — dope is just the lever I've chosen to move what I can. But no. Every thread would not be equal. Our culture has lent dark powers to narratives of drug use, more than to drug use itself, and I am taking advantage of them, like a painter using the severity of northern light."

The lengthy segment "withdrawing" describes a post-breakup with a mean-spirited boyfriend, Ralph. At the same time, she recalls, "I had no impulse to do heroin again. What I wanted was what heroin had eroded: love, friendship, writing that was a pleasure again."

Just before the final blank space under "z," another moving essay, "youth," reveals a junkie's secrets to survival. And I am not surprised to find that I can use them all.

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