[It is 1995, and narrator Johanna Morrigan lives ‘in the epicentre of Britpop’]
And so at nineteen, here I am in London – and London, it turns out, is the right place for me. I was right. I was right that this was the place to go to.
I moved down here a year ago, to a flat in Camden, to pursue my career as a music journalist. I brought three bin bags full of clothes, a TV, a laptop, a dog, an ashtray, a lighter in the shape of a gun, and a top hat. That was the sum total of my possessions. I didn’t need anything else.
London provides everything else – even things you’d never dreamed of….
I wake at noon, and stay out until 3 am, and then I have a bath, when I come home, because I can.
My phone is regularly cut off, because I forget to pay the bills – they come so often!
commentary: This is the strangest book imaginable.
There is a blog entry here on the first novel featuring her heroine Johanna Morrigan, How to Build a Girl (now being made into a film, and apparently there will be a trilogy) and I am going to quote from it to describe Moran:
This is Caitlin Moran’s brand new novel, as opposed to the anthology of her feature pieces (Moranthology) or her memoir/feminist tract (How to Be a Woman) or her sitcom pilot (Raised by Wolves). Of course this one is fiction, and the narrator has a different name. But it’s clear that Moran takes her material where she can find it, which is in her own early life. As everyone (in the UK anyway) must surely know, she grew up on benefits on a council estate in Wolverhampton, in a loving but dysfunctional family: father on Disability, no money at all, random education, endless siblings. She was obviously extremely bright, and well-read (via libraries), and she became a music press writer very young, and is now one of the best-paid journalists in the UK. (For an illuminating interview with her, click here.)The story is probably a very good picture of life in London in the mid-1990s for someone who was working in the music business, and is nicely nostalgic about life before widespread internet coverage and mobile phones. (She was doing well to have a laptop in 1995: it would have been quite expensive, and there wouldn’t have been much networking on it.)
So Johanna has family troubles – an annoying father who comes to stay – and she can see that the atmosphere where she works is very anti-women, and that the whole world of sex and relationships is complicated. The story rumbles along – the man she fancies, the horrible man whom she sleeps with, the new friend she makes, a wild potential popstar with some idea of mentoring Johanna.
It is all very readable, but somewhat rambling. And, the thing about Moran is that she normally has a clear idea which parts of her life are deeply relatable, and which aren’t. But here she doesn’t seem to realize how very exceptional her late teens were, and how very different from everyone else’s. She has Access All Areas at all the best pop concerts, and it’s a metaphor for her life: she may moan on about having no money, but she has a very lucky time. (Of course Johanna is fictional, but if your name is Moran and you give your heroine the name Morrigan, you can’t really complain about people drawing conclusions…)
She fills the book with what she’s good at: funny articles about life, about people, about relationships, and sex, and music and the people who make it. It is very entertaining, though very slightly feels like recycling when she fills pages with Johanna’s articles and other writings.
Then there is a sudden dramatic swerve – finally signs of a plot - into the results of some not very good sex with a not very nice man (I am trying not to spoiler here, but it is not the top 3 bad-results-in-novels you would think of). It is a form of slut-shaming, and this is really unusual and different, and not something I have seen in a novel before, and Moran handles it well, if in an increasingly bonkers and unlikely way. She has a thesis in there about young women and pop music and sex that I found very interesting: it is not complete or polished, but I have been thinking about it on and off ever since finishing the book.
There are some nice clothes:
There she was. Cigarette in mouth, dressed in junk-shop glam – leopard-skin fur coat, pearls, thighs, blue suede boots – striding across the stage as if she were about to start a fight.
Suzanne finally emerges, fully painted, in jodhpurs, riding boots, ornate Victorian blouse and ratty sheepskin coat. She looks like Virginia Woolf managing a football team….She applies lipstick with her cigarette still in her mouth – something I’ve never seen before or since.
Red curlytoed Moroccan slippers, a black silk jumpsuit unbuttoned to show a denim bra, and dark purple eyelids.
Today I am wearing a floor-length, red-and-gold-sequinned sari skirt bought at a jumble sale in Wolverhampton for 50p, a black polo-neck jumper, a leopard-skin fake-fur jacket, and my forehead is covered in stick-on bindis. I look like the drag queen Divine, trying to get cast in a Bollywood movie.[this outfit is for a JOB INTERVIEW, and makes it clear that cultural appropriation hadn’t been thought of in 1995.]
I ripped through the book: it is absurd and weird, very readable, and likely no-one would have got it published if not her with all her success to give her a platform. But I don’t mean that as an insult: there should be more different ways of writing books, and publishers can seem to have a limited view.
How to be Famous does not resemble the way anyone else writes their novels. But then maybe she is creating a new kind of book… good for her.
The top 2 pictures (apart from the book cover) are from a website called Britpop News, quite the archive of the era. The first picture includes Pulp singer Jarvis Cocker; the second is a band called Lush.
The third photo, also from the era, is of Kate Moss and is that Naomi Campbell?