Caitlin Moran’s fabulous new novel may be set in the ‘90s, the day before yesterday for a lot of us, but it’s already a lost age. In How to be Famous, people smoke indoors. Something called Britpop dominates the music scene. People cut cocaine with strawberry Nesquik. Social media means handing your magazine to someone else when you’ve read it.
Set in the world of pop journalism and its then-epicentre, Camden, Moran is at pains to tell us at the start that what we are about to receive is a work of fiction. Yes, real musicians and places pop up here and there but the rest is all make-believe, the product of Moran’s fertile imagination. Well, OK, Caitlin, if you say so. But as the central character (Johanna Morrigan, alter-ego Dolly Wilde) is a young music journalist elbowing her way onto the scene and Moran was once a, er, young music journalist elbowing her way onto the scene, we’ll just have to take that with a pinch of salt. Or more historically accurately – and equally metaphorically, of course – a pinch of coke.
Being Moran, the jokes and one-liners fizz and crackle off the page. “Suzanne has waded into war and turned my vagina into a feminist battleground. That was not what I had planned for my vagina at all. I’d always been gunning for something more like ‘a well-loved public space, with limited parking.’”
How to be Famous is the natural follow-on to Moran’s best-selling How to be a Girl and unabashed self-pleasuring is a continuing theme. As usual she writes fearlessly, openly, honestly and incredibly funnily about sex – especially bad sex. One of the key plotlines involves the ghastly TV comedian Jerry Sharp, a revolting creep who uses his brief fame to prey on women.
Dolly ends up in Sharp’s flat. His pseudo-intellectual books and posters, plus a velvet frock-coat, bottle of absinthe and filthy cat-litter tray all scream ‘poseur’ but Dolly is only 19 and just thinks: ‘Cool! An edgy intellectual!’ But even she quickly gets Sharp’s repulsive self-regarding measure. During sex in the living room he reaches for a TV remote and switches it on, just in time to catch his own sitcom starting. He’s actually watching himself, mid-encounter with Dolly. Dumbfounded, she gets up and calls a cab but he’s still glued to the screen.
“‘This was a good bit,’ he says at one point, gesturing to the TV. I laugh politely.” Eventually the taxi arrives and Dolly escapes – but Sharp will come back to haunt her.
Then there’s her unrequited love for a rising pop star, funnily and tenderly portrayed. Alongside all the humour and witty one-liners, Moran is full of insight and keen observation and I can’t think of anyone who writes quite like her. She’s unique. She’s won countless awards for her journalism and fiction and her first novel – How to Build a Girl – is to be made into a film. How to be Famous will surely be its sequel.