Books & the Arts / January 8, 2024

A Metaphysical Memoir of Heroin

Michael Clune’s White Out is among the most intense and intellectually thrilling books on opiate addiction.

Daniel Kolitz

Extracting heroin from poppies on April 10, 1978, in Los Angeles, Calif.

(Photo by Santi Visalli / Getty Images)

The addiction memoir once occupied a space in the culture not far removed from the celebrity tell-all or the polygamous-cult exposé. These books were popular insofar as the experiences they described—the first hits, the rock bottoms, the fragile redemptions—were comfortably remote from the median American experience. Today, opioid addiction is as mundane as high cholesterol, and readerly attention has sensibly shifted. The addiction memoir has been supplanted by the addiction explainer: sprawling accounts of corporate malfeasance, books and podcasts and streaming series purporting to show how the Sacklers (or their Hollywood stand-ins: Matthew Broderick, Michael Stuhlbarg) conspired to charm the doctors, outsmart the regulators, and poison the public.

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White Out: The Secret Life of Heorin

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The publishing history of Michael Clune’s memoir White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin straddles these two eras: It came out in 2013, the year the US government first acknowledged an opioid epidemic, but was largely written in the late 2000s, at the tail end of the addiction-memoir boom. At the time, Clune was a promising postdoc in English literature, but just a few years earlier his life had been touch and go, as he juggled the competing demands of grad school and heroin addiction. Sometimes the two paired nicely: On heroin, Clune writes, “the shapes of thoughts, sentences, and phenomena grew solid outlines, stood still, and let me copy them down in my essays.” More often, he’d found himself too sick, or crazed, or both, to make much headway on his coursework. Now in the process of recovery, he found himself compulsively reading every addiction memoir he could find. Each one seemed inadequate, blind to aspects of addiction that felt urgently real to him. White Out—like many great books—was born as a corrective.

But the big publishers—like many large, hidebound institutions—were apparently content with the status quo. The few that didn’t outright reject Clune’s corrective suggested he disfigure it—lard in, say, a pop history of drug abuse in America, in order to stand out in a crowded market. Clune tried this advice, judged the results abysmal, and decided to go his own way. White Out eventually appeared through the publishing arm of the Hazelden Foundation, the recovery nonprofit better known for titles like Drug Testing in Correctional Settings: Guidelines for Effective Uses. Clune went with Hazelden for a simple reason: They promised not to mess with his prose.

He was wise to follow his instincts, because White Out became a surprise success. The London Review of Books ran a lengthy appreciation; The New Yorker called it one of the best books of the year. The intervening decade hasn’t dulled its brilliance: White Out describes addiction’s mortifications with a precision and intensity that shames the prose of not just the average addiction memoir but of contemporary literary nonfiction as a whole. It is “about” addiction in the same sense that Lolita—a key Clune text—is “about” pedophilia: overwhelmingly so, but also incidentally, with the ostensible subject serving as pretext for the play of language and the careful chiselling of a bruised, ironic, complexly self-despising sensibility.

McNally Jackson has now reissued the book, with a new introduction by the author. Those tempted to turn to it for insight into the psychology of the current crisis’s victims will find no resistance from the text, which clearly intends to say something universal about addiction. But, plainly, Clune is too weird to pull off anything so straightforward. What White Out underlines instead is the idiosyncratic nature of addiction—how the relationship with a drug can feel as personal, and as complex, as any friendship or marriage—and the depths we’ve sunk to since the years the book chronicles. Again and again in White Out, Clune attempts to kick his habit, relapses, and then starts the cycle over. Today, with the drug supply increasingly tainted with the much deadlier fentanyl, such second and third chances are much rarer. In addiction as in most other aspects of American life, the margin for failure has vanished.

Clune was born in the late 1970s and spent his coming of age—including all but a few months of his heroin addiction—in the weightless interval between the fall of the Soviet Union and 9/11. If you were, like Clune, a young, middle-class, college-educated Gen Xer, what really frightened you—what led you to start a band, experiment with collective living, get a weird tattoo—was the idea that you’d be fine. The stable job, the family, the mortgage—you had to resist their dark pull, at least for a little while, because you were, of course, merely deferring the inevitable. More than once in White Out, Clune envisions the office job as a site of authoritarian horror: “The real-world bosses stand right over you while you type. ‘What’s this? A letter? A word? All we deal with here are numbers! Figures! Just write down the numbers. Is that so hard?’” As a young man, he was so totally ensconced in the end of history that not even 9/11 could break him out of it: As Clune writes in Gamelife, his memoir-in-essays about his lifelong obsession with computer games, “The history professors and television people predictably seized on [9/11] as evidence that big things can still happen in history, that history is still moving forward.” But he “wasn’t distracted by the 9/11 hype.”

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Clune means these things, and he doesn’t. He’s a committed ironist, and the late-’90s sense of inconsequence, its unipolar ennui, winningly inflects the sensibility of his prose. Autofictional writers just a few years younger than Clune would go on to spend their books ruminating on climate change (is it ethical to bring a child into a world on fire?) and working through trauma with the help of psychedelic-assisted therapy. Clune is happy to snort heroin with his dead-end friends and riff cheerfully on their horrific future deaths:

Dom would live for another four whole months, and I heard it was just an overdose that killed him. Natural cause. And Henry would have been the first to agree that if Fathead had shot him dead on the spot, he’d be doing him a real big favor…. You could say what you liked about Henry, but he was no idiot. He had a good head on his shoulders. He knew he needed a hole in it. He’d tell you.

In 2021, Clune—now a professor at Case Western University in Cleveland—published a book called In Defense of Judgment, a manifesto attempting to rehabilitate the concept of aesthetic discrimination for his fellow English literature scholars, a group apparently committed to the notion that no work of art is inherently “better” than any other. Clune explicitly links this stance to poptimism writ large, decrying the “dogmatic egalitarianism” of our cultural moment. As it happens, White Out was published just weeks before one of literary poptimism’s key texts, Jennifer Weiner’s defense, in Slate, of “likable” characters. This debate—still somehow raging a decade later, albeit largely among a YA-oriented fringe—is not explicitly addressed by Clune, but it is clear enough where he stands: White Out is a book that benefits significantly from his refusal to present himself as a good or right-minded person. It is a recovery narrative, but there is no redemption arc: We do not see, for example, a newly sober Clune tearfully apologizing to the wheelchair-bound old man he scammed for heroin money. Instead, that scene is played for laughs, and the man is never mentioned again.

Clune’s generational credentials are further burnished by his close association with the novelist and poet Ben Lerner—Clune is thanked in the acknowledgments of Lerner’s 10:04, a book that contains a subtle tribute to Clune’s work, and in a sense White Out is the dark twin of Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station. Swap Madrid for Baltimore and hash for heroin, and they are, in broad outline, mirror images: A young man takes drugs, wanders the city, entertains vast, systematizing thoughts about history and literature, lies to everyone he encounters (girlfriends, parents, even, in Clune’s case, children on the street, in the interest of selling them stolen CDs), comes undone, gets it somewhat together, and eventually writes the book we’re reading.

What distinguishes White Out from Atocha and its autofictional ilk is less its form than its milieu—the drug house instead of the writers’ conference, the Chicago jail cell instead of the Brooklyn cocktail bar. As in those books, conventionally novelistic scenes routinely give way to extended philosophical digressions, with most of the latter in White Out dealing with what Clune terms the “memory disease.” This is Clune’s attempt at a universal theory of heroin addiction, and it is at once deeply compelling and deeply strange. To illustrate it, Clune describes his experience with the song “Crazy,” by Gnarls Barkley, in which revelation pales to boredom with each successive listen:

As you become more familiar with the shape of a song or a face, the magic sensation you had the first time slowly drifts away from it. The magic drifts away from the thing, as if it only ever had an accidental, lucky connection with it. The song is still there, but the magic is not.

Only heroin, in Clune’s view, is immune to this deadening effect: The drug never sheds its fascination, so that “the addict, alone among humans, is given something that is always new.” Clune is not talking about the experience of being on heroin, which in fact gets old fairly quickly, with the addict eventually using it mainly to stave off withdrawal. No: In Clune’s telling, the intensity of the first time embeds itself in the physical object itself—in every vial of heroin the addict encounters going forward. Beyond the obvious physiological reasons, this would explain why it’s so hard to stop using: For Clune, when the addict looks at a vial of heroin, they do not see the drug itself, or the mounting complications that it has caused in their life, but the magic of that very first time. “Pick up a white top, it’s like picking up a white phone, and the angel of the first time is singing down the line,” Clune writes.

How literally are we meant to take all this? Not long before the release of White Out, Clune published a short academic book called Writing Against Time (which was actually written after White Out but, thanks to the latter’s tortured publication history, appeared first). It can be strange reading Clune in this buttoned-up mode after encountering his White Out persona—like bumping into William Burroughs in an open-plan office. But his preoccupations are consistent across forms: Writing Against Time is an examination of the efforts of writers from the Romantic period onward—Keats, De Quincey, Ashbery—to permanently prolong “the richness and vividness of the first experience” in order to combat “the erosive force of neurobiological time.” He locates his idea of memory disease in Lolita, among other texts: Humbert Humbert, gazing at Lolita, really always sees the originating nymphet, Annabel, the one who left a “poison in the wound.” But Clune also ropes in the neuroscience of the time, including a paper he coauthored, to suggest that this phenomenon might have a real neurological basis. Does it? The science was murky back in 2013 and is only marginally less murky today. I will say there are substances I’ve taken hundreds of times, in a way one might charitably describe as “compulsive,” without any distinct memory of my first encounter with them.

Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter. In the context of White Out, these concepts—the memory disease, the time poison—work as literary devices, capacious metaphors for one man’s collision with addiction. Clune’s ideas here are secondary to his prose, which functions as (to use a favored Clune construction) a technology for inhabiting the freakishly sensitized mind of one Michael Clune. Not everything works: Clune is a virtuosic stylist, but the stylist has yet to be born who can make life as an Oberlin undergrad interesting. For the most part, though, White Out is a ferociously controlled book, with the memory disease made to infect the prose itself. Thoughts are floated and then bent into abstract shapes: “Writing is an aid to memory. Writing is an AIDS for memory.” Repeated bits of dialogue and language blow through the chapters like torn paper in the wind, building into the blizzard of language that follows Clune’s rock-bottom arrest:

Hey smart guy. They don’t want to be responsible for the drinks you had before you got there. I don’t believe it. The off switch was two-and-a-half bags. Hey smart guy. Tiger called from a 7-11. I don’t believe it. I called the valet from my room. Hey smart guy.

The risk of this obsessive approach is a certain airlessness, a diminished vitality. But Clune’s closed system heaves with life.

In 2002—the year Clune got sober—2,089 people died from heroin overdoses in the United States. That number was 82,998 in 2022. Concerns about fentanyl are being slowly outpaced by concerns about xylazine, an animal sedative known to cause necrosis in humans. In his new preface, Clune tries to grapple with this crisis, as well as the question of why some get clean while others die. But he eventually throws up his hands.

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I’m for suboxone treatment centers, halfway houses, twelve-step meetings, decriminalization, recriminalization, all of it. I’m not against doing anything or everything that helps. But don’t fool yourself. Addiction is a public problem. But it doesn’t have a public solution.

The solution that worked for Clune was AA, and his account of a recovery meeting a few years into his sobriety represents maybe the only instance in either of his memoirs in which the possibility of meaningful human interaction is treated as something other than a grotesque joke. Here a female speaker’s “whole fucked-up body and mind was making the group and everyone in it stronger and more relaxed, including her.” AA is described as a refuge from “the endless eviscerated capitalist century outside.” The “anonymous” part of AA is important. Clune describes recovery as an almost impersonal process: The sick body is hitched to habits—meetings, exercise, productive work—and if the cure takes, the body gets well.

The problem is that the cure doesn’t always take. Clune knows that AA works for only a minority of attendees—it’s why he breaks with AA orthodoxy in supporting the use of suboxone. He has also spoken publicly about the limits of his own personal experience in diagnosing and solving a problem whose tendrils snake into many millions of lives. So how to explain his Washington Post op-ed from this past spring coming out against decriminalization? In it, Clune uses his own experience to argue that “legal consequences can play an essential role in pushing people toward a path to recovery.” For years before his arrest, he’d tried to get clean; prosecution was the only thing that could actually break the cycle. Clune points out that nonviolent drug offenders represent only 15 percent of the state prison population—a figure that nonetheless amounts to many thousands of people per year, not including those nonviolent drug offenders in state jails or federal prisons—but what he doesn’t offer is any evidence, beyond his own experience, that arrests and prosecutions work as a recovery tool in anything like a systematic way. That a largely barbaric and life-deforming system occasionally, almost despite itself, produces positive outcomes does not seem a strong argument to leave it in place.

Any prosperous, middle-aged Gen Xer can write a contrarian op-ed. Few can weld the time-warped baubles of their own experience into a throttling simulacrum of wrecked consciousness. We can ignore Clune’s policy prescriptions and instead listen to what he tells us about being alive: that it is often painful, and more often boring; that hard drugs can help, for a little while, until they kill you. Better yet, we can skip the lessons entirely and listen to the music of his voice. As Clune concedes in Writing Against Time, no artist has yet fashioned an image that can stop time and thus relieve the pain of its passage. Art’s as much of a dead end as heroin, if generally less fatal. But it can help. White Out certainly does.

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Daniel Kolitz

is a writer living in Brooklyn.

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