by Steven Martin
I think I’m far too impressionable, and arguably for the wrong reasons. I mean, if I was picking up good habits and useful knowledge it’d be one thing, but it was only in the midst searching up opium pipes on eBay that I really had to stop and think about what I was doing. For, it doesn’t strike me as healthy to decide that collecting opium antiques would be a good idea after reading a memoir about a man’s obsession collecting opium antiques leading to opium addiction and effectively ruining his life.
In a nutshell, that’s what Opium Fiend’s about, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Martin not only alternates his focus between that of a collector and that of an addict, but he cycles between his interests throughout the book, namely collecting, South Asian history and culture, and opium. He begins with each subject almost compartmentalized, but, as we move along, the author blends the three and jumps between them more regularly, helping Opium Fiend’s overall readability as a result. And Martin lends credence to his assertion of being one of the world’s foremost modern-day opium scholars with the great depth of knowledge he presents.
Probably the thing that was most striking to me about Opium Fiend was the author’s honesty, specifically in the way he’s able to present his compulsive nature, that which he associates with true collectors. And it isn’t just in what he tells us about himself and his subject, but how thoroughly he tells us all about it, even in the context of background information and other tangentially related things of interest to the author, each passage effectively building upon the previous ones to make something that feels fuller, more complete, by the end. I think this attribute is what lends the memoir a great deal of its charm, though it probably is the source of its tedious passages as well.
Even with that in mind, Opium Fiend held my interest throughout, to the extent that I’d easily say large swaths of the memoir are positively gripping.