BEAUTY IN HER CHAOS? Scammer by Caroline Calloway

By Lindsay Johnstone

Attaching this review to an email and hitting send had a touch of the Caroline Calloways about it. I’d been promising it – nay, hyping it! – for a while. Said I was polishing it up when the draft had been languishing for well over a fortnight. In fact, if I am to be honest, the review I share here isn’t half the review I’ll write when I produce my REAL REVIEW. Just you wait for that one. Let’s call it… Oh no, wait. This is my only review.

Calloway, too, claims Scammer isn’t really her first memoir. It’s a holding-memoir of sorts while we await the as-yet-unwritten AND WE WERE LIKE which will be published in the wake of her trilogy, the remaining two volumes of which Calloway pledges will be available by the end of 2023.  Only after all that will AND WE WERE LIKE, in “complete and linear” fashion, spill the story of Caroline Calloway’s first 31 spins around the sun.

But many of her devotees have been waiting for Scammer since 2020.  Others have been teased by the prospect of a Caroline Calloway memoir for nigh-on a decade. Are they yet to be kept waiting? For what, exactly, have we here?

Well, Scammer is a self-published “daybook.” It’s “intended to be finished the same day you start reading it, evoking the magnificent childhood pleasure of devouring a story cover-to-cover in a single afternoon.” Well. I wonder what it says of this reviewer who took over a month to limp to the end of it? Is she quite simply not Calloway’s intended reader? Or to put it another way, woefully Millennial?

Expectations were high, though, when the hardback volume thunked expensively on the doormat at the end of the summer. Indeed, unwrapping Scammer prompted the taking of a Calloway-esque series of ‘unboxing’ photos ready to be hashtagged for Stories.

Image credit: Caroline Calloway

The disrobing was indeed tantalising: its heft slipping from a turquoise sheath of custom-stickered bubblewrap to reveal a blousy red ribbon begging to be untied. Careful fingers quickly tired of trying to save the tissue for later and were soon tearing at taut, flimsy layers to finally reveal Calloway’s tome in all its naked glory. I’m mixing my social media metaphors here, but I figure if CC can get away with cultivating both Instagram and lucrative OnlyFans personae, she – for one – won’t object.

Bending back the spine and diving into the opening pages, we find Calloway eschewing the conventions of memoir entirely. Rather than set the stage for Scammer she whets her readers’ appetites for AND WE WERE LIKE; but not before she clobbers us with a trio of opening paragraphs designed to “gobsmack”. She’s never climaxed, she tells us. Never finished. And neither, she confesses, has she written any of the books she’s promised or been expensively contracted to produce.

Does she do this to manage our collective expectations before we romp through 67 unedited skits?

There is no doubt about how close we feel to Calloway as she attempts (in near-real time) to claw back her own story from the insidious grip of publishers, acquaintances and friends-past. But with this track-record, can we rely on her to get to the end of this one, let alone the books to come?

Propelled to the back of the book by this revelation, a quick flick reveals many a blank page. I dare not look any further. I’m along for the ride; the expensive ride given that the limited print run currently retails at $65 a pop. If she is to be believed, Calloway is beavering away at home in Florida gluing endpapers, signing, dedicating, wrapping, packing and shipping each and every one of them. On second thoughts maybe nearly $100, once you factor in international postage, is reasonable? This feels like we’ve entered the realms of performance art.

The performance extends to her socials, which have been wiped of The Cambridge Years, The New York Years and The Adderall Years, too. Now, just a score or so photoshopped grid pictures mock up the kind of front covers Calloway believes she deserves. Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, The London Evening Standard, even. Glasgow Review of Books? Not yet. But perhaps Napoleon Hill’s motto from his 1937 book, Think and Grow Rich, “Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve,” might just be right.

She has previous form in this, of course. Fetishise Cambridge but don’t make the grade? Photoshop your transcript. Dream of becoming a famous memoirist? Orchestrate a life worth writing about. Decide that Lena Dunham will buy your film rights? Dedicate your daybook to her. There’s jeopardy in all of this, of course. But it’s a strategy that’s paying dividends (at least as far as she’ll have us believe).

Eventually, I hobble to the end, utterly spent. Wiping sweat from my clammy brow there is relief when Calloway resolves the mystery of those blank pages I’d earlier fretted over. They were all part of a master plan. “Aesthetics!

Whether or not you believe me when I tell you,” she announces in the longest Acknowledgements section I can presently summon to mind, “I am publishing MORE THAN ONE BOOK THIS YEAR, I am. And whichever manuscript that is, all of their Word Doc word counts are higher than Scammer’s. So I really needed to beef this book up with some extra pages.” Calloway’s vision remains undimmed by previous form. She is already picturing her “juvenilia on your bookshelf, each spine… of equal width.”

Image credit: Caroline Calloway

For Calloway is all about appearances. It’s what gave her the moniker scammer, after all. She is intent on convincing us that only her version of the story has any credibility and you’d be forgiven for thinking this book, then, is all back-story. Her opportunity to set the record straight, even if we know the story inside out already. “Even as I self-cannibalize, repeating my own scripts in new sentences, even as you swear you’ve seen it all before, clicked every link, swan-dived down every rabbit hole: A crowd, a hush,” she says.

Though I won’t waste valuable word count on that back story here I’m sure that, just like slowing for a car crash on the opposite side of the dual carriageway, you, too, are now slavering against your better judgement at the prospect of getting your chops around the lengthy New Yorker piece now.

Who is Natalie Beach, I hear you ponder. What kind of shady doctor (who is, incidentally, the best-drawn character in this book) would facilitate without question Calloway’s increasingly-problematic amphetamine addiction? A dependency for the pampered class, it is only made possible during The Cambridge and St Andrew’s Years by way of bi-monthly transatlantic drug runs. Oh, how the other half live.

Her glorification of wealth and status, as well as her naked ambition is hard to stomach. I read in a ‘You’ll never guess what she’s just said…’ way. Perhaps others, too, turn up the corners of pages for easy reference? Picture my copy of Scammer, then, where the number of turned-up corners far outweighs the still-flat ones. Just when I thought I’d read the most Caroline Calloway sentence yet, another one would trump it. My page turns become meaningless.

The bawdy, self-reflexive nature of this book is taxing, too, in long stretches. Perhaps because of this, the prevailing experience of reading was one of impatience. Impatience for an ending, and for this protagonist to do some growing up.  

Though maybe a certain type of reader (read: this one) has simply become too used to sanitised literary memoir where form and narrative arc are utilised to wrestle beauty from chaos? Maybe we (read: I) would do well to emerge from a certain literary silo and spend more time scanning the season’s new releases in the celebrity memoir section of Waterstones to better situate Calloway in a broader context?

But what if the beauty of Scammer is the chaos? There is no denying that a lack of filter and an absence of editorial gloss is, sometimes, refreshing. It leads in this case to some unexpected flashes of the very human Calloway that perhaps we wouldn’t see if a skilled editor had gotten their red pen out. In the briefest of moments, the mask slips.

She is revealed as a girl still yet grieving for her recently-dead father with whom the decades-old inadequacies of their relationship can never be resolved. She is also a carer for her cancer-surviving mother who, we are told, will succumb again fatally next time. Nary a true friend to her name, it seems, she cuts a lonely figure. It is in these moments of messy humanity that the real Caroline Calloway can be found. Mere sentences, yet regret, unprocessed grief and loneliness linger.

Maybe now she’s succeeded in getting Scammer out of her system she’ll be ready to tell more of this truer story.

About our contributor

Lindsay Johnstone [she/her] is a writer based in Glasgow.  Her roots are firmly in the west coast, though she has been known to travel when the occasion calls. She writes about motherhood, the impact of intergenerational trauma and the interplay between the natural world and our mental health.  Lindsay was the recipient of a John Byrne Award in June 2023, was shortlisted for a Writers’ Award at the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival in 2022 and was supported by Creative Scotland and ASLA’s emerging writers’ programme, Our Voices, in 2021.

In her former life as a high school English teacher, Lindsay wrote for the Herald and BBC Bitesize. She is a regular voice on BBC Radio Scotland, and can (mostly) be trusted with a microphone. She works at the Scottish Book Trust and moonlights as one fifth of Glasgow band, Wall Sun Sun.

Her memoir, Held in Mind, is currently on submission with UK publishers while she works on her first novel. She also writes a Substack where readers can expect some of the above and more besides:

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The Glasgow Review of Books (ISSN 2053-0560) is an online journal which publishes critical reviews, essays and interviews as well as writing on translation. We accept work in any of the languages of Scotland – English, Gàidhlig and Scots.

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