As a proud New Yorker, I was not supposed to like Pizza Hut's pizza, reconstructed from a third-hand dream about Little Italy. It was pizza distilled and distorted for white middle states, with doughy crusts and sweet sauce and something that just felt off. Liking Pizza Hut was just not what we did.
Except, as a kid, I loved Pizza Hut. As a 9-year-old in 1995, any discomfort I had with the idea of impostor chain pizza was overridden by the promise of that delicious abomination, the stuffed crust.
I am not prescribing moral amnesia here. To be wholly without memory would be to be without a world. Nor am I arguing against the determination for a group to memorialise its dead or demand acknowledgment of its sufferings. To do so would be to counsel a kind of moral and psychological self-mutilation of tragic proportions. On the other hand, too much forgetting is hardly the only risk. There is also too much remembering, and in the early 21st century, when people throughout the world are, in the words of the historian Tzvetan Todorov, “obsessed by a new cult, that of memory”, the latter seems to have become a far greater risk than the former.
The choices made throw together manuscript conventions (the blackletter titles but also sparing use of punctuation and the absence of uppercase letters), the resolute orality of Buccmaster’s first-person voice, and Jenson’s association with Humanism and its crucial companion, the printing press. The book materializes as a reminder that history comes to us only in highly mediated ways, through flawed witnesses like Buccmaster, imaginative writers like Kingsnorth, and makers like Jenson and his modern-day descendants at Graywolf.
But how does Valley of the Dolls actually hold up as a read 50 years later? Incredibly well, in fact, if you’re not looking for nuance and shading. Susann bothers little with phrasing or mood. For her, language is a blunt instrument to move a story forward—mostly through straightforward and often hilarious dialogue.
Any story that, on its very first page, redefines its protagonist from third to first person, flips forward in time to offer a view of him from elsewhere, makes a subtle alteration of tense, and announces that the character’s age in the story is a matter of speculation even to the older self doing the narrating, is going to be a story about perception, whatever else it is. It is going to be about seeing, as well as about the things seen.