The old joke has it that reading Playboy for the articles is a dodge — a way to deflect clucking tongues of disapproval for the shy reader’s appreciation of nubile females. That old joke became a cruel one in the late winter of 2016 when the magazine published its first ever non-nude issue. Copper Hefner, the 27 year old owner and editor of Playboy, initially told readers that the legendary publication would cease publishing buxom models in their birthday suits for good. That promise did not last. The sadistic joke was over.
Back when Playboy was actually groundbreaking, daring, and (dare I say it) titillating, the magazine not only featured some of the world’s most beautiful women, but also some of the world’s best writers. Much of this literary greatness came courtesy of one editor — Ray Russell. Ironically, Russell, who managed the magazine’s fiction department during the early 1950s to early 1970s, was a Victorian thorough and thorough. Or at least he wrote like a Victorian English gentleman with a deep state for the weird.
It wasn’t exactly that “Heathers” contained no Hughesian influence. The types and tropes were all there—mean girls, jocks, bullying, upper-middle-class ennui, idiotic or abusive parents, delusional teachers, a bad-boy crush—but they were relentlessly amplified, turned into grotesques. The tone was arch, dripping with self-awareness (“Dear diary, my teen-angst bullshit has a body count,” Veronica scribbles in her journal); the script was full of nasty, snarky catchphrases ( “Fuck me gently with a chainsaw” is, perhaps, especially memorable). The visual palette was garishly Technicolor, a teen dream made nightmare; the bodily fluids, from phlegm to vomit to blood, flowed. In short, “Heathers” seemed influenced as much by “Blue Velvet” as by “Sixteen Candles,” and it paved the way for an era of darker, edgier, more experimental teen comedies.
Far above the rooftops of Manhattan on October 23, 1929, a crew of construction workers perched themselves around one of the highest human-made peaks in the world. Rumors had swirled that they were planning to hoist a flagpole, but what they were really about to lift was far bigger. From wooden platforms 860 feet in the air, the crew was going to raise and rivet a steel needle weighing 54,000 pounds—the finishing touch of a tower called the Chrysler Building.
A few blocks away, the building’s architect, William Van Alen, looked on. He felt nauseous and dizzy as the spire ascended, last-minute worries seeping into his mind. Maybe the cables would break and drop the 54,000 pounds through the building, or perhaps the crane would fail to lift the needle high enough. If the winds grew too strong, the spire would tip over the edge of the building, fall down more than 70 stories and crash onto the streets below.
Two years of Van Alen’s life had gone into this building. The tower should have topped out months earlier, with a far different design and certainly no spire, but rivalry had intervened. Four miles south, another skyscraper was rising, and its owners had the same goal as the Chrysler developers: To erect the tallest building in the world. And the architect of that tower—a bank at 40 Wall Street—was H. Craig Severance, a man Van Alen once called a friend.
But as things progress the story changes gear, giving a fuller resonance to what could otherwise be taken as a simple assemblage of whimsy and kookiness. I shan’t give away any plot twists, but there is innocence, and the loss of innocence, and the reassertion of a wider and better sort of innocence.
Stories hardly have any rules, except one: The telling needs to end somewhere short of whatever qualifies as a novella. Otherwise they’re free to do almost anything, which can sometimes leave the reader feeling like a kind of literary Goldilocks — this one too hot or too cold, too random, too rambling, or too fleeting to mean anything at all.
But oh, when they get it just right!
Although her megaphone is smaller, her voice remains one of the most trusted in our disparate food universe. Reichl’s book reminds us of the time when you could pick up a magazine and feel simultaneously starved and sustained.
“Life without memory is no life at all,” wrote Luis Buñuel on the plight of his mother, who by the end of her life had no memory left. Woven together over time, memories shape who we are, forming the unique narrative that is our identity.