Monday, November 24, 2008

Valley of the Dolls: Thrilling Climaxes

If I am going to tell you about Valley of the Dolls - and I am going to tell you about it, believe me - I have to tell you how I found it. After a friend's great-aunt died, I was asked to take part in clearing out her attic. This attic: it was amazing. The woman had lived into her eighties and she had apparently never thrown anything away. We were told to take anything we wanted, because it would make auctioning or donating her remaining things easier for the family. I hadn't known the woman, so I wasn't planning to take away much. Then, when going through the bookshelves, I found that on one shelf, behind the hardcovers, she had hidden a small pile of shabby paperbacks, including Hedy LaMarr's autobiography (Ecstasy and Me), Lady Chatterley's Lover, and a 1967 copy of Valley of the Dolls.

I found the dirty books.

*
Smut is weird. It's not about arousal, but titillation; arousal is a natural and common thing, whereas titillation is about deriving arousal from something forbidden. Smut promises its readers a release from shame while simultaneously reminding them that they have something to be ashamed of; a nonchalant attitude toward the subject in question (say, anal sex - Valley of the Dolls, it's said, contains the first "mainstream" depiction of it, although writers such as William Burroughs had published far more explicit scenes, and the claim as a whole is highly suspect) is less rewarding for the intended audience than a celebration of the subject as dirty, vile, depraved, and fantastic. Smut has to remind us of sexual boundaries in order to transgress them; if anything, it strengthens those boundaries by making them crucial to our response. Smut, in essence, is conservative.

This is why dated or bad smut is so instructive. Its sense of shame doesn't quite match ours; it's a bit to the left, or to the right, which makes the whole enterprise transparent. Valley of the Dolls is dated now, but it's always been bad; upon its release, it was widely embraced as a camp classic, especially among gay men, and that reputation has only grown over the years. Try to read the Sontag essay, if you can, before you read this book - and if you can't, just sit with this a while: "Camp asserts that good taste is not simply good taste; that there exists, indeed, a good taste of bad taste... The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving himself of pleasure; he continually restricts what he can enjoy; in the constant exercise of his good taste he will eventually price himself out of the market, so to speak." This is the mindset you will need to get into. Take this, for example:

"He came up last night." After a pause Neely said, "Anne... I... we did it."
"Did what?"
"You know."
"Neely... you mean...?"
"Uh huh. It hurt a lot and I didn't come. But Mel made me come the other way."
"What are you talking about?"
"He went down on me."
"Neely!"
The idea of anyone reacting to an oral sex reference with such raw horror is unimaginable - yet Anne, who, on a separate occasion, is reduced to pearl-clutching shock by the phrase "get laid," is the character with whom we're supposed to identify. Everything in Valley of the Dolls is a little too big, a little too theatrical, and a little too old-fashioned to really work. Therein lies its charm.

The above-quoted passage is actually one of the more sexually explicit scenes in Valley of the Dolls. The novel's relentless, over-the-top vulgarity does not extend to its sex scenes, which are mostly comprised of euphemisms and insinuations. Most of the women in Valley of the Dolls "climax" rather than "come." (When one woman's boarding-school lesbian lover says, "I want to give you thrilling climaxes," the contemporary reader is hard-pressed not to think, "oh, you mean like Return of the Jedi?") The book's only blowjob takes one line to complete: a woman "[falls] to her knees and [begins] to make love to" the man in question. Here is the buttsex heard 'round the world, in its entirety:
He pulled the robe off her. "Turn over," he growled.
She ground her teeth in agony as he tore into her. She felt his nails ripping down her back. Smile, Jen, she told herself. You've made it. You're Mrs. Tony Polar...
End of scene.

You begin to see, I trust, why this is such an entertaining read.

*

#1
BESTSELLER
VALLEY OF THE DOLLS
From Broadway to Hollywood, this is the fastest-selling, most whispered-about novel of the year. And no wonder! It reveals more about the secret, drug-filled, love-starved, sex-satiated, nightmare world of show business than any novel ever published.
It begins, in my book, with the jacket copy. Before I read Valley of the Dolls, I knew it by reputation, as a scandalous book, a Hollywood expose, and a bestseller, especially among women and gay men. I was not prepared for how all of those things were apparently a part of the book's marketing strategy from the beginning. The book is not selling from coast to coast; it is selling from Broadway to Hollywood - maybe to the very celebrities whose lives are portrayed therein! Likewise, people are not talking about it; they are whispering, as one whispers secrets. The world it portrays, in fact, is secret, as well as drug-filled and sex-satiated. (Has anyone else ever said, let alone written, the phrase "sex-satiated"?) "Everything you've heard about it is true," the back cover promises.

The entire value of Valley of the Dolls lies in its ability to shock. This is not literature, and it doesn't aim to be. If we are scandalized and fascinated, it succeeds; if we aren't, it doesn't. To evaluate it, you have to work on its terms. The surprise lies in the fact that it still (somehow, sometimes) delivers the goods.

*

Of course, since this was intended to be a chick book, we've got to have our Opposed Yet Complimentary Personalities(TM). Here they are:
ANNE WELLES: the icy New England beauty who melted for the wrong Mr. Right... an Adonis famous for his infidelity.
The book starts, ends with, and centers on Anne. She is the audience surrogate - the prude who allows her audience an entry point into the non-stop debauchery of the novel. The book opens with Anne looking for her first job in New York, having just run away from stodgy Lawrenceville, Massachussets, where her mother has just told her that sex is rarely satisfying and love does not really exist and the best she can expect is to marry a nice young boy from the neighborhood and hope that he treats her well. Anne will never go back to Lawrenceville... never.... never... never! She believes in love! And passion! For the intended audience of the book - women who stayed in their own Lawrencevilles and married their own nice boys - this is a promise that the book will offer what their lives can't.

This goes awry when we realize just how clueless our Anne is. She soon finds herself accidentally engaged to Aaron Cooper, a meek little insurance agent who reveals himself, at a later date, to be the scion of a fabulously wealthy Italian-American (?) family with shady ties. (This also happened on Gossip Girl, by the way, but the man in question was an English lord.) The scenes with his Joe-Pescian father, Gino Cooper (??), are a particular delight. Yet Anne doesn't love Aaron - and, as with all other men, she is unable to experience even the most perfunctory sexual arousal with him. Anne fears that she may be permanently frigid. Until...

She meets Lyon Burke. It is a proven scientific fact that whenever the heroine of a woman's paperback meets a man named Lyon, he is going to rock her like a hurricane at some point within the next 100 pages. This Lyon is a shockingly handsome English WWII veteran who is also fabulously successful talent agent, but secretly longs to write a great novel. This is his sensitive side, which he does not often expose to women, mostly because he's too busy exposing his junk - Lyon gets around. Anne is drawn to Lyon's hidden vulnerability, which leads to some inevitable hurricane-like rocking. Everyone tells Anne that Lyon is bad news! He's trouble! He'll break her heart! Anne doesn't listen - she's in love, and also she can finally get ladyboners. Then, of course, he breaks her heart. Moving on:
NEELY O'HARA: the lovable kid from vaudeville who became a star and a monster.
Neely - we should get this out of the way up front - is Judy Garland. She's an adorably perky teen actress who rooms with Anne, and who somehow lucks into instantaneous superstardom about one-third of the way into the book, at which point the real fun begins. She goes through two sketched-in husbands, Mel (defining characteristic: Jewish) and Ted (defining characteristic: sleeps with dudes) before meeting her true love, Mr. Lots and Lots of Pills (defining characteristic: comes in prescription bottles), with whom she has a long and affectionate relationship. Together, Neely and Mr. Pills lose a hundred jobs, stage a thousand comebacks, and suffer a million spectacular freakouts, all of which are a joy to read. Here's a little sample of what makes her so special:
Ted and the girl were scrambling out of the pool as she staggered out, holding a bottle of Scotch.
"Having a good time, kiddies?" she shrieked. "Fucking in my pool? Be sure you drain it out. Remember, Ted - your children go wading in it every morning."
The girl dodged frantically behind Ted. Neely carefully emptied the bottle into the pool.
"Maybe this'll disinfect it," she sneered. Then she stared at Ted. "So now it's a girl tramp instead of a boy. I guess Dr. Mitchell will tell me you need this too!"
Nothing but class, that girl.
JENNIFER NORTH: the blonde goddess who survived every betrayal against her magnificent body except the last.
Jennifer North has breasts. They are large. This is communicated to the reader through the subtle device of mentioning them in every single scene in which she takes part. All Jennifer wants is love - a husband, some babies - yet The Breasts (usually referred to as "boobs," in the classy parlance of the book) thwart her at every turn. Men, you see, only want her for her body. This reaches delirious heights of idiocy when Jennifer wrangles a proposal from her boyfriend, Tony Polar (uh-oh), by speaking on behalf of The Breasts as if they are independent beings with lives and personalities of their own ("we want you, Tony... we'll miss you, Tony... marry us tonight, Tony") while he stumbles around the room drooling and grabbing for them. In a shocking surprise plot twist, Tony turns out to be retarded. (This also happened on Gossip Girl, by the way, but the man in question was an English lord.) Jennifer is forced to get a divorce, abort her potentially retarded fetus, and retreat to France for a life of non-stop sluttery and art films in which she is occasionally topless. Oh, the shame!

*

I said that Valley of the Dolls still had some power to shock its readers, and that is true. It is, in some ways, a disturbing read. It's not about the sex, or the drugs - in the age of Ritalin and Xanax, the idea that people might be using prescription drugs to get high is not precisely revelatory - or even about celebrities behaving badly, which may have been the main draw of the book when it was published. Although it's fun to read about Ethel Merman ("Helen Lawson") and Judy Garland having a boozed-up fistfight in a public restroom, today's celebrity coverage has removed any novelty from the idea that celebrities sometimes have messy private lives. It's the same with abortions, premarital sex, or the fact that gay people exist and sometimes work in musical theater - contemporary readers know about these things, and tend to be far more enlightened about them than the characters of this book. So, no, it's not about sex, or drugs, or celebrity: it's about the pervasive bleakness of the book itself, and the fact that each and every character comes to an unhappy end within it. One gets the sense that they're not unhappy because they made the wrong choices, but because they never could have been happy, no matter what choices they made.

In bourgeois novels of sex and scandal, bad girls have to get punished. The readers want to live vicariously through them, but they also need to see them end in tragedy, as an affirmation that their own lives were the ones worth living after all. That much is a given. But why are these girls bad? What are they getting punished for? You could say that it's simply because they're more successful and wealthy than most readers of the book - but, given the dim view the book takes of middle-class existence (a view shared by its author, who was monomaniacal in her pursuit of fame by any means necessary), it's not quite that simple.

Jennifer North - the sweetest character in the book, and the easiest one with which to identify, Breasts notwithstanding - commits suicide. Given her sexual exploits throughout the book (the lesbian lover, the anal sex, the "nudie" pictures, the seven-count-them-seven abortions) this would seem to be a simple matter of killing the slut. It's not. Jennifer is never really after sex; it's just a way to make people love her. She does find a man to settle down with, a man who genuinely seems to care about her as a person. Then she gets breast cancer. (Susann had been diagnosed with the same thing before she wrote the book; it was what killed her.) She needs a mastectomy, and turns to her boyfriend. He tells her that he doesn't care what happens to the rest of her body, but that if her breasts are ever damaged, he won't be able to stand it (or, by implication, her). So, off she goes.

This development - a good man revealing a cruel, selfish side at the last minute (just like on Gossip Girl!) - happens so often that it ceases to be a lame plot device and becomes a theme. You can't trust anyone. Love is never mutual. You will never know another person as deeply as you want or need to. These are the messages of the book.

It's reiterated in the book's only real "romance," the affair of Anne and Lyon. She does marry him, eventually, and has his children. Of course, by that time, he's sick of her, and has moved on to other women. Anne knows about it, and says nothing. As the book closes, she's developing her own drug problem, and is resigned to letting her marriage wither away while she numbs out on pills. Anne is the good girl of the book - the one who espouses chastity, monogamy, romance, and strictly vaginal penetration, the one who makes all the right choices - and in another novel of this genre, she would have been given a happy ending. (She did get one, in the movie.) Why is her ending so dark? More importantly, why are all of her potential endings equally dark? If she'd stayed at home and done as her mother told her, she would have been unhappy; if she'd married Cooper, she would have been unhappy; if she'd stayed with the impotent man she takes up with in the last half of the book, she would have been unhappy; now, she's the heroine of the book, married to its hero, and she is unhappy. There are no good options. There never were. This is another point the book drives home.

As it stands, the only vaguely triumphant character in the book is Neely O'Hara. It's understood that she will self-destruct eventually - as Garland did - and that her comebacks will always be accompanied by relapses - as Garland's were - but the book leaves her poised on top of her latest triumph, instead of falling back into squalor, as Garland had already done by the time the book was published. (She was offered a role in the movie, but was too fucked up to make it through shooting, and was replaced.) By the end of the book, Neely has (perhaps by accident - I'm not crediting Susann with much here) transcended the inside-Hollywood portrait to become an almost allegorical figure, Female Appetite personified. Her weight gain, which is endlessly and cruelly discussed in the book, stands in for something larger, the fact that she consumes - drugs, booze, attention, money, people - without ceasing, and always wants more. Women who want, in most books of this kind, are the villains, and the ones who receive the worst punishments. Neely is a monster; it says so in the jacket copy. Yet she's also the only character who really survives the book, or at least the only one whose destruction is not explicitly guaranteed. You can't trust anyone; there are no good options; take what you want, and take as much of it as you can. Power is all that counts.

It all comes back to the body, in the end. The happiness of the characters is dependent on their ability to overcome its various betrayals - Neely's ability to overcome the drugs, Jennifer's ability to overcome the loss of her sex appeal, Anne's ability to overcome age itself. For the most part, they don't get through it; then again, no-one does. It's strange that in a novel this over-the-top, the ultimate destructive force is nothing sensational: it's just flesh, and time.

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