Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Valley of the Dolls: anti-feminist romp, precursor of modern chick lit?

You've got to climb to the top of Mount Everest to reach the Valley of the Dolls

So begins the novel about fortune, fame, and substance abuse in the 1960s. And yes, the writing is just as heavy-handed as the very bad opening poem. But when has this campy classic ever arrogated the status of “great writing”?

A friend of mine lent me her copy of Valley of the Dolls last month, saying that I absolutely MUST read it, and that it was one of her favorite books of all time. Seeing as how the book (and the 1967 film) has become such an enduring cult classic I figured I’d give it a shot, even though it didn’t really seem like me cup of tea.

After reading it, if I had to describe the novel in two words I would say “fascinating” and “sickening”. It was like watching one of those exposes on the Discovery Channel that are so bizarre and grotesque you just can’t look away. You cover your eyes, but can’t resist peering through a gap in your fingers. Similarly, although my gut reaction to the novel’s content was dismay and disgust, whenever I picked up the book and started reading, I just couldn’t put it down. During the week it took me to read it in its entirety, the book was as strangely addictive as the prescription drugs for which it was named, and probably just about as good for me.

As I was thinking about this novel, I actually remembered something David Carradine said on the special features of Kill Bill: that the film wasn’t really about the action or the violence in and of itself, but rather about providing an “inside look at the mind and heart of violent people.” In a similar way, Valley of the Dolls can be said to provide a compelling look into the minds and hearts of pill-popping female celebrities of the 50s and 60s, while neither glorifying nor vilifying their self-destructive lifestyles.

The novel features three friends who each manage to rise to varying degrees of fame and success in the entertainment and beauty industries, and who subsequently sink to the depths of depression and substance abuse. The book’s author, Jacqueline Susann, was an actress and writer who supposedly modeled many of her characters on contemporary celebrities. Anne is a conservative girl with a beautiful face who moves to New York to escape the restriction of her stifling New England hometown. Elegant and classy, Anne can also come off as uptight and cold, yet she harbors a life-long passion for a single man (who is completely unworthy of her irrational idolization, by the way). Neely O’Hara is an uneducated, impetuous girl who makes it big first on Broadway and then in Hollywood. Yet as her success grows, so does her ego and her increasingly uncontrollable behavior. Jennifer is a quiet, mild-mannered girl who suffers no delusions about her “acting career.” (An international sex symbol, her body has been her ticket to success). Deep down she yearns for genuine love, but is finds herself constantly objectified at every turn.

Most of the book’s characters, especially Neely, Anne, and Lyon (the object of Anne’s obsession), are pretty unpalatable in their own ways (Jennifer was the only one I really liked.) Yet I did sympathize with the fact that in a society of which blatant sexism is an integral part, independent women had very few options and were subjected to an endless supply of unnatural pressures. Yet when you get right down to it, The Valley of the Dolls is just a book about how these trashy people got to be so trashy. I got through it pretty quickly, but the overall, lasting impression was not favorable.

No comments:

Post a Comment