Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann: The Glamorous Estrangement of Self
For one of the best-selling novels of all time, this was a surprisingly difficult book to come by. I had seen the film many times, for the first time when I was as much an ingenue to the hazards of the world as the three main girls, Anne, Neely, and Jennifer, were at the beginning of the book. It took me a couple years of patiently checking the shelves of used bookstores for that iconic Pepto Bismol pink cover to appear. Over the time which passed since my first exposure to the world of Valley of the Dolls through its trashy, oddly-paced, surface-level film counterpart, I had fallen into my own valleys and arisen, jaded, yet comparatively balanced and optimistic. While I can’t claim any aspirations toward fame and have never held much interest in pills, my personal history with my body, food, relationships, control, and upscale mental hospitals gave me the impression that I was a veteran watching a film of a war I wish I hadn’t gotten myself involved in. In fact, I would caution anyone who actively struggles with food, pills, or body image against reading this book as it glamorizes the very behavior of its characters. As is the case with many forms of media depicting addiction and eating disorders, it very easily becomes an object of chicness and emulation.
There are many additional criticisms that can be made of Valley of the Dolls. Love portrayed in the book is either an intense and juvenile reflection of a romantic ideal or dissociated and nihilistic. The plot is predictable--the reader expecting no happy endings, knowing characters will return, and knowing that the women will be their own downfall. One character in particular, Anne, seems to be a Mary Sue type stand-in for upper middle-class housewives who might read the book in bed or cocktail-in-hand, wishing for glamour in her own life. She retains a sense of sanity and relative normalcy but seems to have very few notable personality traits aside from emotional distance and a hatred of her hometown.
Read at face value, Valley of the Dolls is all pulp, a novel-length gossip column detailing the lives of women caught up in the artifice of Broadway and Hollywood. However, read at face value, we are all pulp too. We, the novel, it’s characters, and ourselves, are made to be sold. Each of us tailors ourselves for love and validation, which we receive in packages of easily quantifiable feedback--little red hearts and little blue thumbs. Enough and we can sleep through the night. We adapt the way we communicate so that it may be interpreted and perceived through the lens that we create. We manipulate the parts of us that we let the world see. In this sense, Valley of the Dolls is a parable for our time, a book in the Bible of the religion of performativity.
There’s a quote that comes to mind from a book which for the sake of respect and a sense of humor I will keep anonymous (but which, quite interestingly, seems to have sold roughly the same amount of copies as Valley of the Dolls). I’ll paraphrase: “We are all divas who seek to control the production of every aspect of the cinema that is our lives. If only everything would go the way we want, if everybody would do what we want them to, if we were perceived as we want to be perceived, then everything would be grand. It would be a win-win for everyone we interact with if things were to play out the way we want. Isn’t that the dream?” This is the overarching theme of Valley of the Dolls, the moral being that it doesn’t fucking work that way.
It works like this: as we pursue control of our perception and circumstances, we estrange ourselves from our notion of self or from our environment through various means. It is easy to imagine how quickly the self may fade away and give way to the artificial in circumstances where love, fame, and power are involved.
Each of the main characters in the book views themselves as isolated parts of themselves, how they perceive the observer to observe them. Neely is just a good voice. Anne is just nice cheekbones and a big bank account. Jennifer is just tits and a pretty face. This is not merely synecdoche as a literary device--each character becomes, in essence, only these attributes with a host body attached that slowly disappears until the self is entirely a simulation created to be fed desire and attention. This is a Hollywood rendition of Nikolai Gogol’s short story “The Nose”. In “The Nose”, Major Kovalyov wakes up to find that his nose jumped off his face and is pretending to be a human being, wearing officer’s clothing, becoming a more successful, more loved man than he could ever hope to be. For all intents and purposes, Jennifer’s tits are completely autonomous--they run the show, they replace her. When her tits, her source of love and self-worth, must be removed because they are rotting with cancer, the host body has no reason to live. Jennifer, the soul underneath the tits, had been long dead (if had ever actually existed).
Each of the girls has given herself over to be scrapped by the showbiz’s Doctor Frankensteins and shaped into beautiful creations which reveal themselves to be hideous. However, monsters such as these do not rampage the world so much as they rampage their original selves. Notions of humanity are sublimated by dieting, renown, and those precious little dolls. This is a particularly strong metaphor for Neely O’Hara, who engaged in an ongoing battle of who “made” who, she believing herself to have “made” the fortunes of her agents and representation and her agents believing they carved her out of marble. This is a war between the limits of her human condition and the power of her simulated self. Neely finds herself in a mental hospital to quench out her self-destructive behavior, a last ditch effort to recover her humanity and kill the monster that has been created. The monster inevitably returns, for even attempts to rehabilitate Neely were attempts to control her and sculpt her once more into an idyllic star. What is left after the simulated self has been created and the original self ceases to exist is robotic and erratic, having lost the very human attributes that make them capable of love in the very pursuit of love.
Perhaps the most poignant aspect of Valley of the Dolls is Susann's equation of desire for love and pill addiction in her characterization of Anne. Anne fades away much more slowly than the other girls, whose notion of self is rather quickly burnt out. She lives in the same world, but does not ostensibly appear to be eaten away by it. She does not seem to be destructive, but rather, slowly and responsibly accrues wealth and functions as something of a maternal caretaker. She bails her comrades out and buys her peace of mind. Yet she is the most conniving of the trio. For Jennifer and Neely, there are no illusions that they have not eaten themselves up and spit themselves out. Anne, instead, gets her kicks from her martyristic and possessive perception of what it means to love and be loved. She does not act as someone in love does, desiring the other party to be well and fulfilled. Anne desires possession of a person, believing that the object of her affection can be bought for the right price and under the right circumstances. She believes she “can’t go on” without her lover, Lyon Burke. She never had him to begin with. She slowly rots away, manipulating him for his affection and presence. As her illusions of love dissipate to reveal nothing underneath the artifice, her own sense of self is killed and completely replaced by a fictitious replica.
This artifice has already permeated the everyday in our own world. You are becoming more and more your curated self, as seen through the screens of your peers. If any of us has an original self, it’s nearly rotted away, and what’s left is a curated version. Our atrophied human desires bark and we quench them with whatever means we have at hand--booze, pills, religion, diet, love, sex, validation, escape from it all. Every day we are in tug-of-war between the snarls of our artifice and the hungry stomach of our self that lingers on. We may unplug, for a time, but our simulated selves are here to stay. Oh, it’s not so bad. It’s just showbiz, baby.