There has been a contemporary movement, stirred by the unease and anxiety that is so prevalent in this stage of late capitalism, of books about women who are unhappily employed, lonely, self-loathing, and–this one’s important–often intoxicated. And Jean Kyoung Frazier’s Pizza Girl definitely fits into that category, joining novels like Halle Butler’s The New Me, Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, all published within the last four years.
An author writing in first-person, which is the case for all of the aforementioned novels, has the difficult task of crafting a narrator-protagonist who is at once sympathetically fallible and charming. Right now, when many people feel generally bummed out almost all the time, readers might be more charmed by a depressed protagonist who makes questionable choices than they would otherwise. “That’s me!” the reader is supposed to say, slamming down their fifth glass of wine. But depressed, self-loathing people can do reckless and selfish things, and with only the narrator’s eyes to guide us, it’s hard for the author to criticize the things that their protagonist is doing. Unfortunately, Pizza Girl lacks a sense of meaningful self-awareness, and the narrator is more unlikeable for it.
The novel starts out by introducing not the narrator, but the object of her strange affection: “Her name was Jenny Hauser and every Wednesday I put pickles on her pizza.” The narrator (whose name is Jane, but we don’t find out until the end) works at a pizza place, obviously. She is eighteen, pregnant, and angry at her mom and boyfriend Billy, both of whom she lives with, and who love her very much.
When Jane meets Jenny Hauser, it’s over the phone at the pizza restaurant. Jane picks up the phone, and Jenny starts talking. “So–have you ever had the kind of week where every afternoon seems to last for hours?” she says, by way of introduction. Jenny keeps talking, clearly needing some catharsis, and Jane, who wants to help someone, latches on; really hard. Before Jenny has said her name, Jane says that she “wanted to wrap this woman and make her a hot chocolate, fuck up anyone that even looked at her funny.”
Jane, now infatuated, walks to the store to get pickles for Jenny’s unique order (they don’t have them at the pizza place), and makes the pizza, exhilarated to meet her. From there, their odd relationship progresses, with precious little evidence for the reader about why Jane is so obsessed with this woman. This, paired with Jenny’s many quirks (her name, which Jane thinks sounds like a little girl’s name, her taste for unconventional pizza, her immediate openness) reads a bit like a cliché from a YA novel.
Beneath Jane’s fixation with Jenny, there is a second story, one that is soft and sad and true, which gets lost behind the Jenny fixation. Jane’s father, a severe alcoholic, died recently. She met her serious boyfriend, Billy, who lost both of his parents in a car accident, in a grief group. Jane is really young, pregnant and the child of a serious alcoholic. She isn’t ready to be a mom, so she avoids her own. She feels guilty because Billy gave up a scholarship to USC to help raise their unborn child, so she avoids him, too. She grieves the loss of her father, drinking in the backyard shed, stocked with her dead dad’s beers.
As the story goes on, and Jane’s belly starts to grow, she starts to drink more (sometimes while driving). Things get out of control, of course. She has to try to reckon with the fact that she is going to be a parent, and that she can’t keep obsessing over a woman with a kid who’s older than her mom.
But she doesn’t reckon with it, not really. In the epilogue, after everything has blown up and (kind of) sorted itself out, Jane dismisses the idea of cold-turkey-ing alcohol, like recovery is a myth. “That would’ve been nice if that was the last time I ever had a drink,” she says. “That was the shit that people say in AA meetings, the stories re-created in commercials that encouraged people to live better lives.”
While addiction certainly doesn’t tie itself up into a pretty little bow and go away, sometimes “the shit people say in AA meetings” is true. And since there’s no critical perspective of her assertions there, it reads like an understandable and factual statement, not the excuses of someone who is habitually getting drunk while she’s pregnant.
If we had the chance to move from Jane’s eyes, maybe we could get a better sense of how her boyfriend, who is grieving the loss of both of his parents, is feeling. We could see how her mom, an immigrant from Korea, dealt with her abusive, dangerous husband.
We’re stuck with Jane, though, and she’s stuck on Jenny, and neither of them are very likeable. A protagonist can make mistakes, can be reckless and cruel–up to a certain point. Kyoung Fraizer’s portrayal of addiction is raw and candid, but it doesn’t sit right with an audience correctly predispositioned to be wary of people who drink while they’re pregnant.
Jane’s priorities haven’t shifted by the end of the book, and it’s really too bad. The last line of the book repeats the first line, giving readers the sense that she will always think that her delusional infatuation with Jenny is the most interesting thing that ever happened to her, when it’s not even the most interesting part of the book. The cycle of lies will continue as she passes her baggage onto her child. It’s a sad ending for everyone, not least for the story itself, which had the potential to be an honest, wry look at addiction and abuse and ended up more like a silly love story that doesn’t make sense.
By Jean Kyoung Frazier
Published June 9, 2020
I have just read this book. As you say, addiction doesn’t just go away. I think I would rather have a protagonist that is compelling instead of virtuous. Moral ambiguity in literature is something to be celebrated. Humbert Humbert anyone?
Just finished Pizza Girl and wow, this is a bad take…why read fiction if you’re so closed minded?
I’d agree if this book had anything worth open oneself up to; if the book offers no perspective, how can I be closed minded about it?
this is like an unironic version of that tweet about how when a character in a movie does something bad the director has to look in the camera and say “this is bad”
I’m almost finished with the book, and I agree with your take on it. The protagonist is so detached from her life, so alienated, and it doesn’t come across as compelling or nuanced so much as numb and pointless. The author doesn’t explore Jane’s feelings about Billy or her mom, for example, leaving the reader to feel like she’s rejecting them; there was potential to explore the idea of pushing away those who care, but it falls flat and Jane just comes across as spoiled and disaffected. On the flip side, Jane doesn’t explain to the reader how she feels about Billy; he just dotes constantly and she hides from him. Jane doesn’t want anything, except to put her hands in Jenny’s mouth or pull her ponytail.
A book which I felt tried the same trick and stuck the landing was My Year of Rest and Relaxation; that book tackles the grief, disaffection, detachment, and self-medication and still manages humor (truly, every mention of Pizza Girl being funny blows my mind; there is no humor in these pages) and emotion, while still capturing depression.