Pizza Girl, by Jean Kyoung Frazier, is a coming of age novel following a nameless 18 year old Korean American woman working in a pizza place. Her life changes when a struggling stay at home mother called Jenny calls in to her work, looking for a pizza with pickles…
The book’s cover was designed by artist Tallboy, as the author is a fan of his fashion designs. I added it to my ‘to read’ list back in June 2021, after reading about it in Electric Literature and was delighted to find a copy in my local library.
Numbness and Apathy
“Slackers slack because something or many somethings have happened to them that’ve made them believe their efforts won’t produce anything of value or yield a better life situation.” – Jean Kyoung Frazier
The key emotion that fills Pizza Girl is a kind of numb apathy. The protagonist is grieving the early death of her alcoholic father; she delivers pizza in the beat up 99 Ford Festiva that was her whole inheritance. She’s pregnant and ‘not excited’ about it; working a dead end job, for an aggressive and shady boss. It’s never explained why Pizza Girl kept the pregnancy; I got the impression she was pressured into it by her mother and boyfriend. These two have created a fantasy life for all three of them, a family fairytale, despite their poverty and lack of prospects. Her mother is in complete denial about the destruction her deceased husband wrought upon his family; the orphaned Billy badly needs a new family, and finds it more in Pizza Girl’s mother than in his girlfriend.
“Everywhere I go, I seem to find a way to trap myself.” p127
It was the friendships I saw, in some ways, as Jane’s most self sabotaging behaviour. Pizza Girl cruelly rebuffs her work friend and a young girl from her support group. She treats her boyfriend and mother terribly, and instead fixates on a messy, distant stay at home mother who seems to share her alcohol problems.
Rejecting good, kind people for someone who makes you feel that fizzy sensation is hardly uncommon. Particularly for people seeking to escape pain or mental health issues. But a while back I heard a great examination of this, by musician Mal Blum. He said that in therapy, he’d discovered that that fizzy feeling wasn’t love, or lust. It was fear. Or more accurately, adrenaline, your body warning you that this person was *no good*, and that they could do you harm.
If you look at the facts, at the age of 39, Jenny befriends a pregnant 18 year old pizza girl. She chugs whisky in front of her; uses her for free babysitting; kisses and then discards her. The sad irony is that Pizza Girl has more in common with Jenny’s neglected 7 year old son than she does with the object of her obsession.
“Han was a sickness of the soul.” p75
Of course, part this is a classic issue faced by adult children of substance abusers. She was parentified from a young age – “his designated driver since I was 10” – by her alcoholic father. So she just experiences other people as wells of need. Their need for her, from her, exhausts and irritates her. There are characteristics that many adult children of alcoholics share. including falling in ‘love’ with people who need rescuing. Jenny is messy, even messier than Pizza Girl in some respects. She replicates the absent, self involved behaviour of Jane’s father. The pattern is comforting and familiar.
I was reminded of Comedian Mae Martin’s hit series Feel Good, which illustrates the crossover and replacement behaviours of romance, sex, ‘love’ and how they interact with addiction.
The Chicago Review critiques the novel for failing to really grapple with addiction, but I think it does. One of the issues with addiction in life and fiction is that people expect rock bottom to produce an immediate epiphany. It often doesn’t, and certainly doesn’t with Jane.
In the End
Many people have disliked the novel because the protagonist is unlikeable.
Specifically because she drinks while pregnant. There’s a moment where she asks her colleague Darryl, (who appears to have his own addiction issues) to buy her beer. He flatly refuses, but asks if she’s ok; she rejects his friendship and concern. She accelerates to a dark and self destructive climax, via creating a whole fantasy scenario in her head.
In an interview, the author pointed out that “becoming pregnant doesn’t transform you into a good person.” – I think this is the other reason so many people were uncomfortable with Pizza Girl. We mythologise motherhood, turn mothers into saints and queens for having procreated. (I guess it’s supposed to compensate for the lack of actual support we give parents). So a mother who bucks that narrative, who eats junk, drinks, lusts after another woman… it breaks that sanctified, traditional ideal in our heads.
By the end of the novel, while she’s cutting back, she is still drinking while pregnant. I think part of the reason it’s uncomfortable (apart from the obvious) is that in both addiction and literature, we typically expect a redemption arc, and the author withholds that.
I like it. I like that it doesn’t gloss over Jane’s flaws, and doesn’t follow the typical narrative. I liked that the unlikeable protagonist was a woman, a pregnant woman, which is still subversive in narrative. I like that you see the wreckage Jane causes in her life. I wondered what she could have achieved if she got the help she needed.
Overall, this is an excellent, if uncomfortable read. I look forward to whatever Jean Kyoung Frazier writes next.