Dolly Peale, a PR woman, has taken a client named “The General,” who is a genocidal dictator—she has been hired to save his image. Her first effort in this regard involved taking pictures of him in a fuzzy blue hat with flaps that cover his ugly ears. The image appears in the New York Times, but this spurs rumors that The General has cancer, which creates further unrest among his people. The General’s advisors had forgotten to cut up the hat’s chinstraps, which appear to be tied in a bow under his chin in the image. Dolly panics and begins looking for contact information for The General’s human relations captain, named Arc. The General’s personnel are under the impression that Dolly, also know as La Doll, is a top PR consultant in New York.
This opening scene is packed with satirical absurdity that points to the truly ridiculous, but also immensely powerful, nature of popular culture. The General’s hat, with its silly earflaps and bow, has the power to send vast numbers of people into unrest. The distinction between Dolly’s names—Dolly and La Doll—becomes an important element of her identity through the story. Her identity as La Doll has been ruined, which leads her to make the decision to take on the unethical job of saving the dictator’s image—she feels she has no choice.
Before she took the job, Dolly was copyediting textbooks until 2 am, sleeping until 5 am, and then doing English lessons online with students in Tokyo. She was attempting to keep her daughter, Lulu, in a private school. When Arc called to ask if she could recover The General’s image, she took the job for need of money. The high pay provided by The General allows her to look past the fact that he is a genocidal dictator.
The depiction of Dolly’s present life depicts the fall from fame she’s experienced, to the point that her need for money drives her to make the unethical choice to work for The General. This choice points, in a larger sense, to the ethics of “fame” in popular culture and public relations work. We also might recall the name “Lulu” from Chapter 4, “Safari,” where it’s mentioned that the grandson of a young African warrior will grow up to marry Lulu.
Around 6 am, Arc calls and tells Dolly that they are not happy about the Times article. She tries to reason with Arc, telling him that he needs to cut the hat’s ties off, but Arc continues to say that The General is not happy. Arc reveals that he has heard rumors that Dolly is not a top PR consultant. Dolly says she has enemies, like the General. She tells them to retake the picture without the ties in a bow, and to show some of The General’s hair in front. As she speaks, Lulu comes into the room, and Dolly feels an inner collapse at the fact that Lulu has lost sleep. She hugs Lulu. Several weeks later, the new image is released, and the headline suggests that the extent of The General’s war crimes may be exaggerated.
Dolly got the PR job based on her reputation as La Doll, which is an identity with negative meaning attached to it (though the reason why is explored later). The fact that making minor changes to an image has a significant impact on portrayals of genocide depicts the absurdity of the situation, but also the sometimes sinister power of the media with regard to popular culture and opinion.
Dolly met her ruin on New Years Eve, two years ago. Before this New Years Eve party she was known as La Doll, and threw exclusive and high profile parties. In an attempt to create the atmosphere for the New Years Eve party, Dolly hung translucent trays below the spotlights, and filled them with oil and water, believing the light shining through the water would create an impressive effect. By midnight, however, the trays began sagging, and then quickly they collapsed, spilling hot oil and water onto the famous guests. Later, people accused Dolly of doing it on purpose, and now everyone hates her. She served six months in jail, lost all of her money paying for settlements, and ruined her identity as La Doll. During this time, she comes to understand that her true error was holding onto an era that had already passed, which is a great mistake for a publicist.
The New Year’s Eve party marks Dolly’s transition from her identity as the famous La Doll to her current state of infamy. The presence of water in this moment again reflects this ruinous shift. The rumors spread further to destroy her reputation, and disconnected her from those who admired her. The realization that her error was holding onto the past speaks to the nature of American pop culture, which thrives off of novelty and fast-moving trends. The party was La Doll’s attempt to stay relevant, but this striving led to ruin as opposed to success.
After the positive review of The General, Arc calls and tells Dolly that she is being paid monthly, so she needs to do more work. That night Dolly dreams of The General meeting a pretty blond woman. After waking, she decides The General should be linked to a movie star, which would recover his image. Kitty Jackson, who had become a martyr after she was assaulted by Jules Jones, and later forgave him, comes to mind. Kitty has fallen from grace since then after a period of bad behavior, including dumping a bag of horse manure on a fellow actor’s head and setting several thousand lemurs free on a Disney set. Kitty agrees to take the job. Arc does not like the plan, but Dolly tells him all The General has to do is stand with Kitty and smile. Arc agrees hesitantly, and tells Dolly she has to travel to The General along with Kitty.
Dolly recognizes the power of celebrity in American culture, and realizes that presenting The General with Kitty Jackson with have an immediately redemptive impact for his image. Kitty Jackson, who was assaulted by Jules, has been held up as a martyr, and the meaning of her image would have a powerful influence if associated with The General. Kitty, like Dolly, has had a fall from fame, however, and it appears Kitty agrees to take the job for reasons similar to Dolly’s.
Dolly enters Lulu’s bedroom and is struck by the colors. Her eyes linger on images of winged princesses she has stenciled on the wall using a method she’d learned in prison. Lulu only comes out of her bedroom when it is time to eat, spending the rest of the day separated from Dolly. Since Dolly was released from prison, Lulu has begun calling her by her first name, instead of calling her “mom.” She also makes Dolly drop her off around the corner at school, so the kids won’t see her mother. At school, nine-year-old Lulu is a central figure in the group of girls she hangs out with. Dolly admires Lulu’s authority in the group.
The princesses on Lulu’s walls serve as a reminder of Dolly’s ruin and time in jail. This event had devastating effects on Dolly and Lulu’s relationship, and their disconnection is reflected in Lulu’s refusal to call Dolly “mom” or let Dolly walk her to school. Dolly recognizes herself in Lulu’s authority in her group. She is popular, the way Dolly was popular as La Doll, which serves as a reminder of Dolly’s fall from fame, but also her admiration of the influence that comes with popularity.
Dolly tells Lulu that she has to take a business trip. She figures Lulu will want to stay with one of her friends, but Lulu asks if she can go along. Lulu asks where they are going, but Dolly can’t tell her. She worries about Lulu being in the presence of The General. Lulu doesn’t ask again where they are going. Instead she asks Dolly if she can dye her (Dolly’s) hair blond again.
Dolly wants so badly to connect with Lulu that she is willing to put her at risk with The General in order to gain meaningful time together. Lulu’s comment about Dolly’s hair suggests a transformation in Dolly’s identity—Lulu wants Dolly to regain her old identity because she identifies the blond hair with the years before Dolly’s ruin.
Dolly and Lulu meet Kitty at the airport, and Dolly is immediately struck with regret. Kitty looks disheveled, and seems no longer young to Dolly. She wonders if people will even recognize Kitty anymore. While Lulu uses the bathroom, Dolly explains the mission to Kitty. Kitty asks why Dolly brought Lulu. Dolly explains that Lulu knows nothing about The General and won’t meet him. She asks Kitty not to say anything about him. When Lulu returns, they board their flight.
Dolly’s attention to Kitty’s age again references the importance of youth in the entertainment industry, and it’s implied that her fame has dwindled in part because of her aging. Dolly’s request that Kitty not mention The General to Lulu suggests that she understands the unethical and dangerous nature of the job, and feels ashamed in front of her daughter.
When they arrive, they go through twenty checkpoints before reaching The General’s compound. Dolly looks for signs of trauma on Lulu, but is surprised to find Lulu staring down the men with guns at the checkpoints. The compound, a massive white mansion, is surrounded by lush green gardens and the sparkle of water. When they step out of the car, Dolly feels the sun on her neck. Her hair has recently been cut and dyed blond again. Kitty takes off her sweatshirt, and Dolly notices burns on her arms. Dolly remembers her party, and realizes that Kitty was not in attendance. Kitty then reveals that she made the scars herself in order to appear as if she were at the party. Many people have mutilated themselves to claim attendance, Kitty says, and when Dolly says she knows who was there, Kitty says it doesn’t matter, because Dolly is no longer anyone important. She then takes Dolly’s hand and tells her, “to hell with them.”
The vegetation and water around the compound seems to contradict the death and destruction that more generally surrounds The General. The same contrast is present in the work Dolly is doing by trying to save his image. Dolly has attempted to regain her identity as La Doll by cutting and dying her hair, hoping this job will put her back into a position of respect and fame. The infamous party has become an important cultural event, and though it has ruined Dolly, it has taken on meaning beyond her. The scars are a symbol of status, and the fact that Kitty has mutilated herself to achieve this status, along with her claim that “it doesn’t matter” whether or not she was really there, speaks to the acceptance of inauthenticity in the entertainment business.
Arc greets them and tells Kitty he and The General have watched all of her movies. Dolly is worried about what Kitty might say, but she acts like a starlet, and even suddenly looks younger to Dolly. They learn The General is not there, and they must travel to him. Kitty agrees to go wherever The General wants them to go, and says, “right, kiddo?” to Lulu. It takes Lulu a moment to realize that Kitty is talking to her, and when she does, she agrees.
Being recognized as a star transforms Kitty in Dolly’s eyes, even seeming to reduce her age (as Egan again connects the physicality of the body to perception in popular culture). Kitty acts maternally toward Lulu, and Lulu’s response suggests she does not receive this kind of treatment from Dolly.
That night, they settle into a suite, and Arc offers to take them out for a tour. Kitty decides to stay and drink, but Lulu and Dolly go. Before leaving, Dolly tells Kitty not to overdo the alcohol, and to remember whom they are dealing with, but Kitty tells her she wants to forget. She wants to be innocent like Lulu.
Kitty is aware of the unethical nature of the job, and decides to drink in an attempt to smother her guilt. In wishing to be innocent, Kitty desires not only to be young, but also to be ignorant of the implications of her actions.
Arc takes Dolly and Lulu to an outdoor market in the city. Lulu picks out a star fruit. Arc takes one and nods to the vendor, who looks frightened, nodding eagerly to Dolly and Lulu. Lulu bites into the fruit and laughs. Lulu tells Dolly she has to try some, calling her “mom” in the exchange, and Dolly bites into the fruit. Dolly feels wonderful realizing that Lulu called her “mom.” Afterward, they go to a teashop. The waiter is noticeably anxious around Arc. Arc says that The General moves among the people, but he has to be careful because of his enemies. Someone had made a threat against his home earlier that day, which is why The General left. Dolly is concerned because they are staying in the house.
Dolly witnesses the ruinous effects of The General’s reign firsthand in the vendor and waiter’s fear. The star fruit Dolly and Lulu share points back to the idea of stardom, and the connection between this shared moment and stardom points back to Dolly’s belief that if she can redeem her status she can regain her daughter’s affection. This idea, however, is contrasted with the fact that Dolly is putting Lulu in grave danger by bringing her on the trip and staying in the house that is under threat.
That night, Dolly can’t sleep for fear of an assassination attempt. She wonders how her life has arrived in this place. She finds herself returning to the party, imaging the plastic pans buckling and dumping burning oil on the guests. She feels at ease because Lulu is sleeping next to her. Dolly had Lulu in her middle age after getting pregnant by a movie star client. Lulu believes her father is dead. Dolly thought about having an abortion, but continued putting it off until it was too late. As she rests there, she feels grateful for The General for providing a single bed where she would get to sleep beside her daughter. She whispers into Lulu’s ear that she will always protect her, and nothing bad will ever happen to them. Lulu sleeps on.
Dolly, like other characters, has experienced the damaging effects of time and aging, and tries, through memory, to figure out how she ended up where she is. Her connection with Lulu comforts her, though the fact that Lulu is on the trip at all speaks to the ruinous role Dolly often has in Lulu’s life. This is furthered by the lie she has told Lulu about her father. The trip feels redemptive to Dolly, and her promise to protect Lulu is sincere, though upcoming events will challenge her confidence.
The next morning they drive out to meet The General. Kitty has done her hair and makeup, and Dolly finds her too beautiful to look at. As they drive, children hold out fruit for sale and cardboard signs, but the speeding vehicle pushes them back. Dolly wants to say something to the driver, but she doesn’t know what. She feels relieved after they leave the city limits. Kitty begins to smoke, and Dolly wants to scold her for subjecting Lulu to it.
Kitty’s identity shifts again in Dolly’s eyes, arousing questions about Kitty’s authenticity. The kids serve as a reminder of the unethical nature of Dolly’s work, and the fact that she wants to say something to the driver for going so fast and Kitty for speaking shows a conflict within her own sense of identity.
Kitty asks Lulu what she wants to do with her life. Lulu, who is only nine, doesn’t know. Lulu asks what Kitty dreamed about when she was nine years old, and Kitty tells her she wanted to be a jockey or a movie star. She has realized one of her dreams, and she still loves the acting, but the people, she says, are monsters. They seem nice at first, but it is all a lie. Lulu asks if Kitty ever tried lying, and Kitty says she has, but she couldn’t forget she was lying and when she told the truth she was punished.
Lulu and Kitty’s conversation speaks directly to the often-inauthentic nature of the entertainment industry. Kitty has engaged in the same behavior, but was unable to look past the fact that she herself was acting inauthentically. This fact provides a truer sense of who she really is.
Dolly, Lulu, Kitty, and Arc arrive in a jungle, and camouflaged men come from the trees. They walk together to a compound hidden in the side of a hill, and Dolly gets her hidden camera ready. When they meet The General, Dolly is surprised by his short stature and sullied military uniform. He looks tired and grumpy. There is a pause in which no one, including The General, seems to know what to do.
Dolly’s surprise at The General’s stature and appearance suggests how fame distorts the way famous individuals are imagined and perceived. The pause reflects the lack of connection between those present. They cannot mention the ruin The General has caused in the lives of those who live in his country, but this suffering is present in the silence between them.
When The General notices Kitty, Dolly watches the power of recognition move across his face. Kitty moves easily toward The General and hugs him, then takes his hands and leans back smiling and laughing a bit, and The General smiles back, showing his teeth. Dolly surreptitiously snaps photographs at each stage of the encounter, and is especially pleased about the photograph showing The General with a smile on his face.
Kitty’s celebrity allows her to influence The General and approach him in a way that surprises Dolly, showing the power of fame and American popular culture. Dolly understands that in order to redeem The General’s image she needs to depict him in a benevolent light, which the smile achieves. The smile however, provides an image of The General that is not authentic to his identity, which echoes the dishonest nature of the entertainment industry.
Dolly is overjoyed by Kitty’s acting, and feels relieved that the job is done. She feels proud that she had arranged the event, and that Lulu had seen it. Kitty scans the crowd, and then asks The General if this place is where he buries the bodies, or whether he burns them first. Arc tells Kitty that The General cannot understand her, but he wants to know what is going on. Lulu begs Dolly to make Kitty stop. Dolly tells Kitty to knock it off, but Kitty continues. She asks The General if he eats them, or if he lets the vultures do it. Dolly grabs Kitty’s arm and tells her she is going to get them killed, but Kitty sarcastically asks if she wasn’t supposed to bring up the genocide. The General recognizes the word genocide, and the soldiers detain Kitty. As they carry her off, she continues to question The General until Dolly hears a blow, and then a scream, and Kitty is gone.
Dolly is especially pleased that Lulu saw her success, as she believes this accomplishment will further redeem their relationship. Kitty, however, ruins this moment by bringing up the genocide—but for Kitty, this moment is redemptive in a different way, as she addresses the way she feels about The General and his actions in a brave and authentic way. Though Kitty faces death, she continues to confront The General, which is a moment of true authenticity.
The soldiers whisk Dolly and Lulu back to the cars. Lulu rests her head on Dolly’s lap and cries as they drive from the jungle. They are driven to the airport, and are flown back to New York. They arrive early in the morning, and neither of them speaks the entire way home. When they reach the apartment, Dolly is surprised to find nothing has been destroyed. Lulu goes straight to her room, and Dolly tries to figure out what to do about Kitty.
Dolly’s plan to redeem her relationship with Lulu has failed, and their lack of conversation on the ride home embodies the strong sense of disconnection between them. Dolly expects physical destruction when they arrive at home, but this expectation is just a projection of the ruin she knows she has caused in her and Lulu’s relationship.
A short while later, Lulu emerges from her room in her school uniform. Dolly is surprised that she wants to go to school, but Lulu asks what else she would do. They don’t talk on the way to school, and Dolly fears that this silence will never end, and if Kitty dies she feels she will lose her daughter too. At the school, Lulu walks away without saying goodbye.
Dolly expects Lulu to be disturbed by the experience with The General, and is surprised by Lulu’s composure, again suggesting she doesn’t know Lulu as well as she thinks she does. The silence continues to represent the disconnection between mother and daughter.
Dolly develops the photos she took of Kitty with The General. After she receives the photos, she rushes home and sends the photos to The Enquirer and The Star. The photos circulate quickly, and by nightfall reporters from major papers start calling. She learns that Arc has denied the rumors about Kitty and The General. Later that night, after fourteen attempts, Dolly reaches Arc by phone. He says they can no longer speak because The General is angry. Arc promises Dolly that Kitty is alive and unharmed, but he will not speak to Dolly again.
Dolly attempts to save Kitty’s life by breaking the images of The General to the media. The photographs gain her (Dolly) immediate attention, as shown through the calls from the reporters, but they do not accomplish what she hopes they will with The General. The break in contact with The General speaks to the larger sense of disconnection Dolly experiences in her life.
Almost a year later, The General comes to New York to speak about his country’s transition to democracy. Dolly and Lulu have moved out of the city, but they drive back one night to meet with Arc. Arc tells Dolly that a few days after they left, photographers had located the compound. He notes that assassins couldn’t even find it, but the photographers came in hordes. After ten days, The General agreed he had to face his inquisitors. He met them with Kitty on his arm, wearing the blue hat Dolly had advised him to wear earlier in the story.
The fact that the paparazzi found the compound before the assassins could is a satirical gesture toward the pervasiveness and power of fame and popular culture. It is suggested that Kitty had a role in the country’s transition to democracy, which depicts the power of celebrity in a positive light—Kitty used her fame for good in this instance.
During dinner, Arc asks if Dolly has seen Kitty’s new movie, in which Kitty plays a jockey and rides on horseback. Dolly had gone with Lulu to see the movie in the town where they now live, in Upstate New York. Before they moved, Dolly had received calls from other mass murderers looking for a fresh start, but she didn’t take the work. Lulu had been upset about the move to Upstate New York at first, but she quickly adjusts, and Dolly is relieved because nobody knows her or her failures. She has opened a gourmet shop with the final payment from The General. Occasionally, Dolly will order a shipment of star fruit, and share it with Lulu.
Earlier in the story Kitty mentioned that, as a child, she dreamed of being a jockey and a movie star, and the fact that she now has the opportunity to do both in the new movie suggests she has redeemed her career and at least partly realized her dreams. Likewise, Dolly’s move to Upstate New York is redemptive, both in terms of her identity and relationship with Lulu. In Upstate New York she doesn’t have a reputation, so she can live her life in a more authentic way. The final instance of the star fruit suggests that Lulu and Dolly are finding connection now that the ordeal with The General is over.