(Note: I will attempt to get through this post without using the words “patriarchy” or “privilege” but make no promises.)
We don’t usually write about books here on Shades of Caruso (well, okay, we did once. Where the hell is our movie, Peter Jackson? I know you have two hundred hours of The Hobbit: Parts 1 to 24, Appendices I-VIII, and the Quenta Silmarillion to get through, but come on). That’s because reading is for squares. We tend to stick to more highbrow entertainment like Michael Bay and Glee. You might think this is ironic considering one of us works in publishing and both of us are aspiring authors, and you would be right.
The sad fact is, I don’t read much fiction outside of my day job. It’s a combination of things, really – professional envy, lack of time, burnout from reading books all day, inability to turn off editing brain, addiction to Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, fuming over imagined slights on Twitter, professional jealousy, too many episodes of Friends to rewatch in case I don’t have a line or two memorized, professional bitterness, etc (including, you know, writing my own stuff occasionally). But Gone Girl broke the streak.
I’m just going to pause here to rant a little about literary fiction. Gone Girl is considered a crime novel, which makes it “genre,” which means people generally don’t take it seriously, or at least not as seriously as literary fiction (although there are happy exceptions, of course, and the book has gotten great reviews—but it is also a bestseller, so expect a backlash imminently). I’ve heard it called a beach read: a book you burn through in a day on vacation and that drops out of your head the next. This annoys me. Yes, it is a propulsive book, but just because a book is genre does not mean it lacks depth.* Folks tend to assume literary fiction is worth analysis because that’s what they were taught in school, but I’d argue this book can stand up to a close reading just as well as anything by Jonathan Franzen. (Funnily enough, one of the book’s protagonists has a rant about this very topic: “She chirps the last bit as if that were all to say about a book: It’s good or it’s bad. I liked it or I didn’t. No discussions of the writing, the themes, the nuances, the structure. Just good or bad. Like a hot dog.”)
*And once books or authors are considered good or worthy (Tana French, Kate Atkinson, etc), they tend to get called “genre-straddling,” or something else that implies they have risen above their niche. I think it happens like this: 1. People are snobbish about genre books, because they think they are not as good (or not perceived to be as good) as literary books. 2. Authors write excellent genre books. 3. People read them and like them, and then either feel guilty because they like genre books, or feel that because they like this book, it could not be a genre book. 4. People, feeling uncomfortable with the cognitive dissonance this creates, decide to classify them as something different than—better than—genre books. I could write a thesis about this.
Don’t get me wrong, I (mostly) love J-Fran’s books. But literary fiction is a genre with its own tropes just like every other (if you don’t believe me, read this. Or this). People think of it as different and better than genre fiction—more worthy—because it deals with “real life”: various domestic issues like crumbling marriages, the ennui that married people feel, and sad people trapped in loveless marriages. Intricate plots are derided as pedestrian, the province of plebs who read James Patterson and love his tales of milky bum snakes (I guess feeling compelled to continue a story means it isn’t serious enough? PS Don’t click on that link if you don’t want to go blind). It often has prose overworked to the point of parody, in which each sentence had been buffed and honed as if it were a prize jewel, not in service of the narrative but for its own sake—it glitters in a way that seems to call attention to the author rather than the story. This is what puts me off much of literary fiction—I find the construction of a series of precise, arid, perfect moments, delicate and sterile behind glass, all building up to a climax that feels like a wheezy puff of asthmatic breath, much less compelling than a well-told story full of (literal or metaphorical) blood and guts and bone. That said, a lot of genre fiction suffers from its own problems—tired plots, pedestrian prose that’s full of clichés, lackluster characters.* I have to admit, I like style too—I like verve, and sharp, imaginative language. I like a plot, yes, but not one that rattles along a well-worn path. I want the best of both worlds.
*I hasten to add, this is not because it’s genre fiction. It’s simply because there’s a lot of crap out there, in every genre, including literary fiction.
So, we arrive at Gone Girl, which I read in two days. I can’t tell you how rare this is for me; usually I limp through fifty pages of a book and eventually crawl to a stop because there’s no narrative engine that’s pushing me forward. With too many books I’m not engaged with the characters; I’m not drawn to keep reading; I can predict, depressingly, how it’s going to turn out. Sure, this is the way it is with most forms of entertainment, but they don’t require as much effort or time from the person consuming them. I tend to be harder on books than any other form of media—probably because of the jealousy, rage, bitterness, etc mentioned previously—but when I find a book I love, I love it wholeheartedly.
Gone Girl is about a crime, yes, but it’s also about a crumbling marriage (one for the lit-fic fans out there). One that goes very, very wrong indeed. But this one has a plot, as well as that most scorned of genre conventions, a twist. When Nick and Amy meet, they understand each other immediately—they think of themselves as soul mates. But by the day of their fifth anniversary, things have gone to ruin, and when Nick sees Amy that morning, cooking him crepes, he feels “bile and dread inch up [his] throat.” Later that day, Amy goes missing. It only gets worse from there.
First to the prose style. I found a terrible discussion of the book on Jezebel (I know, my first mistake) in which the leader of the debate accused it of being badly written, and I’m sorry, ma’am, but that’s plain crazy. On a sentence-by-sentence level, the writing pops—just in the first chapter, we have these descriptions:
- “sitting on the dock, her body slouched over like an old pillow”
- “Amy would dissect the conversations for days after—‘And what did she mean by…’—as if my mother were some ancient peasant tribeswoman arriving from the tundra with an armful of raw yak meat and some buttons for bartering, trying to get something from Amy that wasn’t on offer”
- “hank of ponytail swinging cheerful as a jumprope”
- “the edges [of the floor] turned up like burnt toast”
To me those are vivid, unusual images that snap with life and imagination—they linger in your mind because Gillian Flynn captured something true in a fresh and accurate way. To blast through this book without noticing the prose is, I think, a big disservice to Flynn’s talent. Those words were chosen carefully, and her prose is better than that of most of the literary novelists I’ve read—much less affected; concerned with shading in plot and character and bringing important details to vivid life.
But onto that rollicking plot. [DO NOT READ FURTHER IF YOU DON’T WANT THE ENTIRE PLOT SPOILED—IT’S REALLY GOOD SO GO AWAY AND READ IT AND THEN COME BACK AND WE’LL TALK OKAY BYE] Nick and Amy take turns narrating the novel; we hear from Nick directly, but in the first half of the book we learn about Amy through her diary. In the second half we get the “real” Amy, who is a twist darker than her constructed diary self, but recognizably on the same spectrum as the “fake” Amy. How much of Diary Amy is true and how much is false is a matter of debate, but personally I think Amy contains all of her personas—she tries them on like outfits, keeping and discarding as necessary. At first she is the Cool Girl, then the harpy wife, then the missing blonde, beautiful saint (the Gone Girl), and finally the Psycho Bitch (the woman who has terrifying power because she does not play by the rules). Ultimately none of these reductive ideas of what women are fit her. She is a full human being (and, uh, psychopath) with contradictions and weaknesses.
We learn early on that Amy grew up under the shadow of her child-psychologist parents and the books they wrote about her fictional counterpart, the long-running series Amazing Amy. Amazing Amy always does the right thing, but Diary Amy “can’t fail to notice that whenever [she] screw[s] something up, Amy does it right.” Almost from birth she was being forced into a part—the Good Girl who always made the right choice. (Nick later tells us that “Amy is always right, in every story. (Don’t think I haven’t brought this up in my arguments with my real Amy, because I have, more than once.)” This proves prophetic—the real Amy makes sure she is always right in this very story, whether by manipulating the situation, constructing it to her advantage, or outright lying.) When Amy grows up, she writes quizzes for women’s magazines—the kind that tell you whether you’re a good girlfriend or not. She always knows what the correct choice is, the kind of woman society expects you to be.
Amy’s thread runs alongside Nick’s feelings during the case that he is in a movie, playing a part—when he discovers Amy is missing, he is aware a neighbor is watching him and becomes the “Concerned Husband” who runs through their house and bellows Amy’s name in panic. We never know if that panic is real or if he’s faking it. When the police interrogate him he can’t remember if what he’s saying is what he wants to say or what he thinks he should say. Both Nick and Amy enter their marriage playing parts—they like how their spouse sees them and expect each other to keep up the lie of who they’ve pretended to be. It’s when their “true” selves begin to bleed through that their marriage starts falling apart. “I suppose these questions stormcloud over every marriage,” says Nick. “What are you thinking? How are you feeling? Who are you? What have we done to each other? What will we do?”
One of Flynn’s most brilliant inventions is the treasure hunt Amy sets out for Nick every year on their anniversary. “It was what her dad always did for her mom on their anniversary,” Nick says, “and don’t think I don’t see the gender roles here, that I don’t get the hint.” Amy gives him riddles about their life together, which he’s hardly ever able to figure out, and the hunts always end in a fight, and “a genuine tradition [is] born, one I’d never forget: Amy always going overboard, me never, ever worthy of the effort.” Amy sees it as a testament to how much he loves her—she hopes it will show that he has paid attention to her thoughts and feelings and remembers (what she thinks of as) important moments from their previous year together. He sees it as a test he will inevitably fail. By their fifth anniversary, it is multivalent—it is all these things, plus an ironic reminder of how Nick has failed her and also her subtle way of getting revenge. At first he thinks Amy is trying to reconcile with him by telling him how brilliant and witty and warm he is. But in fact, Amy has discovered Nick was cheating on her and the clues are designed to lead the cops to evidence that will incriminate him. The poems he thought related to him and Amy actually relate to him and his mistress, Andie. Amy has flattered him with the image of himself he wants to believe—a ruse they both fall for over and over again.
When Amy leaves, her anger at Nick takes a typically feminine form: it’s the ultimate passive-aggressive move, homicidal rage turned inward. Women are not allowed to kill, so Amy enacts psychological warfare. She will look like a saint and Nick will be branded a murderer. She cuts her own body in order to implicate Nick, and later bruises and mutilates herself to “prove” she has been raped. She even contemplates killing herself (Freud might have something to say about this) so that a body will be found. When Nick realizes he has been played, his aggression turns outward, like a man’s is allowed to—he has obsessive thoughts about getting Amy back just so he can kill her. Is this fantasy of murder more acceptable than Amy’s? Sure, he feels betrayed, but so does Amy. Do we simply find Nick’s transgressions more acceptable because we expect that men will cheat and lie?
Just as important to the story is the way we construct our identities, and the way we talk about ourselves in order to create a story about who we are. In the first half of the book we read a version of Amy that she has literally created about herself, but that doesn’t mean that Nick’s version of the truth is any less constructed and managed. He lies, and he leaves things out. Amy’s diary claims that Nick shoved her, and when we find out that the diary is false, we assume this must be too, but later, in a reverie of hatred, he says: “I saw her again at the stove, licking powdered sugar off her thumb, humming to herself, and I pictured me, walking over to her and shaking her until—” Is this a memory or a fantasy? Both Amy and Nick address the reader directly—they are very aware of their audience. They both want us on their side, and they’ll do whatever it takes to get us there.
I read a lot of reviews of the book that claimed they hated the twist—they stopped enjoying the story when it turned out Amy was a psychopath and Nick was “just” a misunderstood good guy. I think this interpretation does a great disservice to Flynn. Who ever says Nick is a good guy? He certainly wants us to think that, but is it true? It turns out that he is as skillful a manipulator as Amy—he manages to woo her back by playing the part she desperately wants him to play: the man who loves her to the exclusion of everyone else, who understands her better than anyone, who realizes how special and unique she is (for Amy, this means recognizing her fiendish brilliance). And to some extent that becomes true: “‘You were the best man you’ve ever been with me,’” Amy tells him. “‘The only time in your life you’ve ever liked yourself was pretending to be someone I might like. Without me? You’re just your dad.’” (It’s worth noting that Nick tries to kill her when she says this. And minutes later he thinks that a normal woman wouldn’t murder for him or frame him; she “could never possibly care that much.” In fact, he says, “the indulged mama’s boy in me wouldn’t be able to find peace with [a] normal woman, and pretty soon she wouldn’t just be normal, she’d be substandard, and then my father’s voice—dumb bitch—would rise up and take it from there.”)
Flynn’s stroke of genius is in making Amy a psychopath. She is already a sharp critic of mainstream femininity—she notes acidly that all the commercials on TV aimed at women are about tampons and detergent, that the constant, droning message to women is “clean and bleed. Clean and bleed.” She has contempt for ugly women because for women, sex is power, and Amy can’t stand people who don’t have any power. Amy is terrifying because she represents our deepest fears about femininity—that women really do just want to steal power from men (by using their very femininity to do it! “Crying” rape, manipulating men with their beauty, getting pregnant to trap a man into staying with them). She is blonde, beautiful, thin, and apparently saintlike—and there is nothing more terrifying than the idea that someone who represents everything our society values as “good” turns out to have traded on that power and turned it against us. She is the nightmare of what happens when female power is limited to sexuality. By the end of the book she has taken life, and in her ultimate power-move, she one-ups Nick by creating it (the only thing he can create is a book, which he deletes). Their power battle continues until the last sentence of the book—Nick damns her by saying she has to wake up every day and be her, and Amy, clearly troubled by his assessment, says, “I don’t have anything else to add. I just wanted to make sure I had the last word. I think I’ve earned that.”
Gone Girl is a satire of marriage, a gleeful black comedy. Nick and Amy are the logical extremes of masculinity and femininity—Nick just wants his wife to leave him alone, let him be free, and Amy just wants them to be close. More than anything, they both want to be understood. Who hasn’t experienced those feelings in a relationship? Who hasn’t heard jokes about the old ball and chain, about nagging wives and insensitive doofus husbands? Flynn pushes these stereotypes until they snap.
Nick, so laid-back and likable, a sensitive “new man,” becomes, when enraged, a parody of patriarchy (whoops). All he can think when he’s mad at Amy is “kill the bitch” or “I’ll murder that cunt.” He runs through lists of the women in his life, hoping he doesn’t hate them all but finding that he does. He despises feminine weakness—he was furious whenever Amy cried and can’t shed a tear himself. His Alzheimer’s-riddled father shows up at his house at random like a specter of masculinity itself, chanting how he hates the bitch, he’ll kill her. The most damning thing Amy says about Nick is that he doesn’t want a real, complicated human woman but the Cool Girl she presents herself as, a fantasy of femininity in which the woman never tests him, never complains, never has her own will or desires. This is the Amy he falls in love with—a mirage. When the mirage is challenged, he responds with fury, just as men do when their privilege (damn) is denied. (He does this again with his mistress, Andie. He thinks he loves her until she becomes a real person with her own needs and desires—then, again, he is furious.) This attitude of his was passed down from his father, just as it is passed to men from generation to generation: a historical sense of entitlement, and rage when that entitlement is taken away.
By the end of the book, though, Nick and Amy deserve each other. For a story in which they both have revelations about how little they knew their spouse, it turns out they, in fact, know each other better than anyone else possibly could. And in the end, they both get what they wanted. Nick is finally a match for Amy: he says he can “feel her changing me again: I was a callow boy, and then a man, good and bad. Now at last I’m the hero. I am the one to root for in the never-ending war story of our marriage. It’s a story I can live with.” (Let’s keep in mind, though, that it is just that—a story.) Amy gets her wish too—her deepest desire was always for Nick to pay attention to her, and because he feels he must stay to protect his baby (boy!), to “unhook, unlatch, debarb, undo everything that Amy [does],” she literally forces him to learn everything about her, to pay attention to her at all times, to never turn his back on her, because if he does, she might kill him.
Man, I’m worried about that baby. “I [will] raise my son to be a good man,” Nick says. Do you trust Nick to know what a good man is? Yeah, neither do I.