[The following contains spoilers.]
How should we go about reviewing Gillian Flynn’s latest “literary thriller” Gone Girl? Greta is one of the only characters in Flynn’s novel to outwit the antihero, Amy, and she is also the only character to have anything to say about a real book, the suitably dystopian The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. Greta’s ruthless treatment of Amy is entirely impersonal, and she is similarly indifferent to the merits of The Martian Chronicles:
“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.”
Almost all of the current reviews of Gone Girl, whether in the salaried press or the blogosphere, concern themselves with how well the novel works and how much the reader will like it. The reviews degenerate into an undignified scramble to lavish praise; there are endless tributes to the novel’s magical properties and extraordinary powers. In the Sydney Morning Herald, Sue Turnbull attests that, “I started it early morning in a hospital waiting room, eventually staggering across the finishing line one-eyed at 1am the next day after a cataract op. This book resists anaesthesia.”
The reviewers often find that they cannot write about the novel without dropping “spoilers,” as if the point of their reviews is to merely advertise the novel, rather than to actually review it. Danielle TBD is one of the few reviewers to reflect upon what such a review-proof novel may actually mean, but she explains that only its “execution… got me thinking– and blogging– about its different themes and intricacies.” Her conclusion is that the novel is merely ineffective – in other words, a bad hot dog.
Incidentally, when it comes to its more culinary qualities, Gone Girl is not cooked throughout in places. The characters are at times implausible, although Flynn has placed them in such extravagantly unnatural circumstances that we can hardly judge how people would realistically behave in their shoes. These characters sometimes buckle under the weight of the things that they are given to say and do. When he is being led down a police-station corridor to Detective Gilpin’s office, Nick looks back over the history of his hometown and he ponders upon the “derivative” nature of reality in the modern world. That corridor must be at least a mile long.
Gone Girl is nothing if not a masterpiece of suspense, but here the novel’s greatest strength also becomes a weakness. Suspense has not only to be created but managed, and whilst Flynn avoids great shocks when defusing the novel’s bombs, the cost of this more sophisticated treatment is an inevitable dissipation of tension and drama.
Tesco’s literary shopper may be entirely satisfied with the thriller – one reads it as fast as falling down a flight of stairs – but there remains a lot more to be said about this novel. Gone Girl is ultimately a political novel. More accurately, it is a feminist novel, and it is at its most exhilarating in this particular manifestation of its existence.
Gone Girl is a feminist novel in the elementary sense that it would have been impossible for a man to have written it. No man writing today would be allowed to take the side of a falsely-accused rapist and portray his alleged victim as not only a fraud but a vicious aggressor. No man could have asked his readers to seriously reflect upon the truth of such lines as, “Women are fucking crazy. No qualifier: Not some women, not many women. Women are crazy.” For this book is not asking us to merely pass judgment on its leading “psycho bitch” Amy, but on all women.
From the book’s to-and-fro narration, we may think that we are being asked to choose between the stories of the two equally unreliable narrators, Nick and Amy. Flynn writes about both characters from a position of immaculate neutrality. She has admitted that, “At any given moment, whoever’s perspective I was writing was whose side I was on.” It is as if in the battle of the sexes, she is merely an arms dealer, providing each side with equal ammunition. But whose side is she really on?
One expects to find a particular affinity between Flynn and Amy, not least because Amy is made to accept responsibility for most of Flynn’s own story. Just as Amy hilariously lays out an anniversary “treasure hunt” to test how well her husband knows her – a sort of end-of-year exam in marital studies – we are manipulated into making often awry guesses at the results of Flynn’s own fiendish brainwork. If we recall Nick “unpooling” Amy’s brain and “trying to catch and pin down her thoughts,” we are supposed to wonder how something as drearily material as a brain could have produced so dazzling a story.
Yet Flynn may seem equally intimate with Nick. Both of them made their bones in the twilight years of magazine writing, “when newly graduated college kids could come to New York and get paid to write.” Nick’s career has been unspectacularly terminated, however, whilst Flynn has graduated to literary success. Nick may appear to be a failed or inferior version of the Flynn who has created his nemesis Amy.
Flynn’s imagination and insight affords her narrative the elasticity required to stretch between the worlds of its two characters. At one point, she writes a description that any husband from any period of history will be able to recognise:
“…the Amy of today… was only remotely like the woman I fell in love with… My wife was no longer my wife but a razor-wire knot daring me to unloop her, and I was not up to the job with my thick, numb, nervous fingers. Country fingers. Flyover fingers untrained in the intricate, dangerous work of solving Amy.”
Perhaps female readers will feel a corresponding glow at Amy’s confession that, “I almost cried, I’d been so lonely. To be kissed on the lips by your husband is the most decadent thing.” We may sense that underneath their exotic circumstances, Nick and Amy represent the most rudimentary prototype of any and every marriage. They are the most extreme and the most average example of a married couple. Within their own world, the whole of America is asked to choose between them. In our world, we, the readers, are similarly forced to take sides.
Yet the characters of Nick and Amy are complicated by discrepancies between appearance and reality. Whilst Gone Girl may struggle to live up to its initial suspense, it actually forfeits these flashy rewards in favour of playing a joke upon the reader. And although it may be more complimentary to describe the consequent effect as social satire, Gone Girl is very much a one joke book.
The joke at the heart of the story is relatively simple and yet curiously exclusive in its origins and context. “I’d like you to know me first,” Amy demands. “Not Diary Amy, who is a work of fiction… but me, Actual Amy.” The original narrator is not only an imposter, but she conforms to the image of the Female Eunuch – the heroine of Germaine Greer’s groundbreaking 1970 treatise – who represses her libido in order to be accepted by the male world. Flynn may not write in terms of eunuchs and libidos, but the sheer scorn to be found at the heart of Gone Girl could have come straight from The Female Eunuch:
“…because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chargrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want… Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl… They’re not even pretending to be the women they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be…
…women across the nation colluded in our degradation! Pretty soon Cool Girl became the standard girl. Men believed she existed – she wasn’t just a dreamgirl one in a million. Every girl was supposed to be this girl, and if you weren’t, then there was something wrong with you.”
It may be quite something to hear Amazing Amy – the do-gooding heroine of self-help literature – slamming an artificial female ideal which ordinary women cannot live up to. Yet Amy counters that ordinary women have themselves created Cool Girl and that being ordinary is itself a sort of disempowerment and emasculation. As we shall see, Amy’s moral credibility is undermined in ways that are both self-evident and very subtle. But we are not being asked to choose between her and Nick. Our choice is ultimately between Diary Amy and Actual Amy, the sweet artificial Amy and the incandescent reality.
Our problem is that Diary Amy may sound more believable than Actual Amy. The diary’s apparent digressions into truth may seem to be ultimately truer than Actual Amy’s petty and vindictive ranting. Diary Amy seems to know how the world works, what people consider normal, and what is moral. Yet this is only a part of Flynn’s joke. If the male reader finds the “Cool Girl” to be more real than Actual Amy, they stand condemned by Amy’s own words and the joke is on them.
Actual Amy, who is both Actual and Amazing, actually offers a rebuke to the world of mediocrity. Unfortunately Amazing Amy’s apparent perfection may not merely reflect an achievable female empowerment, but an innate superiority which appeals more readily to capitalist or even fascist societies. We are told that these books “became extremely trendy among the rising yuppie class… At one point it was estimated that every school library in America had an Amazing Amy book.” Nick will find himself in the same position of the Amazing Amy readers, growing both “more considerate, and more active, and more alive, and almost electric” and at the same time feeling furious that he is in fact alienated from these ideals.
When dropped into the context of North Carthage, a “town of contented also-rans,” Amy’s “relentless achieving” is exposed as undemocratic. There is a slick good-natured cynicism to this town, like the bustling civic life in Homer Simpson’s Springfield. The townspeople respond to Amy with “open-palmed acceptance and maybe a bit of pity.”
Unfortunately, however, this America is falling apart. Amy snarls that, “the Midwest is full of these types of people: the nice-enoughs. Nice enough but with a soul made of plastic – easy to mold, easy to wipe down.” Yet nice enough is no longer good enough. North Carthage is “overrun with pissed-off, unemployed people.” The authorities literally squeeze blood out of North Carthage; the people are so weak that they can only bleed and their blood is the only thing to be harvested or produced in this town.
The ultimate indication of America’s decline is that it is being steadily feminised, with Ellen Abbott as the latest presidential figure and society generally condemning Nick whenever he attempts to be resilient and stoical. He is targeted by the police for looking “very, very calm… Unemotional, flippant.” Nick agrees that “I’m stoic. To a fault.” His lawyer frets that, “Women will line up to tear you apart with their fingernails.” Nick will ruefully survey the women in his life: “Andie had screwed me over, Marybeth had turned against me, Go had lost a crucial measure of faith. Boney had trapped me. Amy had destroyed me.” That all-female “village” down in Texas is no doubt a great deal more practical and straightforward than the invariably hysterical America which it has abandoned.
Perhaps we are being distracted by identities and destinies which are actually determined by gender. Amy is hardly a feminist antichrist because even when at her most vengeful, she continues to gravitate around Nick and pine for his acceptance. She has only ever been happy as a Cool Girl and she confides that in her state of oppressed coolness, “I was living in the moment, and I could feel myself getting shallower and dumber. But also happy.”
She rejects this artificial femininity because “it wasn’t real, it wasn’t me.” The Actual Amy rages that, “Can you imagine, finally showing your true self to your spouse, your soul mate, and having him not like you?” Yet without Nick she is literally a Gone Girl. After she has exacted her revenge upon Nick, she plans to die, having nothing else to live for. She floats around in the desert like a ghost, homeless and alone. The abused woman Greta will not show solidarity with her, but crush her like an insect.
Unexpectedly, one of the novel’s most feminist lines comes when Nick is exasperated at his wife’s disempowerment. He protests that, “my point was, do something. Whatever it is, do something. Make the most of the situation. Don’t sit and wait for me to fix everything for you.” Amy certainly does not sit around waiting, but neither does she use her ingenuity to make their or even just her own world better. Her skills are invested only into an obscure act of demented revenge, which revolves entirely around her husband. Although Nick is often described in childlike terms, which chime with the broader helplessness of the society around him, we find Amy herself contending that her parents “deserve to suffer” because they “can’t take care of me.” Anybody in their late thirties who is still blaming their parents for their unhappiness is not going to reinvent America.
With all of her ingenuity, Amy cannot succeed with her own resources and she ends up marvelling that, “It’s so ludicrous, that of all things it’s money that should be an issue for me.” She may indeed be terrified when Nick, “looked at me… like I was an object to be jettisoned if necessary. ”
She consequently falls into the hands of Desi, a post-masculine creature who can apparently survive in Actual Amy’s inhospitable climate. We may fancy that Amy has replaced the female eunuch with this male equivalent, but it transpires that Desi will not worship Amy so much as infantilise her. Amy cannot “control” him in any way which is compatible with his continued living. He is, she sighs, “basically, like all men.”
Amy realises that, “Nick fastened me to the earth… Nick just wanted me to be happy, that’s all, very pure. Maybe I mistook that for laziness.” Her compromise is that Nick will be manipulated into devoting himself to her happiness. Instead of Amy offering the image of a Cool Girl, Nick will be forced to conform to the appearance of a loving husband. Nick himself admits that, “I am a great husband because I am very afraid that she may kill me.” Perhaps femininity has triumphed:
“You are a tough, vibrant, independent woman, Amy. You killed your kidnapper, and then you kept on cleaning house: You got rid of your idiot cheat of a husband. Women would cheer you. You’re not a scared little girl. You’re a badass, take-no-prisoners woman.”
But humanity has failed. Nick and Amy cannot ever accept the reality of each other; the power struggle between them requires that one of them becomes an inhuman and artificial appearance, the one without the penis. We previously found poor Nick wondering whether he was even human, because the media and the internet had destroyed the authenticity of the real physical world that his avatar Huck Finn had been once at home in. Nick can always leave Amy for a new Cool Girl. Incidentally, he forms his happiest relationship with a female version of himself, his sister Go. But Amy no doubt has plans for Nick to become like her own father Rand, who seems to have no existence independent of his wife. There is doubtlessly a story of its own behind those two.
Amy’s rage nevertheless affirms Nick’s own power. He has to be manipulated and managed by Amy as if he was a dangerous adversary. He admits that “the woman knew me cold. Better than anyone in the world, she knew me.” Amy indeed not only authors Diary Amy but a new improved Nick who is unfeeling and calculating. Perhaps he cannot know himself without her firstly knowing him:
Amy was toxic, yet I couldn’t imagine a world without her entirely. Who would I be with Amy just gone? There were no other options that interested me anymore. But she had to be brought to heel…”
This may be the nearest that any American couple will ever get to love.
[Tychy has previously reviewed Flynn’s 2009 novel Dark Places. Ed.]