I just finished reading Wild by Cheryl Strayed and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, and I have to say, I am floored in two completely different ways by both of them. Gone Girl I finished two days ago, and Wild yesterday. Not that I started and finished Wild all in one day, although it’s so good that could be very possible. I just tend to read multiple books simultaneously, picking one or another up depending on my mood. I’ve been reading Wild in short installments for a few weeks, rationing it like Cheryl does her food on the trail because I had so anticipated its release that I didn’t want it to be over too soon. (Yes, I’m a long-time Sugar fan.) And also because the book heartbroke me. I could scarcely read it without crying, sometimes bawling, sometimes uncontrollably, so I had to take some breaks lest I become dehydrated through loss of water via tears alone.
An aside: I had a wonderful moment earlier today when I realized that ALL the books I’m currently reading or am about to read are by women! I love that. There have been several moments in time when I have downtroddenly realized that all the books I was reading were by men–and most of the books I’ve ever read are by men–and nothing against men, I love men, but I get markedly sad when I see women excluded. But that’s a subject for another day. The point is, I just read Gone Girl and Wild, and before that I read Jennifer Egan’s The Keep, and next I have Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad (I know, I’m horribly late on this one) and Lidia Yunknavitch’s The Chronology of Water (late on that one, too) and B.K. Loren’s Theft, which I picked up the other night when I went to see her read at Chatham. All women! And I didn’t even do it on purpose! It just turned out that way! So exciting.
But anyway. Right now, I’m only going to talk about Gone Girl. We’ll save Wild for another day.
Oh, and SPOILERS. Except I’m pretty sure I’m the last person on the internet to have read Gone Girl, so it probably doesn’t matter. I mean, I’m behind. It’s kind of shameful. But in my defense, when you move cross-country and get married in the span of a few months, you get behind.
So, Gone Girl.
As so many have said before me: cutting, witty, twisted, brilliant, devious. A literary thriller about the decline of a marriage–although decline is putting it far too mildly. I rephrase: A literary thriller about the psychotic manipulative mind-fuck explosive shit-storm disaster of a marriage, but simultaneously a love story of the darkest sort, about the people who we try to be in order to make someone love us, and then what happens when our real selves show through. Probably not the best book to read a month and a half after you get married. But whatever.
The novel really screws with your mind and emotions, even as you’re watching this husband and wife screw with each others’. For instance, I was totally manipulated by the first part of the book. Like, TOTALLY manipulated. I was like, Oh I know this wife, I know this woman, she is flawed but I love her and feel for her in her sweet, quiet desperation, and she doesn’t even know she’s being cheated on, poor thing! Team Amy!!!! On top of that, there were eerie similarities between Amy Elliott Dunne and I, such as: her husband moves her away from the city she loves (for Amy, New York; for me, New Orleans), she knows no one and has no friends in this new city and also has no job (*cough,* me in Pittsburgh), and she is forced to live in a mass-produced box with wall-to-wall carpet and doors and moldings made of cheap crappy plastic made to look like wood (which she hates, and sooooo do I–hardwood floors, please), oh and she’s a writer. So, we had some things in common. I may have read some sections from Part One aloud to Todd in a kind of horribly mistaken wife-righteousness–See, she is so sad and alone. See, she hates wall-to-wall carpet, too. And then her husband kills her! Let us take this as a teaching moment.
Here is the real teaching moment: Never start quoting a book all righteous-like before you’ve read the whole thing. Especially when it’s a thriller, which is never what it seems in the beginning. I should have known better.
So imagine my embarrassment when Part Two commences and we find out that, oops, Amy is a sociopath who meticulously fakes her death and disappears and frames her husband for her murder so he’ll get the death penalty or at least life in prison, just to prove a point, which is pretty much, No one puts Amy in a corner. (Yeah, I’ve seen Dirty Dancing a few dozen too many times.) Amy is a legit, for-real, 100% psycho. This is the woman I felt solidarity with, who I compared myself to. I repeat: oops.
To be fair, the diary entries that compose her point of view for the first part of the novel were specifically written by Amy-the-psychopath to be found after her disappearance, make the world love and sympathize with her, and point the finger of blame steadily at her husband. So, I mean, easy mistake. Right? Right? (Someone assure me I’m not going to turn into a sociopath.)
But anyway. The point is, Gillian Flynn manipulates the reader’s emotions with a skill that borders on frightening. By the end of that first part, you legitimately sympathize with Amy, you totally suspect that Nick, the cheating, negligent husband, killed her in a fit of passion the morning of their five-year anniversary. If I was Gillian Flynn’s husband, I might be just a little bit afraid. Be afraid, sir. Your wife is a creepy genius. So. Well. Done.
What unfolds after Part One is a fascinating study of absolute madness, switching between Amy and Nick’s points of view, both of them narrators of the most unreliable sort, in which neither character is the hero. And I love me some anti-heroes. We humans are flawed, messy, catastrophically doomed creatures, and I love us for it. Give me a book where the protagonist is just fucked to the core, and I’ll eat it up, because that’s something I love to see in literature and in people in general–the acknowledgement that we as people have horrible, deep deep faults, and there’s maybe just no fixing them; that’s just the way we are, and we have to try to be the best people we can be with them. Gone Girl takes this to a very, very disturbing place, where husband and wife are forced to be the best husband and best wife they can be in a life-long stand-off, or else they’ll eviscerate each other–but still. I dig it.
Nick does end up being a little more the hero than Amy. As he writes at the beginning of the tell-all book he composes (and then is forced to delete thanks to some more brilliant trap-setting on Amy’s part),
I am a cheating, weak-spined, woman-fearing coward, and I am the hero of your story. Because the woman I cheated on–my wife, Amy Elliott Dunne–is a sociopath and a murderer.
I mean, compared to that–yeah, you are the hero.
But despite Amy’s balls-to-the-wall bat-shit craziness, she has some pretty astute observations, such as the oft-quoted-at-least-on-Tumblr section about the myth of the “Cool Girl.”
Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.
Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time, Cool Girls offended me. I used to see men–friends, coworkers, strangers–giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. I’d want to grab the poor guy by his lapels or messenger bag and say: The bitch doesn’t really love chili dogs that much–no one loves chili dogs that much! And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. Oh, and if you’re not a Cool Girl, I beg you not to believe that your man doesn’t want the Cool Girl. It may be a slightly different version–maybe he’s a vegetarian, so Cool Girl loves seitan and is great with dogs; or maybe he’s a hipster artist, so Cool Girl is a tattooed, bespectacled nerd who loves comics. There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain.
Bam. I mean, truth, guys. What woman (at least in America) reads that and doesn’t feel a little sick to her stomach because she has tried to be the Cool Girl at least once in her life (probably during college, thanks Judd Apatow), and also at the same time a bit buoyed up because she has since given up on being the Cool Girl, the Cool Girl persona being unsustainable. And this from the mouth of a sociopath, yet it resonates in all of us.
And that’s one of the most horridly wonderful things about Gone Girl. Like the Cool Girl critique, the novel is full of social commentary that meshes completely with the narrative. It takes numerous societal stereotypes, builds them up, and then burns them all down. The Cool Girl. The Happy Couple. The Gritty Detectives. The Good Wife. The Good Husband. The Cheater. The Psycho Bitch. The Sweet-Wife-Is-Murdered and the Husband-Always-Did-It. One by one, the novel establishes these roles and then, just when you get comfortable, turns them inside out. The whole thing is an endless parade of people wearing masks. It’s disturbing and brilliant and all-too-true. As happens whenever I unadvisedly read the bone-chillingly hateful comments on any online news article, I walked away from this book peering from the corners of my eyes at the passerby on the street around me and wondering, Who are you, secretly? What horrible thoughts do you have tucked in the dark corners of your skull?
But aside from all that, Gone Girl is about the small, quiet ways we hide ourselves from the people around us. Our spouses, our parents, our friends and siblings. And the ways we manipulate each other–even manipulate ourselves–into believing we actually are the people we pretend to be. It’s about the pile-up of all the tiny disconnects in a marriage, which anyone who has been in a long relationship will be familiar with–the time he never showed up for that dinner, the cuckoo clock she loves and he hates, the special kiss one remembers and the other doesn’t, his difficulty in showing emotion and her need to always be right, the compromises inherent in sharing a life with another person, the struggles, the disappointments. Except in Gone Girl, these things don’t pile up into a mild case of resentment that finally explodes into a bad argument or even divorce, they pile up into cheating and lying and trap-setting and disappearance and homicide. I mean, talk about needing to communicate. So, yeah, it gets a bit (a lot) more extreme than your average marriage, but Nick and Amy’s marital struggles before the psychosis kicks off are disturbingly familiar. We all know that story. It’s scary. To say the least.
But also, even while this husband and wife are plotting against each other with maniacal glee, Flynn shows their similarities, things they have absorbed from each other over five years of marriage. There’s all these inside jokes they both remember, both Nick and Amy make observations about the real meaning of the word “surreal,” and they also both refer to their stomachs as feeling “oily.” This oily stomach thing is an unusual enough description (at least I’ve never heard it) that I’m sure Flynn does it on purpose to show us some teeny tiny, but meaningful, ways in which they are a couple. And I’m sure there’s others that I just missed on the first read. In the end, when all the barriers come down, Flynn shows us that Nick and Amy truly, deeply know each other. They know each other to the core, better than any one else in the world, in all their cunning, manipulative, hate-filled flaws. They truly see each other. And even if that sight is ugly, isn’t that all anyone wants in a marriage? To be known? To be seen?
I was wondering the other day how Gillian Flynn came up with the idea for Gone Girl–because this is the kind of novel that totally intimidates me, that makes me feel like I will never be able to write a novel as complexly extraordinary–and I wonder if she was just sitting around one day, listening to ex-boyfriends and ex-husbands gripe about their female ex-counterparts, saying, I’m so glad I broke up with her, she was a crazy bitch, like they so often do. And Flynn was like, what’s that? No. No, fellas. I will write a novel and show you what a crazy bitch actually is. Challenge accepted.
And, oh, does she. I dare you to call anyone a crazy bitch after reading this book. Mission accomplished, Ms. Flynn. Well done.