Pushcart Prize 2014

Hello, internet! It’s been awhile. I won’t even try to make excuses for my long absence, other than to say: life.

20140127-174801.jpgHowever, I return to you triumphantly! My story “Upper Middle Class Houses” that Third Coast nominated for the Pushcart Prize earned a special mention. If I was saying all the right things, I would say that I was honored and humbled, but actually I was honored and felt like a freaking rock star. I’m quite sure that I was positively insufferable in the days afterwards because I couldn’t stop telling anyone who would listen about how amazing I felt to be included–if even in a back index–in such a respected award anthology, in the same book as such great authors and poets. Thank you, Third Coast and the Pushcart Prize for believing that my story deserved recognition. Now that I’ve had some time to get over myself, I am truthfully humbled.

Get a Job, Any Job. Or, Our Whole Generation is F*cked, But You Still Have To Work.

This new blog, MFA Day Job, looks like it could become a good resource for post-MFA writers (or, really, any writers) looking to work outside of academia. It’s a brand-new baby blog now, but something to watch. They’re also looking to interview writers with non-academic careers, so if that’s you, go over there and submit your name! I thought about doing it, but then I realized that “don’t worry, you can always be an administrative assistant for a construction company!” is not necessarily comforting for MFA grads. It is also not necessarily a “successful career.” Or a “career.” (Oh god I hope it’s not my career.) Also, I got the job because of nepotism. So….

Here’s the thing: while yes, I do feel kind of crummy and pathetic for being, essentially, a human Xerox machine with a Master’s degree, it’s a job, guys. It pays the bills. When you’re getting out of school in this job climate, you can’t turn your nose up at employment, whatever it is. This applies to everyone, not just MFAs. Whether you want to be a professor of creative writing or a lawyer or the manager of a Best Buy or a freaking astronaut, that job probably won’t come to you immediately. And when it doesn’t, you take a job doing whateverthefuck, and in the meantime you keep applying for those dream jobs that you actually want. Let one of my Dad Proverbs lay some wisdom on you: It is always easier to get a job when you have a job. So sayeth the Dad. Truth, Dad. Truth.

That’s what I did when I graduated with my MFA. I worked my usual summer tutoring job in Nashville, and then I moved to New Orleans with no job lined up (because I just really wanted to live in New Orleans). I had applied for some jobs in the writing/reading/publishing/teaching arena (basically a scattershot at the wall that is my field) but hadn’t heard back, so as soon as I got my stuff moved in, I went out and found something to pay the rent. Within a week of moving to New Orleans, I had a job waiting tables. A month after that, I was offered a job teaching adult education–not exactly what I’ve always dreamed of doing, but at least a job using my skill set of Knowing All the Grammar and Sort of How Math Works.

And you know what my dad said to me when I told him about the waitressing job? (Not even the teaching job, the waitressing job.) He said he was proud. Proud! Of a waitressing job! But it wasn’t the nature of the job he was proud of, it was that I went out and got a job. Maybe my dad saw so many of my peers moving back in with their parents because they couldn’t find jobs in their fields, and he was proud that I was finding a way to survive on my own, fields be damned. Or maybe I just have the most chill and supportive dad in the world. Or maybe he just really didn’t want to deal with me living under his roof again. (Historically, that hasn’t gone so well.) Or maybe he just has really low expectations of me. Whatever it is, it felt damn good to hear him say that. (Full disclosure: I deferred my loans and was totally on food stamps and did have to ask my parents for money on at least one occasion that year because shit is difficult, and even when you’re really trying, you can’t always make ends meet.)

I hope I’m not coming off as some rich white grandpa yelling at the good-for-nothing young’uns to get a job. Or some better-than-thou soapboxer flaunting her extremely unimpressive work history. That’s not what I’m trying to do, although I did just spend 2 paragraphs patting myself on the back. I’m talking specifically to my fellow over-educated, under-employed, young, middle-class peers who are (very legitimately) stressing the fuck out about their futures right now. I know several people–who are not all writers but are actual employable people with hella degrees–who have been out of their post-grad programs for a year or more now and haven’t been able to find jobs. As such, most of them are living with their parents, which blows even if your parents are really cool, because who wants to live in their childhood bedroom when they’re 27 to 32 years old? These people are brilliant and abundantly qualified for the types of jobs they’re applying for, and they deserve to get exactly the jobs they want. Problem is that’s not how it works. Just because you’re qualified and an excellent candidate and worked really hard in school doesn’t mean that you’ll be hired, because there’s 200 other just-as-qualified resumes sitting on someone’s desk in HR. Because: recession. This is just the world we live in right now (and in some fields, always).

This unemployment is really getting to some of them–as it would anyone–because it’s fucking scary. It’s scary to get out of six to eight to ten years of school and look down the barrel of your future and see nothing there. It’s scary to start questioning if you made the wrong decision and wasted years of your life training for a job that no one wants to hire you for. (*Ahem* MFAs.) It’s scary to realize you may have to settle for something less than what you’ve always dreamed of. It’s scary to look at your life and see that it is not what you thought it would be.

I know this because I have been there–am still there in some ways. Did little Claire always dream of working as a secretary in a trailer on a job site in New Jersey that was formerly a literal toxic waste dump? (I am using “literal” in the literal sense here.) Um, no. No I did not. Do I sit here at my desk in the trailer on the job site and gaze down the trajectory of my life and tremble with fear that I’ll still be doing jobs like this when I’m 40? Hell yes I do. Do I doubt my ability to ever actually write a book that’s half-way decent? All the time. Do I wonder, at what point do I declare myself a failure and go back to school for, like, computer science or something? Frequently. (That may actually be my contingency plan. I showed an aptitude for it in college, and computers will rule the earth with the cockroaches when we’re all dead, so it seems like a pretty secure field.) Do all those thoughts scare the bejeezus out of me and make me want to give up and curl in the fetal position on the couch and watch supernatural teenage dramas until I develop rickets? Almost every damn day.

But you can’t let it paralyze you. You can wallow for awhile and try to set the Guinness World Record for the most days without a shower; you can take advantage of your temporary freedom and set off on that Great American Road Trip you’ve always wanted; you can get angry and tell all the bartenders in the city about how your generation is fucked–but whatever you do, you eventually have to pull yourself up/come back home/get yourself sober and find a freaking job. (Note: I did all three of those in stages when I couldn’t find a job after undergrad. It’s kind of like the stages of grief, I think, but for unemployment.)

Also, sidenote: YOU’RE IN YOUR 20S FOR FUCKS SAKE (or early 30s maybe). Stop thinking that nonsense about failure and giving up! You have plenty of time to figure shit out, and you’re way too young to be this fatalistic. Sheesh.

(Yes, I am talking to myself here just as much as anyone else.)

Look–if you don’t get that job immediately, do something else that is in some way related or can put you in the path of the type of work you’d like to do. (Aspiring accountant? Take that job as a bank teller! At least you’re in the freaking bank and not eating Cheetos on your couch.) If you have no other choice but to be a barista or fold shirts at the Gap, go volunteer for a non-profit organization involved in your field so you can make valuable connections and have something useful to put on your resume. (You want to teach English? Volunteer to tutor at-risk youth. Look! Teaching experience!) DO NOT GIVE UP; do not settle for the crap jobs permanently; do not stop applying for those better jobs, but also don’t do nothing. Don’t sit around in your mom’s house eating all of her food and playing World of Warcraft all day while you wait for a job opening. It looks WAY BETTER to have something on your resume than nothing, even if that something is selling tickets at the Megaplex. At least that way it shows you have work ethic. All that having nothing on your resume shows is that no one would hire you–not even the Megaplex.

We have this idea in our culture that our job defines us, and it’s hard to get around that when that job is, in fact, taking up 40 hours of your week. It feels pretty shitty to say to people at parties, “I am a… uh… Purveyor of Expedited Cuisine. *cough*IworkatDomino’s*cough.*” And maybe it would feel better to say you’re an environmental engineer who can’t find work because the job market is hard and there are more environmental engineers graduating right now than there are jobs in environmental engineering, because then at least you get to keep that identity intact. But why the hell can’t you be both? I betcha that if you say, “Well, I’m an environmental engineer and I went to these awesome schools, but I just can’t find a job in environmental engineering right now, so I’m doing what I have to do and working at Domino’s until I can,” anyone worth your time will be like, “OMG I hear you, I said that I was in advertising but I’m actually working at Target because there’s no job openings right now LETS BE BEST FRIENDS.” If they behave otherwise, forget them; they’re snobs.

And you know what, I bet any potential employer would like to hear that too, and I bet they would respect you for it. Especially if the other option is, “Well, I was living with my mom for three years just waiting on this interview!” Subtext: HIRE ME PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE OBI WAN KENOBI YOU’RE MY ONLY HOPE.

(You know, maybe we writers have it pretty damn good. No, we’re not very employable. No, we can’t find much paying work for our craft. No, we can almost never make a living writing and will ALWAYS have to have a day job. But at the same time, we can have all the lackluster, crappy day jobs in the world, and we still have writing. For a writer, most jobs will simply be a means to an end, while the career–the real thing that matters, the real job–is always writing. And that doesn’t depend on the job climate or the economy. All that depends on is you.)

Maybe part of the problem is we were all brought up being told we were special snowflakes who could be anything we wanted to be, but we somehow missed the part where it would be hard work. And the part where we’d be competing against all the other special snowflakes for a limited number of jobs. And the part where we might have to take some jobs we don’t want in the meantime. And the part where we maybe, just maybe, don’t ever get to be what we wanted to be after all, and we have to figure out some other way to be happy.

Fuck, that was depressing.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, Yes, it sucks. It’s going to continue to suck. All the endless applying and applying and getting your hopes up and having them dashed is going to suck, and suck hard. Probably, even finding that crappy temporary job is going to suck, too. But you can’t stall your life while you’re waiting on the right job to come along. You’re cheating yourself, putting yourself into a state of limbo, and every day you stay there, it hurts you a little more. You get a little more stuck. Go get the best job you can find, move out of your parents’ house, make some friends, meet some people, find some other things that pique your interest like biking or gardening or making model trains and start seeing yourself as a Biker and a Gardener and a Maker of Model Trains and all these things beyond your occupation that make up the beautiful complex being that is you, and keep checking the job listings for when that right job does come along.

You’ll figure it out. It may not happen like you thought it would, your 5-year plan may be in the shitter, but you’ll find your way. At least that’s what I’m banking on. Fingers crossed.

I finally wrote something about AWP, which turns out is not that much about AWP.

It’s more about getting lost:

Not even satellites can figure Boston out, it seems, because GPS DOESN’T WORK THERE. . . Your physical body and your iPhone spirit guide have become unmoored. How will you find your way back to yourself?

And my apparent quarter-life crisis:

If someone had walked up to me at that moment and offered to put feather extensions in my hair, I would have been like, “How did you get in my bedroom,” and then I would have been like, “Welcome, please proceed.”

And drinking:

I then proceeded to spend LOTS of money on drinks and continued to do so all of AWP, which is different because drinks are sustenance, like food and water. That’s, like, the base of the hierarchy of needs.

And being an adult about drinking:

I was like, “No thanks, guys. I am a responsible adult this year, so eight whiskey diets are enough for me.”

And watching writers dance:

It is Christmas morning, if Christmas morning was people raving in cardigans and tweed.

And, if you haven’t noticed yet, it’s over on my Tumblr, which I know is a mean trick, but my Tumblr was getting jealous of my WordPress because it was just getting lazy re-blogs and no real content, and a good mother loves her children equally.

I’m going to be at AWP! Also: Sweet Potato, Black Bean and Sneaky Spinach Quesadillas.

It’s been awhile. I won’t bother you with excuses because they all boil down to: I’m busy and tired and a lot of the time all I want to do is collapse on the couch and watch the entire second season of Scandal and eat my body weight in potato chips. (That is a play-by-play description of last weekend.)


I am not kidding about the potato chips.

Some things that have happened: I went home to Alabama for five days and saw lots of people I love and spent time with my brothers and my grandma and it was wonderful. My parents also threw a belated wedding reception/celebration for the husband and I, who if you weren’t aware ran off to Niagara Falls and got hitched last July, and it was beautiful. My aunt came down from Wisconsin to officiate a blessing ceremony, there were people there who I haven’t seen in ages, and it was an all-around incredible night. My kindergarten teacher was there, guys. No joke. Also, the open bar included margaritas because my mother knows me well. Mom, you know how to throw a party. Well done.

A sorta-blurry surprise photo of me, my mom, and my grandma. My grandma who, by the way, is a rockin' 93 years old.

A sorta-blurry surprise photo of me, my mom, and my grandma. My grandma who, by the way, is a rockin’ 93 years old.

Writing things that have happened: Not much. I have only one story currently out for submission, but I have several more in revision, so hopefully I can get those out there soon. The story I have out is really long (just under 8,000 words), and it also involves ghosts and at least one guy in a cape, so it’s been having trouble finding a home. However, almost every rejection I’ve got for it has been a complimentary, we-hope-you-send-us-more-of-your-work rejection, so it must be doing something right? (Just got one from One Story two days ago, which was awesome even though it was a rejection.) The folks at Hayden’s Ferry Review were even kind enough to ofter an editorial suggestion in their response when I submitted the story to them last year, which I ended up using when I re-edited the story for this round of submissions. Let me tell you, responses like that excite me almost as much as an acceptance. It feels so good to know that your story has really been considered and thought about, and that someone thought your story was good enough to be given that amount of consideration. And from an editor’s standpoint, I also know through my work at Nashville Review how difficult it sometimes is to even find the time to write a personal note to a submitter. That’s a special thing.

Fall-2012-2Speaking of Nashville Review, I will be at AWP next week(!) and one of the things you should come to is NR’s Off-site reading at the Back Bay Social Club from 3:30 to 5:00 on Friday. It’s only half a block away from the Convention Center, it’s free, and you’ll get to bask in some amazing words by the likes of Bianca Stone, Ben Loory, Joellen Craft, Bryan Furuness, and Rosanna Oh. So come hear some great prose and poetry and say hi! I would tell you that you would be entered in a prize raffle or something by mentioning you saw this on my blog, but you won’t. I will, however, be like, “Holy crap, thanks for reading my blog!”

Changing the subject, let me tell you a story about this one time that I tried to cook a recipe that involved grating some uncooked sweet potatoes. First you should know I have zero coordination or strength when it comes to wielding knives. Second, you should know that I have baby-soft, lily-white hands because I have had a privileged life and I am a writer and manual labor/general handiness is absolutely nowhere on my resume, unless you count typing as “working with your hands.” While cubing sweet potato for enchiladas, I have completely lost feeling in my cutting hand, I guess because of the pressure I’m having to exert to cut the damn things?, and I didn’t regain it for about an hour. While cubing butternut squash for this amazing warm salad recipe a friend gave me, I developed a huge friction blister on my palm that I didn’t notice until it popped and started bleeding because my hand had, once again, gone numb. I have also sliced my fingers a-plenty. You can tell I cooked last night if I have a band-aid around at least one finger. Cut (ha-ha punny! I’m a writer!) to me finding this recipe for Sweet Potato Quesadillas and reading, “4 cups grated peeled sweet potato (about 3 potatoes).”  I was like, no probs, I’ve got this cheese grater.


I grated my knuckles, guys. I grated them so much. It looked like I had a fist fight with, well, a cheese grater. My husband and I probably ended up ingesting some of my knuckle-flesh. You might be thinking, “How hard is it to keep your knuckles away from the cheese grater?” And if you are thinking that, it means you don’t know me at all. I once made myself bleed while playing a game of pool. And not because I was hustlin’ and the bikers I was playing against took offense and a bar fight broke out. It was a calm, civilized game in a friend’s father’s basement game room. There was no violence. Pool is not a contact sport. And yet I somehow managed to bleed.

Anyway. The aforementioned Sweet Potato-Claire Flesh Quesadillas were actually incredibly tasty, and I was saddened that I would not be making them in the future in order to retain my fingers.

Until now, that is. Because FOOD PROCESSOR!!!!!!!


Cuisinart Elite Collection 16-Cup Food Processor, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways:

1. Adjustable slicing disk with 6 widths.

2. Two-sided shredding disk for fine and medium shreds.

3. Three bowls for multi-tasking!

4. Dough blade and dough setting for kneading dough?!

5. Puréeing things.

6. Dishwasher safe.


Guys, this might be the best thing that has ever happened to me, aside from meeting my husband or whatever. My life in the kitchen will never be the same. I have been having dreams–actual dreams–about all the things I can make now that I don’t have to worry about cutting off my fingers. (It also takes me a REALLY LONG TIME to prep anything that involves a lot of cutting or dicing because I have to be So. Very. Careful. But, no longer!) So, while I was fantasizing about what to make that will utilize my new food processor to its fullest, I remembered the aforementioned delicious but ill-fated quesadillas, and I knew I had my first dish.



(The bowl on the right is cheese, which, for once in my life, I didn’t buy pre-shredded! Yay, blocks of cheese!)

It’s beautiful, isn’t it?

I also decided to mince my garlic and chop my onion in the food processor, just because I could. That, however, didn’t work out so well. What I should have done is pulse the onion a few times to chop it to my satisfaction. Instead, I left the processor running as I added it through the feed tube, which resulted in this:


Onion pulp.

There is a learning curve.

I used my onion baby food anyway, though, because I didn’t have another onion. Remarkably, it turned out fine.

So, thanks to my food processor, I bring you:

Sweet Potato-Black Bean-Sneaky Spinach* Quesadillas


(Recipe after the jump)

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Short post: My story “Lady Killers” is live over at Whole Beast Rag!


Check it out, y’all.

Along with the rest of their all-around wonderful TAMMY issue.

Side note: I must admit that I’m secretly kind of thrilled that the issue is headed by a photo of Serena van der Woodsen. Except I guess it’s not so secret now that I admitted it on the interwebs. She’s just such a delightful, vapid mess, isn’t she? Oh shit, now you know I’ve watched Gossip Girl, as well. There goes my reputation.

(Edit: They have since re-vamped their site and Serena’s mug no longer graces my story. Sad face.)

Writing is the opposite of a hot stone massage.

First, if you have somehow missed reading this letter to a very young writer from a not-much-older writer over at The Rumpus, you should go fix that posthaste.

…If you re-orient yourself to your fear it can be motivating. Let’s say you’re walking down the bucolic streets of Lancaster and an alligator comes out of nowhere and starts chasing you; I’d bet your fear of that alligator’s teeth would be pretty good fuel for running.

But since alligators don’t live in Lancaster and you are a writer and probably not being chased by anything at this moment, your alligator is Not Writing. And you need to run from that alligator. You need to write your alligator into oblivion. Everything else will happen on its own time as long as you keep writing.

Brilliance! That same advice has been given many times by many writers (anyone looking for a Christmas present for me, I direct you to the Write Like a Motherfucker mug), but it always needs repeating. Especially when it’s repeated wrapped in a whimsical little alligator metaphor.

It seems obvious that the key to writing is, well, actually writing. That if you don’t sit down, every day (or at least, say, 5 days a week, cause writers are only human), you’re not going to get better at it, and that, DUH, you’re not going to actually get anything written. I don’t know how I can sometimes go days or, yes, even weeks without writing anything and still expect stories to spring whole-cloth from my head like I’m freaking Zeus and publications to come rolling in like magic when I only have one story out there, floating around in the Submittable ether, drawing a steady trickle of rejections into my inbox.

But let me tell you, I do it. Because the necessity of writing is something that’s so easy to forget (or ignore) in the day-to-day. An innocent little Wednesday will come along, and I’ll be feeling lazy and burnt-out and tired, and all I want to do is watch some Netflix on the couch. Just one day, right? That can’t hurt! I’ll write extra tomorrow! Just one little day. And then before you know it, it’s two weeks later and I’ve re-watched the entirety of Friday Night Lights from the first episode and I’m surrounded by a mound of tissues (if that show doesn’t make you cry, you’re not human) and drinking beer at 3 in the afternoon, Tim Riggins style, and my husband is saying things like “maybe we should get out and do something this weekend,” which in translation means Claire when was the last time you showered and your skin is the color of an albino cave salamander’s and I’ve become concerned for your sanity, and I can’t even remember what story I was working on two weeks ago.

That is what my alligator looks like. It’s an ugly, ugly beast.

And I think the reason it’s so easy to let myself slip does come down to fear. Fear that the writing won’t come easily, that I’ll sit down and nothing will come and I’ll feel that welling of despair and defeat. Fear that whatever I do manage to write will be crap and those hours will be wasted. (Although I know in my head that those hours spent writing are never, ever actually wasted.) Fear that I’ll never be as good as this person or that person. And fear of the very act of writing, itself.

Because writing is hard, guys. Whoever said writing is therapeutic must have been writing exclusively for the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. Writing is the opposite of a hot stone massage.

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What I’ve been doing since I last posted a month ago, most of which you probably don’t care about, including: a publication, a nomination, going to the opera, and four-wheeling!

Hi, Internets! It’s been a while. Over a month, I see, which is not very long in human time but very, very long in internet time, thanks in large part to the instant-gratification engine that is Twitter.  As I understand it, if you don’t update your blog every other day or so, people stop caring and you become irrelevant. I have three things to say to that: 1) Grow some patience, people. I’d hate to see what happens when you have to wait for water to boil. You probably walk away and forget about it, don’t you? Don’t you? Actually, I do the same thing. If my kettle didn’t have a loud whistle on it, my apartment would have burned down long ago. 2) If I updated this thing every other day, it would be a very boring blog, and you would all know way too much about my eating habits and how much I talk to my mom. 3)  Thanks for not un-following me during my long absence. That’s pretty cool of you.

Anyway. Here’s some of what I did during my month-long blog sabbatical.

I found out my story “Upper Middle Class Houses” from Third Coast is being nominated for a Pushcart Prize (HELLLLLZ YES!), making that my first Pushcart nomination, and Third Coast is also nominating it for inclusion in New Stories from the Midwest. Both of these things are beyond amazing. Thank you, Third Coast, for publishing the story in the first place and then believing in it enough for both these nominations!

My story “Lady Killers” will be coming out over at Whole Beast Rag in their TAMMY issue. This is cool for multiple reasons, the foremost of which being that Whole Beast Rag is a very exciting, very intelligent, extremely cool new publication that is way more smart and edgy and provocative than I ever thought I’d be. I’m no Nate Silver, but I feel safe predicting that this magazine is going to go places. The second reason this is cool is that one of the editors actually emailed me and asked me to submit. I tried to play it cool and pretend like that happens to me all the time, but in reality, that was my first-ever solicitation from a journal. (!!!) After I forwarded the email to my best friend and my husband with the title “Holy Crap I Think I Just Got Solicited??!!?!” and jumped around my office/storage room a bit, I realized I actually had to come up with something to send them. In summary, this lit a fire under my ass and I spent most of October writing like mad. I got some great starts on several new stories, and the story I ended up sending them was a piece I actually started three years ago. Sometimes it takes that long to write a story. Which sucks. But man, did it feel good to finally finish it.

Fun fact: both of the aforementioned stories involve porn. I just realized that. I wonder what this says about me. (To any family members reading this–that was a joke! What’s porn? I don’t even know what that is! DON’T READ EITHER OF THOSE STORIES.)

I also picked up copies of Best American Short Stories and Best American Nonrequired Reading, because, hey, my name is in the back of both of them. I had to get a sales girl to point me to the fiction anthologies because I could not for the life of me find them. (This is because they were for some reason on the bottom two shelves of the erotica section.) As I was headed to the register, the sales girl asked me if I had found what I needed, and, I couldn’t help myself, I opened one of them to the back, showed her my name, and went, “Yes! And look! I’m in here!” To which she replied, “Oh, wow! And you got two copies? You should totally get two.” In response, I showed her the front of the other, different anthology, and said, “No, I’m in both of them.” This was maybe the most smug, gloating, self-congratulatory exchange I’ve ever had. But whatever. I was excited.

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Gillian Flynn, you creepy genius: some thoughts on Gone Girl.

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.