Two of summer’s greatest pleasures are travel and reading. Immersion into an unfamiliar place or a well-told story offers glimpses of the cultural mood. I just returned from a trip to Oregon, home of the Cascadia Subduction Zone recently featured in a brilliant New Yorker article. I’m incubating a blog post on the power and guises of denial, but it’s not ready yet. On the lighter side, I also read two thrillers: Second Life and Gone Girl. Both are page-turners that linger after dark endings. They also throw some of the more insane aspects of modern life into stark relief. [Spoiler alert: if you plan to read either of these, you might want to stop now.]
Gone Girl, as you likely already know, is a chilling psychological study of a sociopath and the lengths to which our need for love and belonging will drive us. Especially in the first half of the book, the author Gillian Flynn includes well-observed details of the post-recession, post-NAFTA, post-supply-side-economies of Middle America (short version: it’s all in ruins). She also dramatizes the downhill slide of an entire profession—journalism—wasted by computers, the Internet, and the ubiquitous DIY culture.
To say that Flynn is a canny observer of gender power politics would be putting it too mildly. Her perspective is cynical, astute, and scathing. One of the best passages is antagonist Amy’s characterization of roles, like so many cute outfits women wear for nights on the town. She starts with Cool Girl, that “hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping. . . .“ She goes on to list a few more risqué traits and concludes, “Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding.” Her point is that no such woman actually exists. She is a fantasy created by men and enacted by women desperate for attention, companionship and love. Worse, the myriad ways that women accommodate men’s expectations are not reciprocated:
“I waited patiently—years—for the pendulum to swing the other way, for men to start reading Jane Austen, learn how to knit, pretend to love cosmos, organize scrapbook parties, and make out with each other while we leer. And then we’d say, Yeah, he’s a Cool Guy. But it never happened.”
Fortunately, protagonist Nick gets equal time to make his case against both men and women. The mistake they both make is to blame the other gender for not being more like them—a habit I fall into all too frequently. It’s a warped approach to balance—repression and capitulation, rather than integration. In the end, it comes down to power: who has it and who doesn’t. He (or she) who has the power must wield it with a sure, ruthless hand. Brook no quarter, show no mercy. Relationship not as give and take, but as win or lose.
The cancerous spread of suburban and rural sprawl is a vivid, depressing backdrop to the story. “Somewhere an Indian is crying,” Amy thinks sarcastically at one point. “Should I remove my soul before I come in?” she asks on the second page, in Nick’s recollection of her reaction to their new McMansion in his dying hometown.
By the end, I felt soiled by this book and its attitudes, tainted by the jaundiced views of just about every character. This is partly because, on one level, both Amy and Nick are hard to argue with. As Amy says, women have participated in our own degradation by going along with gender games. By forcing us to confront these truths, Gillian Flynn has pulled off quite a feat: despite Amy being a lying sociopath, I not only identify with her, part of me (unwillingly, yes) even sympathizes with her. Flynn has unearthed a dark underbelly, that warped, stunted part of collective consciousness born of decades, centuries, of oppression: women as inferior, the “weaker sex,” existing for and at the pleasure of men. A corollary is the surface-only definitions of beauty and love constantly foisted on us by media and entertainment. This must be faced if we are to grow beyond it. Nick gives it a good try, but success—even solid ground—eludes him.
Flynn skillfully handles the shadow aspect of personality, that unacknowledged part of everyone’s psyche that feeds a collective cultural shadow. Nick’s worry that he’s just like his angry, abusive, misogynist father blinds him to the opposite: his wife who hates not only men, but herself, making her the most dangerous sort of villain, one with nothing to lose.
Shadow can manifest as perfectionism. The fictionalized version of Amy, her parents’ bestselling children’s series, Amazing Amy, mirrors our culture’s obsession with perfection as a goal, with the whole idea of perfectibility. We identify with Nick because at least he is willing to admit his imperfections. This humanizes him. We know that perfection is creepy, yet somehow we can’t help ourselves. Constant media messages keep us caught in a perfection arms race that infects even children’s books.
Flynn sets her themes and narrative in motion, then chooses to leave it all unresolved. In this era of uncertainty and unraveling, it’s fashionable to conjure it all up—economic devastation, the ruin of community fabric, drug abuse and addiction, the shallow judgment of people based solely on physical appearance, dismissal of those who are “lesser than,” violence and abuse—then leave us to hash it out for ourselves.
By letting the villain seem to win, Flynn casts her vote: It’s too late for us. We’ve gone too far, the trajectory is inevitable. All we can do now is submit to the evils we’ve created, and hope we can at least contain the damage. We are Nick. Amy is our culture. And we are stuck with her. We are married to a sociopath. And now, with a baby on the way, the stakes have gotten even higher. Will Nick be able to shield the next generation from the sociopathic stain? The future does not look promising.
This being a tragedy, it has to end badly, right? It’s the cautionary tale, the mirror held up, forcing us to look—to really see—the situation we’re in. No excuses, no avoidance. At this point, Gone Girl reminds me, I cannot watch enough TV or drink enough at the local bar to erase the truths I’ve seen. Our culture, with which I fell in love in a whirlwind romance and which makes me feel more alive, more myself than anything else, is revealed to be a sociopathic killer, a liar and manipulator. Just as Nick loses his innocence through association with Amy, I have lost mine as a member of this culture. The blinders are off; there is no consolation and no way out. We are trapped, Damned. We made this bed, now all we can do is lie in it.
With obvious skill and keen-eyed observation, with wit and brilliant, even funny, detail, Flynn’s talent gives us so much. I am left wondering how it might have ended if she hadn’t stopped there. Could she have applied her prodigious imagination to a different scenario? Why not write a clever trap laid by Nick, his sister, and Detective Boney, who also knows the truth about Amy but can’t prove it? It would be so much more satisfying, cathartic in the Greek sense of the term (purification, cleansing), for Nick to best Amy. Isn’t that the fervent wish that Flynn has intentionally installed in the reader?
Maybe it’s me, but I’m thinking evil doesn’t always have to win. Of course, the protagonist encounters multiple challenges, even life threatening ones. Yes, the hero is forever changed by events—not always for the better. We have to remember that stories have a magical power: they not only reflect reality and entertain; they create reality. We are literally building our future with the stories we tell. Let’s tell a few where the good guys win.