I read Gone Girl in one sitting yesterday.
I stayed up until two o’clock this morning, turning digital pages in my hand (40 percent…68 percent…94 percent…FINISHED AND NOW WIDE AWAKE).
I realllllly want to talk about this book with someone, but I know of no one in my circle who has read it, so I’m writing this blog post instead.
*Also note I’m adding edits to this. I wrote this on 6 hours of sleep. :-/
SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER PROCEED ONLY IF YOU HAVE COMPLETED GONE GIRL SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER
I went online to see precisely what people were saying about the book in regards to its treatment of women, and other than this PDF by the National Network to End Domestic Violence, I found nothing that exactly pinpointed my concerns. There are a ton of discussions about misogyny and feminism, all of which I feel cloud the main issue of the book.
It’s also worth saying that I am not being deeply critical of this book because it was written by a woman. I’m deeply critical of all the books I read, the movies I watch, the TV shows I devour. It’s part of my nature.
First off, and this should go without saying since I read it in one sitting, it’s a really cleverly constructed thriller. I found the verrry end of it to be a little implausible that even Amazing Amy could have managed to construct and re-construct two different stories and setups that could overlay perfectly without leaving behind one single solitary mistake (why didn’t anyone ask for Desi’s whereabouts when Amy was allegedly taken by him? Because he would have been with his mom? And no one trusted her?). But overall I found it a compelling read about two co-dependent individuals and their exceedingly fucked up relationship with one another.
An aside: Some people on the Internet are saying that Amy was “too smart” to be convinced by dumb Nick with only a few words from him on TV that he still loved her. Sociopaths don’t care what other people think, they’ve said. Well, sociopath may be one good description for Amy (and it’s one used by Nick), but more importantly and unstated explicitly by the two unreliable narrators is that Amy suffers from textbook Narcissistic Personality Disorder. And someone with NPD will absolutely respond to someone telling them exactly what they want to hear. How did I pick up on this? Other than my own extensive life experience with such people, Amy tells us. In Act 2, when we find out Amy is framing Nick, and we start to hear her in her own words, she tells us. She kicks off her honesty by describing how her whole life, she has put on costumes, slipped different personalities onto her being like she was an actor in a play. Actually, just read this link, it will save you my ramblings on NPD: Amy has literally every single one of those symptoms. I applaud Gillian Flynn for such an accurate portrayal of extreme NPD, all the way down to the childhood with parents who failed to appropriately praise her. End aside.
So what was my problem with the book? It stems from a question I’ve been toying with for a few years now: what is the responsibility of artists for how people will view their work in the larger context of real, actual society? Or better said: do artists need to think about how their work will affect the world?
Allow me a series of small diversions.
When Dave Chapelle left behind both his highly successful comedy show and a large sum of money, he said the inciting incident was watching back a recently-filmed skit on the monitors in-studio. The skit was heavily racially charged (duh, it’s Chapelle). Dave Chapelle later said that in that moment, one of the white cameramen laughed in a way that made Chapelle uncomfortable. The laugh was a little too long. A little too loud. It was the wrong kind of laugh. For the first time Chapelle thought that maybe there were people out there laughing in the wrong way at his skits, and that his comedy wasn’t as responsible as he thought it was.
I felt this same way when I went to see Borat in theaters. Here’s a statement filled with redundancy: I saw it in a theater in an incredibly conservative town in North Carolina. During the scene where Borat was discussing how in his nation they “hang homosexuals,” a group of young white men behind me started laughing uproariously. They laughed in the wrong way, and they continued to laugh in the wrong way, at the wrong things, throughout the whole movie. I walked out of that theater deeply aware that art has consequences.
Does this mean an artist can’t touch race or gender or sexuality at all? No, it doesn’t. I feel that the subject of racism and misogyny and homophobia can all be handled deftly by adding in appropriate reactions of sane, surrounding characters. Like on the US version of The Office: any time Michael Scott ends up being racist or sexist or homophobic, the camera pans to the shocked, disapproving, head-shaking, socially-aware characters around him. It is then that we realize that we aren’t meant to be laughing at the intolerant joke he made, we are meant to be laughing at him and how hard he is trying to not be intolerant while failing miserably.
What the hell does this have to do with Gone Girl? Okay. The setup of the book rests upon the in-real-life fact that in the vast majority of cases where a woman goes missing, it is nearly almost always at the hands of a man, and that man is nearly always someone she knows, and that male someone she knows is nearly always her husband. This is a fact of reality. Men are, by and large, the perpetrators of violence against women. (Gavin deBecker talks at length about this in his wonderful book, The Gift of Fear).
The twist within the pages of Gone Girl is that in fact, the missing woman is not missing at the hands of her husband, a man she knows, nor a man at all.
The missing woman is missing from everyone but herself. Because Amy, sufferer of NPD and sociopathy, has faked her own murder and framed her husband to teach him a lesson about infidelity. Clever! Yes. Clever. For the sake of art, it is clever to insert a completely unlikely situation because the readers won’t be looking for it when the twist comes. They aren’t expecting it, because most women do not fake rape and abuse and pregnancy and their own death and then set up a complex series of clues to frame their husbands. Most deceased, pregnant women who have cheating husbands with violent tendencies have died at the hands of their cheating husbands with violent tendencies.
That Amy has a long past of accusing men of rape and stalking just to satisfy her own bizarre egomania is also another layer on the cake of discomfort for me.
But it’s art! Who cares?
I care. Remember what I said about context?
The other deeply clever part of the book is that it’s told by two completely unreliable narrators. That makes for a good read. It also means we have no context, no reality to grip onto, no other characters to base our own reactions off of (which again, makes for a great read). And while the central conceit of Gone Girl is terribly clever because it inverts what actually happens in reality, the fact that it is presented in a completely familiar, completely real world (post-recession middle America) is deeply troubling. We are told that what Amy has done is because of her mental illnesses, that what Amy has done has almost zero precedent in the real world, that it is so uncommon that no one even thinks it could be real, yet we are told this in the wrappings of our own world. The plot is fictional, but the setting is real. It feels like it is real, down to the dead-on Nancy Grace impersonator within its pages. And that’s the problem I have.
I’m afraid at how the book is being received. I’m afraid that women, who are already disproportionate victims not only of violent crime but of the justice system, will further suffer from the absolutely massive popularity of this book, a book that shows us that “Hey guys, even women commit violence, and when they do, it is absolutely terrifying.” We live in a society where Men’s Rights Activists exist, stating that to be completely “fair,” we must say that women and men do things in equal measure, all the way down to violence. That you can’t use the pronoun “he” as a rule when talking about perpetrators of violence, and that you shouldn’t use the pronoun “she” as a rule when talking about victims, because that’s not “fair to men.”
In reality, women committing violence against men is the absolute exception. To be “fair” in this case is to be statistically inaccurate, to paraphrase Gavin deBecker. Women on men violence is the exception. But when you’re in the pages of the book, it feels like the rule.
Is it Gillian Flynn’s fault if people take it that way? I think it is. I think writers have a responsibility to their audiences to present socially responsible literature. I think writers have to consider how their fictional work fits into the very real context of society.
There’s also the disturbing question of why the book is popular: is it because it is so engrossing and well-written (certainly)? But is it also because it fits the narrative in our society that women who claim victimhood are untrustworthy, manipulative, lying, bitches? I don’t know. I hope not.
I really, really hope not. But I’m also not naïve.