In Charm’s Way

This is not a book I would normally read; I rarely read mysteries, and the title, Gone Girl, is irritating on its face. I bought it anyway because two friends recommended it with enormous enthusiasm, and because I was curious about its enormous popularity: the millions of copies sold, the impending movie by David Fincher and Reese Witherspoon, the glowing reviews. I found it as irritating as imagined, populated by snarky-cute, pop-culturally twisted voices coming out of characters who seem constructed entirely of “referents” and “signifiers,” and who say things like “Suck it, snobdouche!” The only reason I kept reading was that I’d taken it with me on a long train ride, and it was better than obsessively checking my messages (which is something). As I read, I began to find the thing genuinely frightening. By the time the train ride was over, I felt I was reading something truly sick and dark—and in case you don’t know, I’m supposedly sick and dark.

The sick and dark of Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, is less in the plot (which is a masterpiece of cuckoo-clockwork), more in the book’s vision. Amy, the titular girl, is a beautiful, rich New Yorker who is lovely and lovable, at least according to her diary entries, one of which begins, “Tra and la! I am smiling a big adopted-orphan smile as I write this. I am embarrassed at how happy I am, like some Technicolor comic of a teenage girl talking on the phone with my hair in a ponytail, the bubble above my head saying ‘I met a boy!’” This boy is Nick, whom she marries, who then loses his job, who pressures her to move to his miserable Missouri hometown, where he reveals himself, according to her relentless chirping prose, as a narcissistic abuser who persuades her to use the last of her trust fund to finance his bar. On Valentine’s Day, she buys a gun because “I just would feel safer with a gun.”

Meanwhile, Nick (chirping in a more masculine register) is revealing Amy as an emotional terrorist who sets baroque, hurtful traps for him, especially on their anniversaries, for which she creates “treasure hunts” full of clues based on shared moments that he can’t remember. She goes missing on one such anniversary, and Nick quickly becomes a suspect, partly because he’s a habitual liar, but mostly because damning evidence keeps turning up against him, including a murder weapon. And then there’s the treasure hunt, which appears to be Amy’s final love letter but turns out to be one piece of her most malicious trap. The trap has many moving parts, including a faked pregnancy test achieved by harvesting a pregnant woman’s pee from a toilet, an actual pregnancy achieved with forgotten frozen sperm, a mysteriously planted stash of porn (Brutal Anal, Hurt the Bitch), and a faked poisoning evidenced by frozen vomit. The few acts of physical violence that occur happen off camera and are not dwelt on. That the emotional violence is rendered in smarty-pants chirping makes it more grating than painful.

Annette Messager, Les Tortures Volontaires (Voluntary Tortures), 1972, gelatin silver prints, each 11 3/4 x 7 7/8".

So why is Gone Girl scary rather than kooky? Primarily the characters’ apparently everyday behavior—their motivations and how they view one another. Amy and Nick do not resemble actual people so much as grotesquely smiling masks driven by forces of extreme artifice, and it’s exactly that extreme artificial quality that’s frightening to the point of sickening.

What I mean by “artifice” is social language, styles, and manners, a public way of being that is by necessity coded, fixed, and hard, and which has become even more so through the emergence of the virtual world. In physical life, the hardness and (frequent) deceptiveness of such language is offset by the deep, doggishly honest presence of the body; in the virtual world, such animal presence is either absent or faked. Gone Girl doesn’t compare to other books so much as it evokes flipping through TV shows (including the news) and glimpsing face after chirping face, all with only slight variations on the same manner of speech and “smart,” high-speed delivery common to Facebook, texting, and tweeting; that is to say, the book evokes (impressively, one might argue) a hyperartificial, hive-minded way of relating, combined with what has become a cultural ideal of relentless feminine charm tied to power and control.

This cultural ideal was lampooned/ celebrated in the movie Bridesmaids, which is about adult women manically competing over things like who likes whom most, who will pick the bridesmaids’ dresses, and who will have the last word at the bridal shower. The women get food poisoning, shit in their dresses, slam each other in the tits while playing tennis; at the wedding shower, the heroine screeches at the bride about bleaching her asshole (don’t ask me), whereupon the bride screeches back, “I love my new asshole!” It’s not exactly a new idea: Women are filthy, vicious idiots who must compensate with extreme self-control—dress exactly right, talk exactly right, pluck, diet, dye, and, hell yes, bleach—then claw at each other/bond over who is doing it best, and wow, is it ever cute! But Gone Girl takes it to a whole other level. Because Amy is rich, beautiful, sharp-witted, and thin, she’s won the first part of the control game automatically. If you have observed, as I have, that people tend to treat others as they treat themselves, the next natural move in achieving such fanatic self-control would be to control others. This requires a kind of power that the average woman (or man) does not have—except in fantasies such as the ones concocted in Flynn’s novel.

When I called the friends who’d recommended Gone Girl to talk about how sick-making I found it, they both listened in baffled silence before replying: “But the character is crazy. She’s supposed to make you sick.” I guess that by “crazy” what is meant is that Amy lies, manipulates, switches personae, in fact sees herself and everybody else in terms of personae and will do literally anything to get her way down to the last possible detail. But I don’t think she’s any crazier than the world we live in. Her meanness—and the unfeeling, appraising way she types everyone she meets—just seems an extreme version or natural outcome of an accepted cultural language: that hyperfast hive brain that very nearly precludes seeing beyond a coded surface. Amy—a paragon of self-possession who always has the last word—constantly typecasts others in the most rigid and demeaning way. Here’s how she sums up the young woman Nick turns out to be fucking: “Taking his cock in her mouth, all the way to the root so he feels extra big as she gags. Taking it in her ass, deep. Taking cum shots to the face and tits, then licking it off, yum. Taking, definitely taking. Her type would.” It’s normal, I guess, for a woman to hate her rival. But the hatred and scorn here don’t seem to be about the competition for Nick’s attention; they seem to be about Amy’s disdain for the young woman’s (imagined) receptivity or submissiveness—her lack of control.

Amy may be the nastiest typecaster in the book, but the reductive tendencies of our cultural moment are part of Gone Girl’s DNA, and snap judgments emerge without question—particularly at the expense of those who, like Nick’s mistress, appear “out of control.” When Amy’s family sets up a Find Amy Dunne Headquarters at a local Days Inn, a female detective warns Nick about the rapacious older women (fortysomethings) who will inevitably try to seduce him while pretending to help, and sure enough, one such creature instantly appears. She is, like everyone else in the book, immediately identifiable, in this case by her “giant brown pony eyes, her pink shirt ending just above crisp white shorts,” her “high-heeled sandals, curled hair, gold hoops.” Soon she is pawing Nick, offering him pie (!), pouting, and complaining that the female detective doesn’t like her.

Some critics have called Flynn’s portrayals of women misogynist, but to me it seems like she’s just amplifying an attitude that’s shoved in front of us all the time—on TV, online, in countless tabloids, which are constantly informing us that some woman is “humiliated” because her husband “cheated” or because she gained weight or because, after being dumped, she had the nerve to get drunk and dance in public, that is, because she did not have absolute control over herself or the behavior of her man, and is therefore a legitimate object of derision or pity or both. The book is a representation of cruelties we see every day, along with the au courant social behaviors that flatten everything and everyone into instant types. Here is Nick being seduced by the supposedly disgusting young lady described above: “Her breasts pushed upward. She wore a pendant on a thin gold chain; the pendant slid between her breasts down under her sweater. Don’t be that guy, I thought. The guy who pants over where the pendant ends.” Who exactly is “that guy”? A guy who likes to look at women’s breasts? Wouldn’t that be millions of guys? There is nothing here but “that guy” or “that girl,” and that means nothing, period. The only human, real-seeming people in the book are in some way powerless, or actually need something, particularly the inhabitants of Nick’s hometown, whose “realness” consigns them to poverty, illness, wan goodness, and small-time criminality.

In such a context, annihilating rage and artifice seem a logical response; Amy is just outplaying the hive mind on its own terms—and winning, on a grand-slam-sweepstakes level, all the things the average woman is supposed to want. In this sense, Gone Girl is pure-black comedy. But it is also a maniacal power fantasy that panders to female anger and fear.

What remains unclear is how the book regards its nauseating fantasy. Does Gone Girl represent Amy’s chirping, her charm, and her control over herself and others with a sort of wild, cackling despair? Or does it promote the fantasy, or somehow cut it down the middle? (It seems worth noting that Flynn, writing on her blog and the acknowledgments page of Gone Girl, sounds exactly like Amy.) Either way, it’s difficult to appreciate the book without participating in the fantasy, without living, for a time, in the horrible hive brain that the book so successfully invokes. Unlike a TV show, which we can watch while texting, this is written fiction; we have to attentively absorb it word by word. As a writer, I can’t help but appreciate the assertion of literature’s superior potential to engage readers by subtly making them do more than just listen and watch. But this book seems a little too enamored with Amy’s view of the world, and misuses its power as much as its protagonist misuses hers.

Mary Gaitskill is the author of the novel Veronica (Pantheon, 2005) and the story collection Don’t Cry (Pantheon, 2009).