The macabre Gone Girl, the surprise US bestseller, has been criticised as misogynist, but its author Gillian Flynn’s depictions of women eschew blandness for darker truths, says Suzanne Harrington
I ALWAYS got up early, until I started reading Gone Girl — last weekend, I was in bed until 4pm, reading it. I had to finish it. You will, too. Gillian Flynn’s novel is intelligent, unnerving and page-turning. Gone Girl is causing a stir, and the hype is justified.
Emotional noir was not invented by Flynn — Lionel Shriver did that with We Need To Talk About Kevin — but she has taken it somewhere new.
How well do you know your other half? Even if you answer ‘very’, you might be looking at them differently by the end of this book. That was Flynn’s intention — to get partners to look at each other “askance.”
She takes standard relationship issues, like intimacy, expectation, disappointment, communication, reconciliation, and rips them inside out.
Gone Girl is the story of Nick and Amy. They live in New York. Nick writes for magazines, and Amy has a trust fund. When Nick loses his job because of the recession, he persuades Amy to relocate to his home state, Missouri, where his mother is ill.
Two years later, the story begins, on their fifth wedding anniversary, when Amy vanishes. Nick returns to their fancy house, finds the front door open and signs of a struggle. He seems strangely calm.
We learn this from Nick, and from Amy, via her diary. I can’t say more without revealing plot, and that would be a shame, because a genuinely suspenseful book is a rarity.
Just read it.
Gillian Flynn — that’s a hard ‘G’, like fish gill — is Irish-American and lives in Chicago, but was born a midwesterner, in Missouri, in 1971. She says that the Midwest — the ‘flyover states’ in the shadow of East and West coast culture, perceived as vast, empty space fuelled by fastfood and religion — is a great, untapped literary landscape. Her first two books, Sharp Objects, and Dark Places (Flynn’s writing is all about dread) are set in the Midwest. Small towns (the Mississhippi), and uncosmopolitan characters people her books. The Midwest gave America some of its worst monsters — like Ed Gein, the Des Moines farmer who inspired Hitchcock’s Psycho.
Flynn watched Psycho often when she was young — her parents were university teachers, her father a professor of film. She did not have an unhappy childhood, nor is she unhappily married — she and her husband, a lawyer, have a baby son; she calls them the lights of her life.
Flynn’s female characters are anything but happy-and-in-love. They are manipulative, controlling, sociopathic, even psychopathic. They will stop at nothing to get what they want.
In a recent interview, Flynn was accused of misogyny, because she writes awesomely awful women. She dismisses such accusations, saying that secure, happy writers are psychologically free to write dark, twisted characters, and that it’s the romance writers for whom you need to watch out.
Her first two books are also set in the Midwest. Sharp Objects, her 2006 debut, and Dark Places, published in 2009, are about murder and family dysfunction; in Sharp Objects, a mother and tweenage girl are unnerving. Alcohol, self-harm, lies and death fuel Flynn’s plots; the characters are selfish, power-oriented, and unladylike. Sexual politics are used most incorrectly.
When the Guardian newspapaer asked Flynn if she was concerned, as a feminist, that she might not be doing feminism any favours by creating such appalling female characters, she replied: “To me, that puts a very, very small window on what feminism is. Is it really only girl power, and ‘you-go-girl, and empower yourself, and be the best you can be’?
“For me, it’s also the ability to have women who are bad characters … the one thing that really frustrates me is this idea that women are innately good, innately nurturing. In literature, they can be dismissibly bad — trampy, vampy, bitchy types — but there’s still a big pushback against the idea that women can be just pragmatically evil, bad and selfish ... I don’t write psycho bitches. The psycho bitch is just crazy — she has no motive, and so she’s a dismissible person because of her psycho-bitchiness.”
Flynn’s female characters use their powers — primarily intelligence, chess-game thinking, and ruthlessness — for their own end. You know, like male characters — except they have the added, manipulative power of their sexuality.
There is nothing crazy about Flynn’s women; they are calculating, ice-cold and scary. The men barely get a look in, apart from complacency and arrogance.
Women are the biggest readers, yet we get served up some terrible guff. It is presumed that we like fashion, health and beauty, and self-help, because all we want to do is make ourselves look better/prettier/more attractive/nicer and feel better about ourselves even as we peck away with self-criticism.
It is presumed that reading anything about motherhood, or celebrity, is fascinating to us, that we love heroines and bravery and against-all-odds.
Some of which is fine, in reasonable doses, but where are the female bad guys?
Flynn’s female characters are proper anti-heroines. They are the opposite of Carrie Bradshaw. They are not plucky, spunky, cheeky, cheery, or that bothered about shoes. They do not agonise about their appearance, but are fascistic about it.
They take cliches of femininity — girlieness, helplessness, sweetness, perfectionism — and use them as weapons of mass manipulation. They are not nice.
And they are ten steps ahead of you.
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