“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Gone Girl and the Relationship Game: The Charms of Gillian Flynn's Amazingly Seductive Anti-Heroine


The simple phrase “that guy,” as in the delightfully manipulative call for a man to check himself “You don’t want to be that guy,” underscores something remarkable about what’s billed as our modern age of self-invention. No matter how hard we try, we’re nearly always on the verge of falling into some recognizable category of people—always in peril of becoming a cliché. Even in a mature society characterized by competitive originality, the corralling of what could be biographical chaos into a finite assemblage of themes, if not entire stories, seems as inescapable as ever. Which isn’t to say that true originality is nowhere to be found—outside of fiction anyway—but that resisting the pull of convention, or even (God forbid) tradition, demands sustained effort. And like any other endeavor requiring disciplined exertion, you need a ready store of motivation to draw on if you’re determined not to be that guy, or that couple, or one of those women.

            When Nick Dunne, a former writer of pop culture reviews for a men’s magazine in Gillian Flynn’s slickly conceived, subtly character-driven, and cleverly satirical novel Gone Girl, looks over the bar he’s been reduced to tending at the young beauty who’s taken a shine to him in his capacity as part-time journalism professor, the familiarity of his dilemma—the familiarity even of the jokes about his dilemma—makes for a type of bitingly bittersweet comedy that runs throughout the first half of the story. “Now surprise me with a drink,” Andie, his enamored student, enjoins him.

She leaned forward so her cleavage was leveraged against the bar, 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. (261)

Nick, every reader knows, is not thinking about Andie’s heart. For many a man in this situation, all the condemnation infused into those two words abruptly transforms into an awareness of his own cheap sanctimony as he realizes about the only thing separating any given guy from becoming that guy is the wrong set of circumstances. As Nick recounts,

You ask yourself, Why? I’d been faithful to Amy always. I was the guy who left the bar early if a woman was getting too flirty, if her touch was feeling too nice. I was not a cheater. I don’t (didn’t?) like cheaters: dishonest, disrespectful, petty, spoiled. I had never succumbed. But that was back when I was happy. I hate to think the answer is that easy, but I had been happy all my life, and now I was not, and Andie was there, lingering after class, asking me questions about myself that Amy never had, not lately. Making me feel like a worthwhile man, not the idiot who lost his job, the dope who forgot to put the toilet seat down, the blunderer who just could never quite get it right, whatever it was. (257)

More than most of us are comfortable acknowledging, the roles we play, or rather the ones we fall into, in our relationships are decided on collaboratively—if there’s ever any real deciding involved at all. Nick turns into that guy because the role, the identity, imposed on him by his wife Amy makes him miserable, while the one he gets to assume with Andie is a more complimentary fit with what he feels is his true nature. As he muses while relishing the way Andie makes him feel, “Love makes you want to be a better man—right, right. But maybe love, real love, also gives you permission to just be the man you are” (264).
Gillian Flynn

            Underlying and eventually overtaking the mystery plot set in motion by Amy’s disappearance in the opening pages of Gone Girl is an entertainingly overblown dramatization of the struggle nearly all modern couples go through as they negotiate the contours of their respective roles in the relationship. The questions of what we’ll allow and what we’ll demand of our partners seem ever-so-easy to answer while we’re still unattached; what we altogether fail to anticipate are the questions about who our partners will become and how much of ourselves they’ll allow us the space to actuate. Nick fell in love with Amy because of how much he enjoyed being around her, but, in keeping with so many clichés about married life, that would soon change. Early in the novel, it’s difficult to discern just how hyperbolic Nick is being when he describes the metamorphosis. “The Amy of today,” he tells us, “was abrasive enough to want to hurt, sometimes.” He goes on to explain,

I speak specifically of the Amy of today, who was only remotely like the woman I fell in love with. It had been an awful fairytale reverse transformation. Over just a few years, the old Amy, the girl of the big laugh and the easy ways, literally shed herself, a pile of skin and soul on the floor, and out stepped this brittle, bitter Amy. My wife was no longer my wife but a razor-wire knot daring me to unloop her, and I was not up to the job with my thick, numb, nervous fingers. Country fingers. Flyover fingers untrained in the intricate, dangerous work of solving Amy. When I’d hold up the bloody stumps, she’d sigh and turn to her secret mental notebook on which she tallied all my deficiencies, forever noting disappointments, frailties, shortcomings. My old Amy, damn, she was fun. She was funny. She made me laugh. I’d forgotten that. And she laughed. From the bottom of her throat, from right behind that small finger-shaped hollow, which is the best place to laugh from. She released her grievances like handfuls of birdseed: They are there, and they are gone. (89)

In this telling, Amy has gone from being lighthearted and fun to suffocatingly critical and humorless in the span of a few years. This sounds suspiciously like something that guy, the one who cheats on his wife, would say, rationalizing his betrayal by implying she was the one who unilaterally revised the terms of their arrangement. Still, many married men, whether they’ve personally strayed or not, probably find Nick’s description of his plight uncomfortably familiar.

            Amy’s own first-person account of their time together serves as a counterpoint to Nick’s narrative about her disappearance throughout the first half of the novel, and even as you’re on the lookout for clues as to whose descriptions of the other are the more reliable you get the sense that, alongside whatever explicit lies or omissions are indicated by the contradictions and gaps in their respective versions, a pitched battle is taking place between them for the privilege of defining not just each other but themselves as well. At one point, Nick admits that Amy hadn’t always been as easy to be with as he suggested earlier; in fact, he’d fallen in love with her precisely because in trying to keep up with her exacting and boundlessly energetic mind he felt that he became “the ultimate Nick.” He says,

Amy made me believe I was exceptional, that I was up to her level of play. That was both our making and our undoing. Because I couldn’t handle the demands of greatness. I began craving ease and averageness, and I hated myself for it. I turned her into the brittle, prickly thing she became. I had pretended to be one kind of man and revealed myself to be quite another. Worse, I convinced myself our tragedy was entirely her making. I spent years working myself into the very thing I swore she was: a righteous ball of hate. (371-2)

At this point in the novel, Amy’s version of their story seems the more plausible by far. Nick is confessing to mischaracterizing her change, taking some responsibility for it. Now, he seems to accept that he was the one who didn’t live up to the terms of their original agreement.

            But Nick’s understanding of the narrative at this point isn’t as settled as his mea culpa implies. What becomes clear from all the mulling and vacillating is that arriving at a definitive account of who provoked whom, who changed first, or who is ultimately to blame is all but impossible. Was Amy increasingly difficult to please? Or did Nick run out of steam? Just a few pages prior to admitting he’d been the first to undergo a deal-breaking transformation, Nick was expressing his disgust at what his futile efforts to make Amy happy had reduced him to:

For two years I tried as my old wife slipped away, and I tried so hard—no anger, no arguments, the constant kowtowing, the capitulation, the sitcom-husband version of me: Yes, dear. Of course, sweetheart. The fucking energy leached from my body as my frantic-rabbit thoughts tried to figure out how to make her happy, and each action, each attempt, was met with a rolled eye or a sad little sigh. A you just don’t get it sigh.
            By the time we left for Missouri, I was just pissed. I was ashamed of the memory of me—the scuttling, scraping, hunchbacked toadie of a man I’d turned into. So I wasn’t romantic; I wasn’t even nice. (366)

The couple’s move from New York to Nick’s hometown in Missouri to help his sister care for their ailing mother is another point of contention between them. Nick had been laid off from the magazine he’d worked for. Amy had lost her job writing personality quizzes for a women’s magazine, and she’d also lost most of the trust fund her parents had set up for her when those same parents came asking for a loan to help bail them out after some of their investments went bad. So the conditions of the job market and the economy toward the end of the aughts were cranking up the pressure on both Nick and Amy as they strived to maintain some sense of themselves as exceptional human beings. But this added burden fell on each of them equally, so it doesn’t give us much help figuring out who was the first to succumb to bitterness.

Nonetheless, throughout the first half of Gone Girl Flynn works to gradually intensify our suspicion of Nick, making us wonder if he could possibly have flown into a blind rage and killed his wife before somehow dissociating himself from the memory of the crime. He gives the impression, for instance, that he’s trying to keep his affair with Andie secret from us, his readers and confessors, until he’s forced to come clean. Amy at one point reveals she was frightened enough of him to attempt to buy a gun. Nick also appears to have made a bunch of high-cost purchases with credit cards he denies ever having signed up for. Amy even bought extra life insurance a month or so before her disappearance—perhaps in response to some mysterious prompting from her husband. And there’s something weird about Nick’s relationship with his misogynist father, whose death from Alzheimer’s he’s eagerly awaiting. The second half of Gone Girl could have gone on to explore Nick’s psychosis and chronicle his efforts at escaping detection and capture. In that case, Flynn herself would have been surrendering to the pull of convention. But where she ends up going with her novel makes for a story that’s much more original—and, perhaps paradoxically, much more reflective of our modern societal values.

In one sense, the verdict about which character is truly to blame for the breakdown of the marriage is arbitrary. Marriages come apart at the seams because one or both partners no longer feel like they can be themselves all the time —affixing blame is little more than a postmortem exercise in recriminatory self-exculpation. If Gone Girl had been written as a literary instead of a genre work, it probably would have focused on the difficulty and ultimate pointlessness of figuring out whose subjective experiences were closest to reality, since our subjectivity is all we have to go on and our messy lives simply don’t lend themselves to clean narratives. But Flynn instead furnishes her thriller with an unmistakable and fantastically impressive villain, one whose aims and impulses so perfectly caricature the nastiest of our own that we can’t help elevating her to the ranks of our most beloved anti-heroes like Walter White and Frank Underwood (making me a little disappointed that David Fincher is making a movie out of the book instead of a cable or Netflix series).

Amy, we learn early in the novel, is not simply Amy but rather Amazing Amy, the inspiration for a series of wildly popular children’s books written by her parents, both of whom are child psychologists. The books are in fact the source of the money in the trust fund they had set up for her, and it is the lackluster sales of recent editions in the series, along with the spendthrift lifestyle they’d grown accustomed to, that drives them to ask for most of that money back. In the early chapters, Amy writes about how Amazing Amy often serves as a subtle rebuke from her parents, making good decisions in place of her bad ones, doing perfectly what she does ineptly. But later on we find out that the real Amy has nothing but contempt for her parents’ notions of what might constitute the ideal daughter. Far from worrying that she may not be living up to the standard set by her fictional counterpart, Amy feels the title of Amazing is part of her natural due. Indeed, when she first discovers Nick is cheating with Andie—a discovery she makes even before they sleep together the first time—what makes her the angriest about it is how mediocre it makes her seem. “I had a new persona,” she says, “not of my choosing. I was Average Dumb Woman Married to Average Shitty Man. He had single-handedly de-amazed Amazing Amy” (401).  

Normally, Amy does choose which persona she wants to take on; that is in fact the crucial power that makes her worthy of her superhero sobriquet. Most of us no longer want to read stories about women who become the tragic victims of their complicatedly sympathetic but monstrously damaged husbands. With Amy, Flynn turns that convention inside-out. While real life seldom offers even remotely satisfying resolutions to the rival PR campaigns at the heart of so many dissolving marriages, Amy confesses—or rather boasts—to us, her readers and fans, that she was the one who had been acting like someone else at the beginning of the relationship.

Nick loved me. A six-O kind of love: He looooooved me. But he didn’t love me, me. Nick loved a girl who doesn’t exist. I was pretending, the way I often did, pretending to have a personality. I can’t help it, it’s what I’ve always done: The way some women change fashion regularly, I change personalities. What persona feels good, what’s coveted, what’s au courant? I think most people do this, they just don’t admit it, or else they settle on one persona because they’re too lazy or stupid to pull off a switch. (382)

This ability of Amy’s to take on whatever role she deems suitable for her at the moment is complemented by her adeptness at using people’s—her victims’—stereotype-based expectations of women against them. Taken together with her capacity for harboring long-term grudges in response to even the most seemingly insignificant of slights, these powers make Amazing Amy a heroic paragon of postmodern feminism. The catch is that to pull off her grand deception of Nick, the police, and the nattering public, she has to be a complete psychopath.

Amy assumes the first of the personas we encounter, Diary Amy, through writing, and the story she tells, equal parts fiction and lying, takes us in so effectively because it reprises some of our culture’s most common themes. Beyond the diary, the overarching story of Gone Girl so perfectly subverts the conventional abuse narrative that it’s hard not to admire Amy for refusing to be a character in it. Even after she’s confessed to framing Nick for her murder, the culmination of a plan so deviously vindictive her insanity is beyond question, it’s hard not to root for her when she pits herself against Desi, a former classmate she dated while attending a posh prep school called Wickshire Academy. Desi serves as the ideal anti-villain for our amazing anti-heroine. Amy writes,

It’s good to have at least one man you can use for anything. Desi is a white-knight type. He loves troubled women. Over the years, after Wickshire, when we’d talk, I’d ask after his latest girlfriend, and no matter the girl, he would always say: “Oh, she’s not doing very well, unfortunately.” But I know it is fortunate for Desi—the eating disorders, the painkiller addictions, the crippling depressions. He’s never happier than when he’s at a bedside. Not in bed, just perched nearby with broth and juice and a gently starched voice. Poor darling. (551-2)

Though an eagerness to save troubled women may not seem so damning at first blush, we soon learn that Desi’s ministrations are motived more by the expectation of gratitude and the relinquishing of control than by any genuine proclivity toward altruism. After Amy shows up claiming she’s hiding from Nick, she quickly becomes a prisoner in Desi’s house. And the way he treats her, so solicitous, so patronizing, so creepy—you almost can’t wait for Amy to decide he’s outlived his usefulness.

From the Upcoming Movie
The struggle between Nick and Amy takes place against the backdrop of a society obsessed with celebrity and scandal. One of the things Nick is forced to learn, not to compete with Amy—which he’d never be able to do—but to merely survive, is to make himself sympathetic to people whose only contact with him is through the media. What Flynn conveys in depicting his efforts is the absurdity of trial by media. A daytime talk show host named Ellen Abbott—an obvious sendup of Nancy Grace—stirs her audience into a rage against Nick because he makes the mistake of forcing a smile in front of a camera. One of the effects of our media obsession is that we ceaselessly compare ourselves with characters in movies and TV. Nick finds himself at multiple points enacting scenes from cop shows, trying to act the familiar role of the innocent suspect. But he knows all the while that the story everyone is most familiar with, whether from fictional shows or those billed as nonfiction, is of the husband who tries to get away with murdering his wife.

 Being awash in stories featuring celebrities and, increasingly, real people who are supposed to be just like us wouldn’t have such a virulent impact if we weren’t driven to compete with all of them. But, whenever someone says you don’t want to be that guy, what they’re really saying is that you should be better than that guy. Most of the toggling between identities Amy does is for the purpose of outshining any would-be rivals. In one oddly revealing passage, she even claims that focusing on outcompeting other couples made her happier than trying to win her individual struggle against Nick:

I thought we would be the most perfect union: the happiest couple around. Not that love is a competition. But I don’t understand the point of being together if you’re not the happiest.
            I was probably happier for those few years—pretending to be someone else—than I ever have been before or after. I can’t decide what that means. (386-7)

The problem was that neither could maintain this focus on being the happiest couple because each found themselves competing against the other. It’s all well and good to look at how well your relationship works—how happy you both are in it—until some women you know start suggesting their husbands are more obedient than yours.

            The challenge that was unique to Amy—that wasn’t really at all unique to Amy—entailed transitioning from the persona she donned to attract Nick and persuade him to marry her to a persona that would allow her to be comfortably dominant in the marriage. The persona women use to first land their man Amy refers to as 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 still 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. (383)

Amy is convinced Andie too is only pretending to be Cool Girl—because the Cool Girl can’t possibly exist. And the ire she directs at Nick arises out of her disappointment that he could believe the role she’d taken on was genuine.

I hated Nick for being surprised when I became me. I hated him for not knowing it had to end, for truly believing he had married this creature, this figment of the imagination of a million masturbatory men, semen-fingered and self-satisfied. (387)

Her reason for being contemptuous of women who keep trying to be the Cool Girl, the same reason she can’t bring herself to continue playing the role, is even more revealing. “If you let a man cancel plans or decline to do things for you,” she insists, “you lose.” She goes on to explain,

You don’t get what you want. It’s pretty clear. Sure, he may be happy, he may say you’re the coolest girl ever, but he’s saying it because he got his way. He’s calling you a Cool Girl to fool you! That’s what men do: They try to make it sound like you are the Cool Girl so you will bow to their wishes. Like a car salesman saying, How much do you want to pay for this beauty? when you didn’t agree to buy it yet. That awful phrase men use: “I mean, I know you wouldn’t mind if I…” Yes, I do mind. Just say it. Don’t lose, you dumb little twat. (387-8)

So Amy doesn’t want to be the one who loses any more than Nick wants to be that “sitcom-husband version” of himself, the toadie, the blunderer. And all either of them manages to accomplish by resisting is to make the other miserable.

            Gen-Xers like Nick and Amy were taught to dream big, to grow up and change the world, to put their minds to it and become whatever they most want to be. Then they grew up and realized they had to find a way to live with each other and make some sort of living—even though whatever spouse, whatever job, whatever life they settled for inevitably became a symbol of the great cosmic joke that had been played on them. From thinking you’d be a hero and change the world to being cheated on by the husband who should have known he wasn’t good enough for you in first place—it’s quite a distance to fall. And it’s easy to imagine how much more you could accomplish without the dead weight of a broken heart or the burden of a guilty conscience. All you have driving you on is your rage, even the worst of which flares up only for a few days or weeks at most before exhausting itself. Then you return to being the sad, wounded, abandoned, betrayed little critter you are. Not Amy, though. Amy was the butt of the same joke as the rest of us, though in her case it was even more sadistic. She was made to settle for a lesser life than she’d been encouraged to dream of just like the rest of us. She was betrayed just like the rest of us. But she suffers no pangs of guilt, no aching of a broken heart. And Amy’s rage is inexhaustible. She really can be whoever she wants—and she’s already busy becoming more than an amazing idea. 

9 comments:

bloggermb said...

"...and she's already busy becoming more than an amazing idea."
By the end of the book, it's not just Amy who is busy recreating herself into something more than amazing. Nick joins the game. In fact, what seems to reunite them (in a strange sort of union) is an acknowledged mutual enjoyment of their game of outsmarting, outlasting, 'out-faking' the other. I would go so far as to argue that Nick is busy becoming more amazing than Amy as he decides to embrace their games.

Dennis Junk said...

I suppose there is a suggestion of perverse romanticism in Nick's acceptance of Amy's terms. And it's tempting to believe he fares as well as she does because, despite his dalliance, he's obviously the one who's the most ill-treated.

But there's really no getting around the fact that Nick got his ass handed to him. He does manage to work the media a little. But his only successful ruse against Amy is one she easily turns against him. She even tells him she knows he thinks he was faking, but they're going to make it real anyway. It's Amy's story that gets published--Nick's goes in the trash. Nick's only real victory is keeping himself off death row--and maybe getting a baby like he wanted. Even these may have had more to do with Amy realizing that Nick was preferable to the other men she could routinely exploit, like Desi.

Nick never really had a chance, because he doesn't have the inexhaustible rage Amy does, and he has a normal human conscience, unlike her.

bloggermb said...

"Yes, I am finally a match for Amy. The other morning I woke up next to her, and I studied true back of her skull. I tried to read her thoughts. For once I didn't feel like I was staring into the sun. I'm rising to my wife's level of madness...I'm the one to root for in the never-ending story of our marriage. It's a story I can live with. He'll, at this point, I can't imagine my story without Amy." He may have had his ass handed to him, as you say, but he seems to make a better recovery than Amy, who has seen that her plans can go wrong. She is fallible after all. Nick, on the other hand, is poised to start beating Amy at her own game.

bloggermb said...

I'd say that by the end of the book, Amy is the one who will start having her ass handed to her, she just doesn't know it yet.

Dennis Junk said...

Yeah, he has some insight into her now--into how insane she is. But he hasn't killed anyone. I really doubt he would. The lines you quote are just him making his acquiescence tolerable for himself. Kind of a You win, but now I know what you're up to--as if that mattered.

Plus, he's always been the lazier of the two; he probably likes letting her call the shots.

But unless he really does rise to her level of madness (manipulating the press, the police, her own family; cutting herself, writing years-worth of diary entries) he would have to either be much smarter or much more motivated if he were to get the better of her. And he's neither.

Dennis Junk said...

Maybe I'm missing something, though. What was it that suggested to you that Nick had the upper hand at the end?

bloggermb said...

Well, maybe I'm missing something, too, but I perceive a change in Amy at the end. As insane as she is, she's also been sobered by the experience with Desi (and even Greta and Jeff). She was able to manipulate Desi, but she had to stoop to disagreeable means to do so. She didn't like that, and it made her reconsider her life with Nick. Appreciation might be too strong a word, but she seems to recognize that she can't stomach other men as she can Nick. This means that in a strange sort of way, she needs Nick. To need Nick diminishes her power. A woman who needs a man is vulnerable to losing him. She has to be more careful in her game.
She may again gain the upper hand, so to speak, with the baby. She can threaten to leave and separate Nick from his child. But the question is, can Amy really survive for long without Nick, or would life be too boring? I'm inclined to argue that Amy will continue to make threats and cause Nick some temporary grief, but in the long run she won't ever be to actually leave him again. This means that whether he realizes it or not, Nick has gained a great deal of control over this insane woman.

Unknown said...

I just read the book on the strength of your review. There seemed to be a little bit of "Presumed Innocent" in it, but the plot twist came much sooner. To me the end was a bit contrived. How can you believe Nick would stay in to same house with 'psycho bitch' after what she did to him and Desi's murder? Yes he wanted a child, but with Amy?? He had other options. There must be a sequel in the works.

Dennis Junk said...

I've heard that same point about it not being believable that Nick would stay a few times now. But I really don't see it that way. First, Amy kept a lot of leverage over Nick--first with the poisoned vomit, then with his tarnished reputation (from the violent porn in Go's garage, etc.). She also has more leverage simply because she's crazier and willing to go much farther to get what she wants. With the baby in the picture, Nick really is trapped.

Perhaps the more interesting element, though, is that Nick seems to enjoy the idea of being in such an exceptional relationship with such an exceptional woman. He tells himself he's her equal--but he's clearly the one who's struggling to rise to her level. This is what makes it so delightfully twisted; Nick enjoys being subservient to Amy. He needs his role to be defined for him, and this is a role--that of Amy regulator and child protector--he can accept.

You could also argue that they're both still attached to each other emotionally.

In short, lot's of people stay with partners it's patently obvious they should leave. To me, the ending of Gone Girl is all too disturbingly realistic.