Flynn, Gillian (2012). Gone Girl. Phoenix: Orion Books. 475.
(If there was a soundtrack to books, I’d choose this)
A few weeks ago, I was properly ill for the first time in two years. For some reason, when put under enough pressure, my body seems to be able to carry on and on indefinitely, but when the pressure lowers, it sort of just collapses and contracts the first disease that’s at hand. I had no other choice than lying on the couch with my old (but beloved) army blanket. Now if it ever happened to you to be ill on a Sunday, you may now that there’s nothing much on telly except straight-to-TV movies and animal documentaries (Don’t take me wrong, I like David Attenborough just like anyone, but when you’ve spent the night vomiting your guts, watching big cats ripping antelopes apart isn’t the best option).
I therefore decided that I deserved a treat and picked up one of the novels on my (dangerously tall) book stack. There’s a Japanese word for what people like me do: tsundoku (積ん読). Apparently (as I don’t speak a word of Japanese), it means that you pile up books without reading them. As far as I am concerned, I pile them up “for when I have time to read” (that is, after the thesis is over). I had bought Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn in Brussels’ Waterstones because that’s where I go when I get depressed when I have to wait for two more months before going to Great Britain. Anyway, I was curious about Gone Girl because the film had been released a few months earlier and everyone was speaking about it (ok, The Guardian had had two features on it). Also, I knew that if I saw the film before reading the book, I’d never read it and its potential quality would be lost on me for the end of times (I know this might sound a bit dramatic, but ask me about Ondaatje’s English Patient). And then the book lay there for weeks.
Gone Girl is a big book. It’s almost 500 pages. I like big books because they are not much more expensive than thin books but you spend more time on them, so I always feel that I get value for money. I was ready to spend a week on it. But as the cliché goes, Gone Girl is a page-turner. Instead of a week, I read it in one sitting, from 1.00 p.m. to 1.00. a.m., not because I’m a particularly fast reader, or because I couldn’t eat on that day (all right, that might be a bit of a reason), but because once you start it, there’s no way you’re ever going to sleep again before you finish it. And even then, when I finally closed it, I was in frantic state, staring at the ceiling and wondering “what the f*** has just happened?”
Now, there are two ways to look at the plot (spoiler alert!): either Amy is a psychobitch who has decided to frame her nice husband for a crime he hasn’t committed because he mildly pissed her off, or Amy is a clever woman who is well aware of social constructs and uses her wits to retaliate for being treated the way society treats women. Of course, ambivalent as it is, your impressions might move from one interpretation to the other fairly quickly. Whatever option you pick (guess what mine is) though, Gone Girl is all about a paradigm shift in fiction. Let me explain.
When you read the book, you gradually dislike Amy more and more, up until page 250, where you can read this little gem of a passage:
‘That night at the Brooklyn party, I was playing the girl who was in style, the girl a man like Nick wants: the Cool Girl. Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a 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 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.
Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men – friends, coworkers, strangers – giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. I’d want to grab the poor guy by his lapels or messenger bag and say: The bitch doesn’t really love chili dogs that much – no one loves chili dogs that much! And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. Oh, and if you’re not a Cool Girl, I beg you not to believe that your man doesn’t want the Cool Girl. It may be a slightly different version – maybe he’s a vegetarian, so Cool Girl loves seitan and is great with dogs; or maybe he’s a hipster artist, so Cool Girl is a tattooed, bespectacled nerd who loves comics. There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t even complain. (How do you know you’re not Cool Girl? Because he says things like: ‘I like strong women.’ If he says that to you, he will at some point fuck someone else. Because ‘I like strong women’ is code for ‘I hate strong women.’)
I waited patiently – years – for the pendulum to wing the other way, for men to start readong 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. Instead, women across the nation colluded in our degradation! Pretty soon Cool Girl became the standard girl. Men believed she existed – she wasn’t just a dreamgirl one in a million. Every girl was supposed to be this girl, and if you weren’t, then there was something wrong with you. (250-252)
And suddenly, I wanted to be friends with Amy. I wanted to share a bottle of gin with her and tell her that she was right, that her anger was justified and shared, that she had managed to put words on a very tangible phenomenon. I understood her spite. (Also, I think Gillian Flynn is a genius, but that’s a different topic). I no longer have to be Cool Girl, because I’ve been through a lot and have had to mature in a fortnight and because I’ve met someone who loves me for not being Cool Girl. But I remember trying to be Cool Girl, and failing when the facade would wither. And I see so many of my female students trying so hard to be Cool Girl that I sometimes feel like I urgently need to tell them to drop the act and take control. I never do.
Anyway, here’s where the paradigm shift occurs. If you’ve ever read a whodunit, or watched a CSI episode (not to mention Criminal Minds, which I otherwise love), or a Hollywood thriller, you probably have reached the conclusion that women (prositutes, lap dancers, nurses and mothers, in that order, all of them failing to be Cool Girl) generally are victims, preferably appearing in the first scene as half-naked and obviously dead. The first question the coroner/cop/agent asks always is “Any sign of sexual violence?” and the absence of such is often considered as a sign of physiscal disability of the murderer. Because, you know, if you are to commit a crime, it might as well be rape and murder. The murderer always is a man; normally, the one you expect the least. Of course, the plot may vary, but it is very rare to see crime fiction in which this scenario doesn’t apply one way or another: men are dangerous, women are victims. It is the fiction paradigm to wich our Hollywood-consumer brains are set and phased.
Gone Girl is different. The helpless victim is the man, and the cold, manipulative psychopath is the woman. She is no longer a victim and he is no longer a torturer. And it is refreshing. She’s not the passive object of violence; she’s the subject of her retaliation against the world. She is nothing like a victim. And she is disproportionately angry. She’s a mad person and the inextinguishable feeling that her madness was gradually implanted in her by society makes it all the more disturbing. I loved her, in the strange way you love Hannibal Lecter. She is a monster, but you want to see how far she can go — and you want her to win.
This post was first published on my previous blog, Confessions of a Random Reader (now offline).