Gone Girl is famous and has had numerous awards heaped on it, made its way to the top of best seller lists, and been lauded by reviewers far more widely read than I am. Rightly so. It’s one hell of a story, and just when I thought perhaps I saw what was happening, I would find that I had merely played into the writer’s clever trap, and that the roller coaster was about to go around a bend or through a tunnel entirely unexpectedly.
Since so many others have reviewed it before me, and since I did not read the book as an ARC, I’m going to approach it in a slightly different way than usual. I want to look at how this story reflects today’s society, because that part of it jumped out at me, grabbed me by the hair and told me that these are tense times, and they aren’t improving any, not right now. And how we deal with certain issues in fiction is perhaps not as well partitioned off from real life as we might prefer to believe.
The assumptions inherent in my definition of “society” are that we are looking at the English-speaking world, and my own experience is limited to North American English-speaking society. I can’t really speak for what lies elsewhere, since the media often distorts the real picture, and I haven’t gone anywhere.
Two things jumped out at me, and one of them is something that is popping up in literature all over the place now. It’s like playing whack-a-mole: there it is! Whoa, there’s another example! And another! And another! Here’s what I see in this book, and all over the place: the police can’t help you. Or they won’t. In many situations they are equal parts disinterested in exacting real justice, and perfectly happy to do what seems easiest and most likely to complete their task with the least exertion and unhappy attention from their superiors. And not only are you not going to get help from the cops, but that means it’s okay to just go take care of it, using whatever means you deem necessary. That’s point number one of two.
So when Amy gets gone from home in a small Missouri town, the local cops do a serviceable job and look at all the possibilities. They aren’t crooked or brutal as often happens in large cities, but they also lack imagination. Our male protagonist does not really trust them very long.
I don’t mean to belabor the point, but it does bear examining, this trend in contemporary fiction. During the 1950’s, 60’s, even the 1970’s, the police, when depicted in fiction and in film, were 99 percent of the time really decent and extremely clever. They put in extra hours of their own time, went sleepless, and let their personal lives deteriorate because Catching the Real Killer consumed them. But they succeeded, in the end, and the reader (or the viewer) fully expected that to happen. They did it all within the letter of the law, because that was what good guys did. It was fiction, of course, but we believed it.
These days I read story after story, from funny capers like the Stephanie Plum series, to any number of gritty urban tales (you can probably think of half a dozen without trying too hard, if you read a lot of crime thrillers and mysteries) in which someone else has to step in and take care of the job because the cops are not up to the task. These cops aren’t always bad guys; sometimes they are underfunded, understaffed, or just plain dumb as a box of rocks. But it is the vigilante (the word is seldom used; it’s not a nice word, but it’s accurate) who will ultimately solve the crime. Sometimes there are variations, like some of James Lee Burke’s more recent work, in which a rogue cop of sorts gets sick of the rule book and goes off on “vacation” time in order to do the things that cannot be done on the clock.
The oldest story in the book is the I-have-to-solve-the-crime-cause-I’ve-been-framed plot line, although a writer who is fresh and original can still sing that same old song and make it seem brand new, not unlike the-killer-has-got-my-loved-one as a vigilante motivator.
Here’s the part that I hate and try not to think about too often, but because I see it recurring so much right now, I feel as if I have to mention it: in well-written novels such as this one, I just love it when someone who is not a cop takes matters into his or her own hands and metes out justice. That’s not sarcasm. A good writer can sell it to me and make me enjoy it, and I will look for more of that writer’s work. Because I can tell myself it’s just fiction.
In real life, when some frustrated unemployed neighbor takes to stalking the local teens to try to catch them doing something illegal; when Stand Your Ground laws enable some insecure, bumbling ass to follow young Black men around till he’s had the satisfaction of shooting one dead, once he has sufficiently goaded the man into taking a swing at him; it’s absolutely nightmarish.
One could argue that this is what fiction is for; it gives us the chance to see wrong things done right, if only subliminally. But it disturbs me that it has become so popular, and even more so that it has become thrilling to me personally. It can’t be a good sign.
I should end this here because it’s plenty to think about, but I need to talk about the equally disturbing issue number two . In Gone Girl, there are some really amazing, excellent feminist mini-manifestoes squeezed in between the many damning things that our bad-girl protagonist says and does. Again, I find myself bothered that we can’t see a strong, wonderful woman who notes that “I like strong women” is usually said by a man who hates strong women; that expecting one’s husband to tell her why he was out all night is deemed ‘shrill fishwife’ behavior that will destroy a marriage (because goodness knows, the marriage can’t fail over a guy who can’t find his phone or his front door at night.)
In this harrowing so-called era of post-feminism, when the states are shooting down women’s right to control their own bodies with abortion laws that are so restrictive as to be either very expensive or impossible, and ‘personhood’ amendments (which I was happy to see fail) that order the woman to honor a garbanzo-bean shaped spot of tissue and blood more than she values herself, her family, and her future, why oh why must the character who issues some genuinely truthful and brilliant statements regarding the worth of a woman also be a conniving, manipulative, narcissistic monster? With domestic violence not in abeyance and the word “bitch-slap” being considered only slightly edgy when included in a joke, why can we not have real heroes who are strong women—not slinky, young femme fatales who use their bodies as bait, but women who use their brains and social skills to get at the truth?
If I sound like it haunts me, it’s because it does.
If you want to know the standard book review information about story arc, character development, and setting, go and read what the New York Times had to say, or better still, go look at the string of awards garnered by this novel. It’s very strong writing, and of course it is not (as far as I can see) intended to make a political point.
On the other hand, people that live in war-torn nations will tell you everything is political. At dinner time, who eats and who doesn’t, that is political. Who lies, and who tells the truth; who can see a doctor and who can’t; these are every day issues that are also massively political.
As for me, I frowned and flagged the pages when I saw these hot buttons pop up, but I kept turning the pages, because I wanted to see how the story would end. And it’s a great book, sure to keep you up way past your bedtime if you aren’t careful.
But there is no ducking the fact that it is also a product of the time in which we live. Let us come up for air from time to time, and view things as they are, lest we get sucked into the oily abyss of socially sick ideas without even realizing we’ve been had.