Sunday, October 5, 2014

Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl and the need to control the narrative

72 pages into Gillian Flynn's novel Gone Girl, Nick Dunne bitterly realizes just how derivative our lives can be:

"It seemed to me that there was nothing new to be discovered ever again. Our society was utterly, ruinously derivative (although the word derivative as criticism is itself derivative). We were the first human beings who would never see anything for the first time. We stare at the wonders of the world, dull-eyed, underwhelmed. Mona Lisa, the Pyramids, the Empire State Building. Jungle animals on attack, ancient icebergs collapsing, volcanoes erupting. I can't recall a single amazing thing I have seen firsthand that I didn't immediately reference to a movie or TV show. . . . You know the awful singsong of the blase: Seeeen it. I've literally seen it all, and the worst thing, the thing that makes me want to blow my brains out, is: the secondhand experience is always better. The image is crisper, the view is keener, the camera angle and the soundtrack manipulate my emotions in a way reality can't anymore. I don't know that we are actually human at this point, those of us who are like most of us, who grew up with TV and movies and now the Internet. If we are betrayed, we know the words to say; when a loved one dies, we know the words to say. If we want to play the stud or the smart-ass or the fool, we know the words to say. We are all working from the same dog-eared script" (72-3).

I like this line of thinking, not only because it comes across as true, but also because the novel and the mostly impressive movie (both written by Flynn) both benefit and suffer from her postmodern hyperconsciousness about her story as narrative. Since both Amy and Nick are writers (spoiler alert), they both compete for control of that narrative (just as the youthful Amy had to defy her parents' prettified version of her life in the Amazing Amy series). The novel is most successful when we learn that Amy has been rigging the story all along. Her diary has a doomed Sylvia Plath-like chirpiness in its celebration of the Dunnes' initial marriage, but once Amy finds herself hijacked by circumstance, forced to live in a nightmarishly bland post-recession suburban Missouri, playing the cliched role of a put-upon wife with a loutish philandering husband, she concocts an impressively elaborate revenge (blood cleaned off the kitchen floor, a man-cave full of porn and expensive golf clubs bought on credit, a suspiciously staged crime scene, etc.) that should get Nick put in jail and eventually executed under the Missouri death penalty. The high point of both the movie and the book is when we learn of all of Amy's machinations, realize that we have been fooled just as the police have, and discover Amy cheerfully hiding out in a cheap hotel complex as if in a scene from It Happened One Night. Not coincidentally, Gillian combines that reveal with Amy's thoughts on the "Cool Girl," a topic that Anne Helen Petersen explores here. The "Cool Girl" is a trope that emphasizes the extent in which women will mold their personalities to appeal to men. They reshape themselves to fit crass male fantasies, and Amy has finally gotten sick of playing that game (explored more in the book than in the movie). Thus, her triumph consists of gleefully defying the role-playing as she rigs circumstances back in New Carthage to place her husband behind bars.

But, just as in Sylvia Plath's "Lady Lazarus," Amy either needs to die (as she initially plans to do) by jumping into the Mississippi river, or she must hide out indefinitely.  After choosing the latter plan, however, two thieves steal all of her money. Here, Flynn brings in Desi Collings, a rich man obsessed with her since high school (humorously played by Neil Patrick Harris) to bail her out. Desi can provide Amy with the swank surroundings (a highly isolated mansion with many security cameras) until she figures out what to do next.

It was around this point in both the novel and the movie--when Amy frames Desi with kidnapping and rape, murders him with a box cutter in bed, and then returns, luridly covered with blood, to the arms of her cursing-under-his-breath husband, as the breathless paparazzi disseminates the sensational story to a thousand media outlets--that I began to wonder about plausibility. Would the police really buy two stories of Amy's victimization? Don't all of the implications of the diary seem spurious now that she's returned home? Gillian keeps the tension alive by bringing her two leads together to live in an uneasy semi-murderous tabloid wedlock, but by now the excellent Rosamund Pike has developed a deranged Fatal Attraction-esque shine in her eyes, and both the movie and the novel have difficulty continuing. Nick and Amy reach a state of terminal dread as the narrative locks into stasis (or as Flynn keeps her options open for a sequel). As the later chapters in the book shorten, you can see both Nick and Amy reach around for some satisfactory conclusion that doesn't fall into the cliche. Flynn was raised by a film studies-teaching dad who acquainted her with Psycho early on, so we shouldn't be surprised to see the famous shower scene in reverse, as Amy persuades Nick to take a shower with her, in this case so that he can't bug their conversation and she can wash off Desi's blood after she's murdered him.

In the novel, Nick writes a memoir entitled Psycho Bitch, but of course Amy's pregnancy won't allow him to publish it. We can sense the characters (and Flynn) trying to wrap things up as Nick tells his wife that she's not happy with the idea of his divorcing her because "You're thinking it won't make a good story" (393). He also writes, "Amy thinks she's in control, but she's very wrong" (401). Later, he notes "My life has begun to feel like an epilogue" (407) and "She [Amy] is my forever antagonist. We are one long frightening climax" (413). Gillian does give Amy the last word: "I don't have anything else to add. I just wanted to make sure I had the last word. I think I've earned that" (415), but all of these knowing nods in the novel come across as contrived and thin after awhile. I was surprised to see all of David Fincher's virtuosic directorial precision (including a nice matching action cut of Amy leaning in to kiss Nick that moves to the police swabbing his cheek for evidence of DNA) suddenly constrained by a half-hearted scattershot extension of events. Maybe Flynn wants to keep her central couple locked in the marital cage, threatening each other forever, as one way to avoid a derivative ending.

7 comments:

DeadSpiderEye said...

Oh dear, I knew of the perils of bored wife syndrome were acute but imagined that they would be restricted to flying crockery and not normally extend as far as being framed for a capital crime. Getting the state to fulfil a murderous ambition is consistent with proxy violence, just a little bit further than is prevalent. I suppose with the disappearance of milk deliveries, this could indicate a social trend, indeed the milkman fulfilled more than just the need to dress your cornflakes with a suitable liquid. Of course in France, he could just hire a Gardner for a couple of days a week. "Have a nice day dear? oh my the roses do look flush today".

FilmDr said...

Amy is more than just bored. Given her dislike of the American heartland, she reminds me of Wendy Kroy in The Last Seduction, only with a greater tendency to play the victim. The tendency to write off Amy as a psycho bitch, as Nick does, ignores the complexity of Flynn's character.

I like Flynn's Gothic evocation of post-recession America, with its abandoned mall, laid-off writers, and endless appetite for tabloid sensation.

DeadSpiderEye said...

That's interesting, because I don't think of boredom as trivial. "Do you get bored easily?" someone asked me once. Boredom is your mind crying out in pain, when that pain stops, it's a mechanism for coping with the pain, they call that mechanism clinical depression.

I was only being partly facetious when I slandered the French, if I were smarter I'd be able to express my meaning more effectively, oh well. Women, it seems to me, have a particular problem in regard to ennui today, they've been singled out for the excision of personal volition. Their ambitions, talents and desires trivialised. They've been consoled with a license to indulge -relatively- free from consequence, treated a bit like children in fact. Off course children -never- get bored do they?

Joel Bocko said...

Re: the opening quote, I really loathe that line of thinking! I agree it's certainly endemic to representations of 21st-century American society (if not necessarily to that society itself) but don't think the attitude is so difficult a to buy out of. It's basically a self-perpetuating delusion of ennui, or as you put it "postmodern hyperconsciousness." Enough is enough: such self-conscious neurosis may (or may not) have been novel 30-40 years ago but now it doesn't have even that going for it; it's secondhand secondhand. I think I'd be more interested in seeing Gone Girl if there were some indication that it understood this, and that part of its mission was to indicate, perhaps through his wife's agency (however misguided) that there are in fact other scripts out there besides the husband's own dog-eared doggerel. But I get the sense this isn't the case?

FilmDr said...

DeadSpiderEye,

You could make the case that Nick is the more childlike of the two. He tends to be obedient, easily guided, quick to play video games when he gets fired, unable to invent a new role for himself afterwards (beyond opening a bar, which his wife finances). He doesn't mind retreating to his bland complacent midwestern home town New Carthage while Amy misses the culture, sophistication, and competition of New York City. Is that reason enough to frame one's husband with murder?

Joel Bocko,

Flynn's opening quote reminds me of an early passage in Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, when Binx Bolling points out that various things have happened to him, but what he really remembers are individual moments in movies, like when the cat rubs up against Orson Welles in The Third Man. In comparison, regular life is not really worth mentioning.

Amy's "narrative" tends to be more devious and fun than her husband's. He tends to assume that his version should dominate just because he's the guy, but he's deluded. Amy likes to invent lurid alternative story lines that the tabloid TV shows crave.

Joel Bocko said...

"Amy's "narrative" tends to be more devious and fun than her husband's. He tends to assume that his version should dominate just because he's the guy, but he's deluded. Amy likes to invent lurid alternative story lines that the tabloid TV shows crave."

Well, that makes me want to read/watch it a bit more!

Still haven't read The Moviegoer. I do understand that sentiment (though I think it can kind of miss the point) but what exasperates me about the Boyle quote is the complete nihilism of it. Apparently nothing, art, life, whatever, can awaken his senses. Well, buddy, I think that may be your fault, not the world's...

FilmDr said...

Joel,

The more I think about Gone Girl, the more I realize that I carried such high expectations about Fincher's direction, I was exaggeratedly let down by the film's conclusion. The movie is still the best I've seen in awhile at the cineplex (I didn't go see anything in the entire month of September). Gone Girl succeeds due to its axe to grind about male complacency, stupidity, provincialism, and unfaithfulness, which justifies Amy's elaborate revenge. Fincher finesses Flynn's screenplay with his direction, but he's happy to play along with the slow burn, the feminist anger at the root of the novel.