Another day, another think piece about Gone Girl–but this New Yorker article is the first I’ve read that almost exactly nails what I like about the movie and book, especially the book: they show us what happens if we take a story we already know to its furthest logical outcome. Comparing Gone Girl to Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin, Elif Batuman writes:
Both books restage marriage as a violent crime—an abduction. . . . These narratives speak less to the specific challenges of having a sociopath for a child or a spouse than to the pathology of the unstated assumptions that we all pass along and receive. They speak to the revelation lying in wait for women when they hit the ages of marriageability and childbirth: that their carefully created and manicured identities were never the point; the point was for it all to be sacrificed to children and to men.
That’s more or less what drew me into the story, from the moment I picked it up (on a rare break during a hectic, draining destination wedding weekend) to the moment I came to the bleak, inevitable ending (on the flight home just a day or two later). I once read that detective novels are always about policing social order: the plot is initiated when a transgressor with irregular desires disrupts the status quo, and resolved when the transgressor is captured or killed, allowing survivors to return to normalcy. But Gone Girl is a thriller about two people who try to want exactly what they are supposed to want; achieving their perfectly normal goals is what’s killing them. What fascinated me about the book is how it depicts casual, everyday cruelty—and how much of that cruelty is permitted or even encouraged by cultural expectations for heterosexual romance. Until Amy’s dramatic exit, she and Nick hide their escalating emotional abuse and daily deception in plain sight simply by following well-worn paths within what we consider normal human behavior.
Beyond this point there will be spoilers.
When I read criticisms of the film or book—rightful criticisms, I think—they often come down to the way Amy is characterized and the way the narrative ultimately compares her unfavorably with Nick. Amy acts out every misogynist nightmare known to the internet: she fakes rape, she traps men into emotional and legal commitments, and by “crying victim” she is flooded with public support. Her character is troubling because she performs the strawperson that is invoked whenever the public refuses to believe a female survivor: the mythological woman who voluntarily ruins a man’s life due to self-righteous fury or mere buyer’s remorse. But one thing that is, I think, better explained in the book than in the movie is that Amy would never have won over public support in any of her schemes except that she presents herself as the perfect victim. She is blond, beautiful, educated, wealthy, even a little famous. If she had even one less drop of privilege—if she was dark or plain or struggling financially—her character would be raked over the coals like any other female survivor. (The book makes this much clearer than the movie can, as Amy is repeated described by the news with a minimum of two glowing adjectivies. And when Amy lives alone in the Ozarks, it becomes very clear how much her wealth and beauty have sheltered her, as she is incredibly unprepared for life on the run.) Further, Amy maintains careful control over her public image, so that there are many people who can attest to her good character and none who can safely speak against her. From extensive research, Amy is keenly aware of what makes a good victim in television in movies, and takes steps to ensure that the public also sees her as a supportive wife, a mother-to-be, a good neighbor, basically a beautiful and selfless woman who lives for others.
That’s a pretty brutal critique of news media. It takes Amy a year of planning and sharp PR work in addition to her inborn privilege to make herself into the kind of victim who will be believed.
And Nick? Nick in the film is perfectly cast, with Ben Affleck’s beefy, cleft-chinned, ruggedly handsome bro who’s not into sharing his feelings. But we are incredibly used to seeing similarly shiftless, emotionally stunted husbands with sharp, nervy wives onscreen; this kind of man is usually the hero of a TV series, the guy everyone likes. It’s hard not to see him as the good guy in the film, especially as the plot traces his race to outsmart the evil mastermind, Amy. The film is slick and scary as a thriller ought to be, but that leaves little time to flesh out the inner monologues of Nick and Amy, which in the book makes clear that Nick, too, is a sociopath.
Nick hates women. He thinks that he loves them: he falls for Amy, he carries on a single affair for years, he adored his mother, he has a close bond with his sister. He has a throwaway line about loving ugly women in particular, since ugly women raised him. He actively fights to block out the voice of his father’s misogyny. But let’s tally again. He loves his endlessly-maternal, never-complaining mother. He loves his tomboyish, brilliant sister, who achieves professional success first but also fails first; at her first and only moment of questioning him, he feels irreparably cold toward her. He loves Andie, a very very young woman, until she starts needing too much–then we hardly ever hear about her again. He feels warmly toward Detective Boney, until it’s plain that she will not coddle him, and then he mocks her continually (and often sexually) in his head. And he falls for Amy, who is playing the role of Cool Girl until she doesn’t. He loves her and admires her, but eventually he starts to bait her, to set traps she cannot help but fail. Their relationship starts out with her consciously being “cool” about everything, but he increasingly tests her boundaries, and punishes her for protecting those boundaries. In other words, he loves women who he believes are perfect and better than him, and he loves them as long as they do not challenge him to do better or show themselves to have human needs. Then he becomes either emotionally distant or emotionally violent, even physically violent. Even his family values are motivated by narcissism rather than care: Nick marries Amy because he knows he won’t find someone with the pedigree Amy has, and in his own words he wants to have a baby to see if he’ll give it a better shot than his own father did.
It’s difficult to see Nick’s cruelties in broad daylight, in part because they are outshined by Amy’s extravagances: Nick lays traps, lies, lashes out physically, fantasizes about killing his wife, but Amy’s plans, lies, and murder are planned in such detail over such time that they steal the show. But also, we take husbands like Nick for granted. Of course men in failing marriages date younger, disposable women; of course they grow bitter and resentful and lash out at their wives; of course they aren’t as empathetic as they (and we) expect the women in their lives to be. That’s just men, amirite?
That, to me, is the most frightening and compelling lesson of the book, and what kept me interested through two readthroughs and one film. A cruel woman like Amy can get away with murder only by being extraordinarily clever at planning and pretending. A cruel man like Nick can hide in plain sight just by being himself.