Note: This is a review of the book, not the movie. I finished reading the book shortly after the movie made it to my hometown theaters a couple of weeks ago, which is to say, shortly after it was released to the general public. I have not seen the movie.
If the saying that all fiction is autobiography is true, Gillian Flynn’s husband better sleep with one eye open if he ever thinks of straying. Amy, the “gone girl” of the title, is a sort of wife-monster of every husband’s nightmares. She is superficially sweet and charming. But that’s just the veneer her cold and calculating selfish nature uses to disguise her pathologies. Amy is a cliché (though she would violently object to the appellation). She is the prototype for hell hath no fury like the wrath of a woman scorned. And with Amy, a poor little spoiled and pampered rich girl with two oppressively doting parents, her wrath must be indulgently expressed in a manner calculated to utterly destroy its object.
It would be trite to say that Amy is a psychopath, although I doubt that most people, even people like Amy’s parents who were child psychologists, would disagree that she is. Psychopaths aren’t all that complicated—their only real flaw is their inability to feel remorse or guilt for doing things that harm others. They do what their selfish instincts tell them must be done to achieve whatever it is their impulses tell them they want or need—status, power, money, sex, etc., without concern for the feelings of others. There are lots of psychopaths in the world. Probably every high-powered executive in a Fortune 500 company could be diagnosed a psychopath to some degree. But Fortune 500 executives know to carefully hide and suppress their impulses to do things that law or morality forbids (e.g., killing, torture, bribery) lest the revelation of their rotten core or their apprehension by the authorities impairs the satisfaction of their desires. Social psychopaths won’t generally physically harm themselves or others to get what they want.
But not Amy. As we learn over the course of the book, she is diabolically clever at exacting revenge when she feels to have been wronged, and will stop at nothing to achieve it. In her vanity and competitiveness, she always seeks an elegant vengefulness that enhances her reputation at the expense of the object of her vengeance, but that also makes the object of her wrath clearly aware that she has been avenged. Because all the slights Amy ever suffers seem to arise from the queered up notion, one she probably acquired in childhood from being an only child with two adult humans spinning their lives around hers, that anytime she is anything less than foremost in the consideration of others, she has been wronged, and when she has been wronged, she deserves to inflict an Old Testament, angry vengeful God wrath on whoever it was that wronged her. And while she wants vengeance, she knows it is a dish whose recipe must be meticulously followed, and of course, be served cold. Like she told her husband, Nick, towards the end of the book, when he finally lets her know that he realizes what a psycho bitch she is, Everything I do, I do for a reason, Nick. Everything I do takes planning and precision and discipline. Which sounds perfectly reasonable, not psychopathic at all. Until you find out what she has spent her time doing, with planning, precision and discipline.
Gone Girl is the rare book that both my wife and I have read. The wife mainly likes bubblegum, “trashy” (her words) novels. I mostly like geeky, somewhat intellectual non-fiction about some aspect of human endeavor or experience (I started a book on the history of opium after this one). But I decided to read this one because of jacket blurbs that had it exploring marriage (if with a psychopathic backdrop), which is certainly something of human endeavor or experience in which I am interested. I asked my wife what she thought of the two protagonists/antagonists, Amy, and Nick (Amy’s husband). She said about what I was thinking–that they deserved each other.
The book is about far more than just Amy’s psychopathy. It is about marriage in the modern world, and once you get to know Nick, you will understand the feelings Amy had for him, and might even see how what she did was something of rough justice for how he treated her. Nick, who desperately wanted to be anything except like his dad, who was gruff and unfeeling and critical and always angry, turned out to be far worse than all that. He turned out to be a caricatured cliché of a man who, after both he and Amy lose their jobs in New York City, drags his wife away from her friends to a life of isolation in the Midwest town where he grew up, cajoling her to pony up the funds for a bar he and his sister own and manage while he leaves Amy alone at a desolate suburban McMansion to slowly lose her mind. To top it all off, he cheats on her with a coed from the local community college where he teaches classes part time. It is Amy’s discovery of the affair (at its inception, unbeknownst to Nick) that sets her on her vengeful course, the one which required planning, precision and discipline. It could be argued that Amy is not a bit crazy but is just really, really angry, and justifiably so. I’m sure more than a few women will read the book and cheer her on, at least a little bit, because Amy felt exactly what most women who have been betrayed feel, even if most women wouldn’t have done the things she did to exact her revenge. I even cheered her vigilante vengeance a bit. Nick deserved what he got, almost. Hell hath no fury. I bet Nick’s dad understood as much. Amy wasn’t any crazier than Nick made her. Yeah, my wife was right, they deserve each other.
The book also stands as poignant social commentary on the institution of marriage. Why did these two narcissistic, selfish people get married? The question matters because, as Amy observes, they were both being phonies to win the other’s love, and when time and circumstance wore off the façade of romance, it left the ugly truth that neither of them much even liked the other, but now they were stuck, sort of, with each other. It felt like Amy wanted to be married because marriage is just what you do at a certain age. She didn’t get married for the old reason people got married—to have kids. She seemed to want marriage as an accouterment she could proudly display as evidence of her desirability and likability among her social set, or she wanted marriage for the same reason people these days get dogs—to have a creature that loves and depends on them. In any event, neither she nor Nick seemed mature enough to understand the true implications of marriage. Neither of them seemed to get that marriage is a business partnership that is in the business of enhancing the life and times of its two partners. It often can be, as Amy and Nick treated it, a dialectic struggle to see which partner will impose their will on the other. But as Nick pointed out towards the end of the book, when Amy demanded he turn over the manuscript he’d written describing her antics in their relationship for the price of being a part of his child’s life: We had spent years battling for control of our marriage, of our love story, our life story. I had been thoroughly, finally outplayed. I created a manuscript, she created a life.
Nick was a fool for ever believing that he could win the marital dialectic. So long as a woman is fertile, she will win every power struggle in which she chooses to engage with her significant other. Because no matter what a man might do or create, only a woman can create a life, and that superpower trumps all others, hands down. As between a coupling man and woman, husband and wife or not, there is absolutely no doubt where the power lies. It lies in the womb. As it has since time immemorial, long before the Pill and abortion on demand.
Flynn left me wondering why these people got married. Or worse, why any two people should ever get married. What is the purpose of marriage? Is it to stave off loneliness? Because some of the loneliest times of my life have been since I tied the knot. Is it to bring happiness and joy into one’s life? Because there is nothing more miserable than a marriage that isn’t working. If marriage is a partnership for the business of enhancing the survival and propagation prospects of its partners, is it ultimately about raising children? Indeed, that seems about right. The question then becomes, why have children?
Flynn , through Amy, offers a poignant example of why not to have children. It is very hard to understand why anyone ever should. Especially today, where the state has taken up roles (e.g., of old-age caregiver or economic support) at one time the sole province of the spouse or children, it is hard to see the benefits of having children.
And well, it is apparently not only me who was left wondering about marriage and children after reading of Nick and Amy’s misery. The total fertility rate (the number of children born to each woman) has been more or less steadily declining in the US since shortly after the post-WWII baby boom. It stands today at a level (2.01) that is not high enough to replace the existing population (roughly 2.1 is needed to replace the existing population). And the same is true of marriage. The percent of the population that is married is at an all-time low. Women and men are postponing marriage more and more each year. The average age of the spouses of first marriages in the US is now about 29 years old for men, and 27 years old for women, both all-time highs. All this probably has something to do with improved health expectations (40 is the new 30, etc., and infant mortality is at all-time lows). But the age of the spouses, the overall marriage rate, and the number of children each woman bears are inversely correlated to economic development the world over. Marriage and child-rearing seems to economic development the same as belief in God seemed to the Age of Reason—ever more difficult to justify, or at least difficult for heterosexuals to justify. I haven’t the foggiest notion as to why homosexuals are so eager to engage the franchise.
The Census Bureau website describes marriage like a children’s book might, as something that happens “when two people love each other and…” Albert Jay Nock, my favorite superfluity, would say hogwash. He said that love in marriage is no more essential than love among any other type of business partners is essential. Here’s his take on the institution of marriage, from Memoirs of a Superfluous Man:
Regarding marriage as essentially a quasi-industrial partnership, a business enterprise, and then looking over the persons of one’s acquaintance who are engaged in it, one must see, I think, that the distribution of natural aptitude for it is about what it is for other occupations.
Amy and Nick were meant for each other, because neither of them were meant for marriage at all. If you haven’t yet seen the movie, and maybe even if you have, the book is definitely worth a read.