An Uncanny Experience: Reading Gone Girl alongside Oliver James’ The Selfish Capitalist and Britain on the Couch.

In the ‘Staff Daily’ at the school where I work, a recent ‘Thought for the Day’ was something about what we do when we procrastinate being perhaps what we should do more of in our life. Clearly, with Year 11 exam scripts glaring at me from their pile and report deadlines looming, what I have chosen to do before all that is write about Gillian Flynn’s psychological thriller Gone Girl.

gone girl book cover

Gone Girl is narrated in the first person by Flynn’s two protagonists, unhappily-married Nick Dunne and Amy Elliot. Set against the backdrop of America’s post 2008 financial troubles, Flynn’s novel details the lives of Nick and Amy as they meet, fall in love, marry, move into the gorgeous New York brownstone that Amy’s parents buy for them (!!) and have what seems to be, on the surface, a couple of years of a reasonably good time … before both lose their jobs. From thenceforth, Nick moves them both back to his home town in Missouri once he hears that his mother, Maureen, has terminal cancer. From there, the reader is plunged into what can only be described as Midwest Noir. The physical and psychological landscape is somewhere between Capote’s In Cold Blood and David Lynch’s chilling portrayals of suburban menace.

Amy Dunne disappears from the protagonists’ characterless McMansion in a half-deserted housing estate. Her husband Nick is the main suspect. For the first half of the novel, the reader cannot decide whether or not Nick is the likely killer. He does not love Amy. He is having an affair. He is a heavy drinker. He is complacent and – crucially — dishonest, especially with himself. But is he capable of murder?

Gone Girl exhibits our current anxieties in spades: that the GFC and technology have conspired to put out of work whole swathes of the liberally-educated; that our media is a grotesque machine for churning our lurid stories that stoke insecurity and rage but leave us no sense of what the truth really is; that the promise of the post-WWII economic Dream has shrivelled to empty malls, stagnant real wages, high unemployment, vacated ex-urbs and rusting industrial sites.

At the heart of these social and economic fears is a very personal, intimate one: that no matter how much time you spend with your spouse, you may not ever really know them. The first half of the narrative draws on the female fear of male violence from those men closest to them. Most of all, once the plot enacts its ‘twist’, Flynn taps into a long narrative tradition about women and evil. Gone Girl is part of a recurrent idea that women remain essentially inscrutable to their flawed, but essentially ‘good guy’ husbands, and that behind the friendly smile and the offer to make a cooked breakfast lies a villainess plotting to kill you.

Flynn goes deep into the vein of patriarchal images of female villainy that link female violence with their sexuality and roles as mothers: Medea killing her children for vengeance; Lady Macbeth swearing she would “dash the brains” of a baby if she had given her word she would do so. And, yes, a baby makes an appearance in Flynn’s narrative. Beyond that, she contextualises her tale of female psycho-pathology in a landscape that is saturated with stories. Everything her protagonists Amy Elliot or Nick Dunne do is a reference to another narrative: the feminist one of rape victims; the social work one about middle-class domestic violence; the backlash one about men being turned into compliant “dancing monkeys” in their futile efforts to please demanding feminist wives; the other backlash one about the “surrendered wife”; and all of those narratives about crimes and how they are solved and how they play in the media. There is an ‘as-if-ness’ to everything in Nick and Amy’s lives, which seem as manufactured and bereft of context as their neighbourhood.

In setting up the cultural scene of her tale, Flynn piles on layer after layer of irony. Her entire narrative explores the impossibility of authenticity in an ultra-post-modern world where everything is mediated. This feature of the novel adds to the sensation of uncertainty and vertigo it induces in the reader. Nick Dunne and Amy Elliot work as writers at pop-culture magazines that promulgate the consumption ethic and comment on entertainment. When both are put out of work by the triple-whammy of online media, falling sales and the GFC, they are crushed by a sense of failure; they no longer measure up to the idealised image of ‘success’ their erstwhile employer-publications promote. They go from being cute thirty-somethings living in a New York brownstone, to out-of-work nobodies, living in an anonymous McMansion in Missouri. In other words, they go from players in a narrative of upward mobility and success, to victims of the very same values they once identified with.

Nick and Amy acclimatise to their return to Nick’s Missouri hometown very differently. However, they are similar in their patronising assumption that ‘real’ lives and really interesting people are in their forfeited New York. That’s where the main story is – and the Midwest is just ‘flyover’. This is where my reading Gone Girl alongside Oliver James’ work analysing the ills of late-capitalism, The Selfish Capitalist: The Origins of Affluenza and Britain on the Couch: How Keeping up with the Joneses Has Depressed Us Since 1950 was so illuminating and uncanny. While commentators on the novel have pointed out its connection to feminism and the ills of married life, few seem to be prepared to link Amy’s pathology to the contemporary rise in unhealthy social comparison, particularly in its pathological manifestation as clinical narcissism. These are the cultural trends explored in James’s work that make a perfect gloss to Flynn’s text.

In Nick’s account, the move to Missouri disorients Amy because her carefully constructed and competitively maintained persona as “Amazing” (a word used with deadly drollery in Flynn’s novel) has no purchase in their new milieu:

“My wife had a brilliant, popping brain, a greedy curiosity. But her obsessions tended to be fuelled by competition: She needed to dazzle men and jealous-ify women: Of course Amy can cook French cuisine and speak fluent Spanish and garden and knit and run marathons and fly a plane and look like a runway model doing it. She needed to be Amazing Amy, all the time. Here in Missouri, the women shop at Target, they make diligent, comforting meals, they laugh about how little high school Spanish they remember. Competition doesn’t interest them. Amy’s relentless achieving is greeted with open-palmed acceptance and maybe a bit of pity. It was about the worst outcome possible for my competitive wife: A town of contended also-rans.”

Nick adjusts by taking the last of Amy’s trust fund (raided earlier by her feckless parents) to open a bar, knowingly called ‘The Bar’. Meanwhile, Amy tries playacting the role of ‘good wife’ and grateful daughter-in-law to Nick’s wonderful mother, and his misogynist, demented father, who regularly escapes from a comfortless nursing home.

Once Amy goes missing and Nick is a prime suspect, his side of the narrative is caught up in the pantomime of trying to appear ‘right’ to TV viewers. While Amy is relentlessly involved in constructing and maintaining a perfect self-image, Nick is castigated by various characters for failing to understand that one of his chief tasks is to successfully play a role. To the reader, Nick’s reaction to Amy’s disappearance is not quite right – we suspect him – but at the same time, we see how even an innocent man would be forced to play the role of “Innocent Man” under such circumstances.

Amy’s parents, child psychologists (but of course!) have made a mint over the years from a twee children’s book series called “Amazing Amy”. In the books, Amy-as-character does all the things that her parents evidently wishes she would do, too. While the real childhood Amy was a fledgling Queen Bee who ran a “Ponzi scheme” of intimidation among her school peers, the fictional Amy played fair and was reliable and generous. While the real thirty-something Amy is single, her fictional double gets married. Flynn creates a psychological backstory in which Amy has been trained, from early life, to construct a performed identity based on what her parents (and their publishers) want. Exterior perfection counts for all, and it is buffed to a high shine, while the inner life remains dusty and dim. Gone Girl’s sweetly vicious heroine is the embodiment of female empowerment crossed with rampant social competitiveness.

Gone Girl draws its power from several tensions and contradictions in contemporary liberal democracies. We invest in our romantic and marital relationships as a source of fulfilment and meaning in a cold, competitive world. Meanwhile, our rates of divorce and family dysfunction are sky-high. The promise of individual success is held up as more alluring than ever, but the economic realities make this a distant possibility for the majority. The novel paints a world of vanished hope for upward mobility and increased prosperity for all; Nick is a first-generation university graduate from his family, and winds up just where his forebears started.

Another issue, embodied in the eponymous ‘Girl’, is the way in which the hyper-mediated, consumption-driven culture we live in now encourages people to have extremely high expectations for their lifestyle and themselves. As James points out in Britain on the Couch, one of the effects of our living in a media-saturated world, is that the people with whom we compare our lives now includes celebrities, and a cornucopia of images of wealth, status, beauty and success. What’s more, psychological studies show that, at a deep unconscious level, we tend to blur the line between fantasy and reality. Hence, it does not matter that we ‘know’ that fashion images are photo-shopped and that our media give disproportionate time to the rich and beautiful. We still feel inadequate and that we ought to meet these ideals. Gone Girl explores how our quest for self-actualisation and success has grown more intense, just at the historical moment when ordinary people are increasingly exposed to economic ill-winds that make it more and more likely that they will fail. Flynn’s Amy is faced with a choice: either accept her downward mobility and adjust accordingly, or rig reality in such a way that her self-aggrandising image is maintained. Ultimately, the story of Amy Elliot and Nick Dunne is an exploration of how devotion to a particular kind of self-image and consumer-success can become, well, psychotic.

Oliver james selfish capitalist

Gone Girl delivers a satire on the pathological culture of self-regard that is so very evident in Flynn’s characterisation of both her protagonists. In the psychology of the fatally married narcissists that Flynn portrays, the pursuit of the life that they are each ‘entitled’ to, sweeps aside other people’s subjectivities and rights, and indeed, reality. This is the motivation that underwrites Gone Girl’s skewed and nauseating ending.

Both Amy Elliot and her husband, Nick Dunne, are unattractive characters; I did not warm to the self-satisfied husband. Nick seems to think that if he does not get what he wants out of life, then there is no reason why his wife should either, and he certainly could not be expected to exert himself to make her feel valued for herself. Indeed, Amy’s scathing account of his desire to marry a ‘Cool Girl’ was, like the ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’, clearly a male fantasy that does not serve women well. However, I found her creation in ‘Amazing Amy’ a tour de force perversion of feminist ideals. Amy’s ‘feminism’ is nothing less than the demand that she get everything someone as beautiful and accomplished as she clearly ‘deserves’.

Reading Gone Girl alongside the ostensibly unrelated texts by Oliver James, The Selfish Capitalist and Britain on the Couch allowed me to see these patterns in Flynn’s text. James contends that the neo-liberal market policies pursued in largely English-speaking countries since the late 1970s have produced a significant upswing in the rates of psychological distress in those countries. Fuelled by increased job insecurity, longer and more intense working hours, long commutes, increased housing costs, and constant bombardment by marketing messages, James argues that we are seeing higher-rates of emotional distress. These rates include serious mental illness such as schizophrenia and greater rates of anxiety and depression. Intriguingly, we are also seeing increased numbers of sociopaths and narcissists, particularly in the contemporary workplace. Using comparison data from capitalist counties that did not adopt neo-liberal policies (mostly Western Europe) that show lower rates of psychological distress, James argues that the higher rates could be caused by our political and economic environment. Large household debt to fund ever-larger expenses for housing, private schooling and ‘keeping up appearances’ are among the culprits in James’s account, while the lower rates of mental illness in Western Europe, he suggests, are because of structural protections such as welfare and industrial relations laws, as well as cultural tendencies that prioritise non-materialist values.

James draws on research by Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell, whose book The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement outlines evidence that younger Americans are more self-absorbed, but less happy, than previous generations. They, too, think this is a cultural effect (rather than genetic) that has a lot to do with the increased emphasis on success and self-presentation in our world. Their work makes an interesting counter-point to Gone Girl, including its portrayal of the realities of a post-GFC world:

“American culture’s focus on self-admiration has caused a flight from reality to the land of grandiose fantasy. We have phony rich people (with interest-only mortgages and piles of debt), phony beauty (with plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures), phony athletes (with performance-enhancing drugs), phony celebrities (via reality TV and YouTube), phony genius students (with grade inflation), a phony national economy (with 11 trillion dollars of government debt), phony feelings of being special among children (with parenting and education focused on self-esteem), and phony friends (with the social networking explosion). All this fantasy might feel good, but, unfortunately, reality always wins. The mortgage meltdown and the resulting financial crisis are just one demonstration of how inflated desires eventually crash to earth.”

Materialist values favour money, possessions, appearance and fame, and they are at the heart of “Amazing Amy’s” pathology. As Joshua Rothman, of The New Yorker, in his analysis of the Gone Girl phenomenon, writes

“ … our concepts of masculinity and femininity—and of personhood, success, and freedom—have grown less compatible with the compromises of coupled life. The men’s and women’s magazines for which Nick and Amy worked tell us that our ideal selves are urban, maximally attractive, and maximally single, with absolute career freedom, no children, and plenty of time for the gym.”

In other words, not a lot of empathy, compassion, negotiation, or realism – ingredients for relationships. In Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn has written a psychologically sophisticated thriller that prompts a forensic analysis of the cult of personal success.

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