“The ones who are not soul-mated – the ones who have settled – are even more dismissive of my singleness: It’s not that hard to find someone to marry, they say. No relationship is perfect, they say – they, who make do with dutiful sex and gassy bedtime rituals, who settle for TV as conversation, who believe that husbandly capitulation – yes, honey, okay, honey – is the same as concord. He’s doing what you tell him to do because he doesn’t care enough to argue, I think. Your petty demands simply make him feel superior, or resentful, and someday he will fuck his pretty, young coworker who asks nothing of him, and you will actually be shocked.
Give me a man with a little fight in him, a man who calls me on my bullshit. (But who also kind of likes my bullshit.) And yet: Don’t land me in one of those relationships where we’re always pecking at each other, disguising insults as jokes, rolling our eyes and ‘playfully’ scrapping in front of our friends, hoping to lure them to our side of an argument they could not care less about. Those awful if only relationships: This marriage would be great if only… and you sense the if only list is a lot longer than either of them realizes.
So I know I am right not to settle, but it doesn’t make me feel better as my friends pair off and I stay home on Friday night with a bottle of wine and make myself an extravagant meal and tell myself, This is perfect, as if I’m the one dating me. As I go to endless rounds of parties and bar nights, perfumed and sprayed and hopeful, rotating myself around the room like some dubious dessert. I go on dates with men who are nice and good-looking and smart – perfect-on-paper men who make me feel like I’m in a foreign land, trying to explain myself, trying to make myself known. Because isn’t that the point of every relationship: to be known by someone else, to be understood? He gets me. She gets me. Isn’t that the simple magic phrase?
So you suffer through the night with the perfect-on-paper man – the stutter of jokes misunderstood, the witty remarks lobbed and missed. Or maybe he understands that you’ve made a witty remark but, unsure of what to do with it, he holds it in his hand like some bit of conversational phlegm he will wipe away later. You spend another hour trying to find each other, to recognise each other, and you drink a little too much and try a little too hard. And you go home to a cold bed and think, That was fine. And your life is a long line of fine.”
― Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl
According to Anthony Lane, there are approximately “twenty-one people” who haven’t read Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl.” I’m one of them. This past weekend, when I saw the movie, I liked it so much that I felt sad about missing out on the book when it was published, two years ago. At the same time, “Gone Girl” seemed like one of those experiences to which the “cultural uncertainty principle” applies: you can read the book or you can see the movie, but you can’t fully embrace both versions, because they’ll occupy the same brain-space, obscuring one another. Basically, you have to choose an experience. The upside of my choice is that I enjoyed Fincher’s film on its own terms, in all its abstract, intellectual, postmodern glory.
The book version of “Gone Girl,” so I’ve heard, is a crime novel: an absorbing, ingenious thriller in which, halfway through, a big twist upends everything. (Spoiler alert: I plan to discuss that twist below.) Among the book’s many virtues, I’m told, is its concreteness. It’s not that the book is plausible, exactly, but that it’s full of texture and detail, both forensic and psychological. The events in the book make sense; the voices, thoughts, and actions of Nick and Amy seem like they could belong to real people.
None of that is true of David Fincher’s “Gone Girl.” Gillian Flynn may have written the screenplay, but the film is not interested in being convincing as a crime story. The movie crosses the thin line that divides genre fiction from postmodern fiction; it is decisively unreal, in the manner of “Fight Club”—a movie in which the actual and the symbolic occupied the same slice of reality. Its characters are ciphers, its setting is perfunctory, and its violence is stylized. “Gone Girl” is what the critic Ted Gioia calls a “postmodern mystery”: it lets us luxuriate in the “reassuring heritage” of the traditional mystery, which feels like it’s building toward a tidy solution, even while we enjoy “the fun of toppling it over and watching the pieces fall where they may.”
As in many postmodern narratives, the heroes and villains in Fincher’s “Gone Girl” aren’t people but stories. We hope that the familiar, reassuring ones will win out (they don’t). In fact, the film is so self-aware that none of the stories it tells can be taken at face value. As my colleague Richard Brody has written, the movie’s drama and characters have been streamlined so as to reveal their “underlying mythic power.” But “Gone Girl” is also anti-myth. When Amy (Rosamund Pike) says, of her plot against her husband, Nick (Ben Affleck), “That’s marriage,” you’re not supposed to believe her. If the myth of the perfect marriage is poisonous, then so is the myth of the continual “war of the sexes.” The question the movie asks is: Are there any stories that we can tell ourselves about marriage that ring true?
If that question sounds familiar, that’s because, in some ways, with “Gone Girl,” Fincher has returned to the structures of “Fight Club,” substituting a married couple for Tyler Durden and his gaggle of disenchanted bros. In both stories, the characters rebel against the unbearable myth of attainable perfection, substituting for it an alternative one of transcendent, authentic, freedom-giving destruction. “Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need,” Tyler Durden says. “We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars, but we won’t.” Durden’s response to his disillusionment with contemporary masculinity is to embrace a seductive, violent, and supposedly more genuine idea of “real” manliness—but that alternative turns out to be a disastrous illusion. In “Gone Girl,” it’s the mythos of coupledom, not the mythos of masculinity, that’s oppressive. But the imagined solution is the same: “We’re so cute I want to punch us in the face,” Amy says.
“Gone Girl,” in a sense, is “Fight Club” squared. To explore the positive and negative sides of the manliness myth, Fincher had only to propose a single character, a man with a “disassociated” personality (Brad Pitt’s enraged Tyler Durden is the alter ego of Edward Norton’s unnamed, milquetoast protagonist). “Gone Girl” demands two bifurcated people, each of whom must play both the victim and the aggressor. And the mythos of coupledom is more complex and troubled than the mythos of manliness. Even back in 1999, when “Fight Club” came out, there was something trumped-up and artificial about the idea that men were experiencing a crisis of masculine disenchantment. (The urgency of that crisis, if it did exist, certainly seems to have faded.) Coupledom, on the other hand, is and remains genuinely fraught territory. While our cultural imagination no longer fixates on the Great War or the Western frontier, the idea of the perfect couple (and, especially, the perfect wife) is still alive and well.
“Gone Girl” is fascinating because it gets at what is unsettling about coupledom: our suspicion that, in some fundamental sense, it necessarily entails victimization. Just as “Fight Club” showed that manliness and violence were imaginatively inseparable, “Gone Girl” raises the possibility that marriage and victimhood are inseparable, too. In real life, this is a widespread suspicion, sometimes justified, sometimes not. We’re more aware than ever of the prevalence of hidden domestic abuse; we’re cognizant of the widespread unfairness of the economic arrangements between men and women. We understand that marriages that look respectable can also hide a lot. At the same time, 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. To be in a couple, in short, is to be in a power relationship. And in power relationships, there are always winners and losers.
“Gone Girl” is especially good because it digs beneath these more-or-less legitimate concerns, exposing the irrational side of our fear of coupledom. In real life, as in the film, the tabloid media can’t wait to describe the home of every perfect couple as a lurid crime scene, haunted by cruelty, infidelity, and wickedness. “Gone Girl”—spoiler alert!—pulls the curtain back on the Victorian fears that drive those tabloid suspicions. When Amy is kidnapped by Desi Collings (Neil Patrick Harris), her wealthy ex-boyfriend, and locked up in his castle-like lake house, we get an old-style Gothic plot of female imprisonment. When it’s revealed that Amy has framed Nick, we get a classic tale about a manipulative, wicked woman who traps a hapless man in her web. These archetypal, gendered fantasy stories, the film suggests, contribute just as much to our suspicions about coupled life as our supposedly modern concerns about, say, work-life balance. Fincher’s “Gone Girl,” in its best scenes, travels all the way down into the id, revealing these inherited fears in sexy, bloody, sensational detail.
There’s a reason, of course, why the first rule of Fight Club is not to talk about Fight Club. It’s that the lurid core of our imaginative lives is best kept secret. When you see your dark fantasies realized in the light of day, there’s something absurd about them. And there’s something shameful, too: it becomes obvious that they’re rooted, to some degree, in narcissism. To be the victim of a manipulative madwoman, or to be abducted into a Gothic lair, is to suffer, but it’s also to be special, a hero or a heroine in your own way. That’s partly why we’re fascinated with stories of victimhood—and why, especially in tabloid, cable-news culture, we endow victims with specialness, sanctity, and celebrity. “Gone Girl” asks whether genuine expressions of sympathy or solidarity with victims can ever happen without being infected by the politicized, media-enabled “cult of victimhood.” But it also digs a tunnel from that “cult” to our suspicions about marriage. Ordinarily, our concerns about the unfair compromises of married life seem entirely separate from our unseemly fascination with lurid, violent, Gothic victimization. But, in “Gone Girl,” those two imaginative mindsets are shown to be connected, perhaps even identical. Modern gender politics and Gothic fear are mixed together.
“Gone Girl” is a fantasy, of course, and it takes place in a dream world, not reality. Leaving the theatre, you have to ask yourself how connected these ideas are in real life. And you can’t miss the fact that, fundamentally, “Gone Girl” is a farce. There is no real crime or horror in the Dunne household. Amy and Nick hurt one another, but in unexceptional ways; Nick’s affair with a sexy student—Emily Ratajkowski, of the “Blurred Lines” music video—is played for comedy. In fact, it’s the creation of a heightened atmosphere of suspicion around those banal “crimes” that leads, eventually, to the real ones. Maybe “Gone Girl” is just playing around—making up, rather than finding, connections within our imaginative lives.
The same sort of question could be asked about “Fight Club,” too: Do young men really think that growing comfortable with violence is the only way to make sense of themselves? Surely that movie overstates things—but that doesn’t mean it isn’t onto something. Should “Gone Girl” convince you that our contemporary skepticism about marriage is rooted, ultimately, in our lurid, misguided, communal fantasy life? No. That said, sometimes you need a big pair of pliers to turn a tiny bolt. “Gone Girl” has resonated for a reason. It has found a creepy, confused, and troubling part of us, and expressed it.