I was just in Boston at a convention, where I had a fabulous time. The con was great and I had one of the best panel experiences of my life: we were on fire, the moderator was excellent, and the audience was engaged and receptive. Boston is also where I did my undergrad degree, so I have a ton of friends and we had so. Much. Fun. Except for one thing…
While I was away, I read Gillian Flyyn’s Gone Girl.
Don’t misunderstand me: the book is wonderfully written, really smart on about 100 levels, and very engaging. It’s also torture to read.
Now, Flynn clearly intended to make her audience squirm. And she achieves her goal. Gone Girl is not a book that you can “like,” it’s too razor sharp, too smart, too cutting.
And lawdie did it cut close to my bones.
There are so many things I could say about this book. I could talk about its critique of our legal system’s increasingly parasitic relationship with celebrity culture. I could talk about it as a literary thriller that challenges & extends genre conventions. Or I could talk about the rich, eloquent language.
But because Gone Girl constantly brings up narcissism, I’m going to focus on what interests me right now. There are three:
1) Must Love Flaws
In many ways, Gone Girl is a traditional love story. Boy meets girl, boy and girl fall head over heels in love, boy and girl realize neither was quite whom the other imagined, and torture ensues. Okay, that last bit is less traditional, but it was Gone Girl as a romantic warning that really shivered me timbers.
Partially that’s because I’ve become a published writer of a character that people really love. I’m so lucky that this is the case; that people feel so much for Jane. But sometimes that adoration seeps over to me and I can tell someone has kinda conflated me and Jane.
On the one hand, there is nothing headier than being adored. On the other hand, however, it’s a lie. I’m not Jane. I’m not a character on a page, defined (literally) in black and white. Instead, I’m a human being: full of flaws, aspirations I won’t ever meet, motivations that are far from worthy, unsavory desires, conservative impulses that bore even myself, etc.
I’m a person. Sometimes awesome, sometimes shitty, and usually somewhere in between.
And this is one of the levels at which I think Gone Girl is so brilliant. It takes this really fundamental desire upon which so many romantic notions are built–this idea that your True Love will See You Instantly, Know You, and Love You From That Minute On–and it reveals how fucked up that is.
I’ve had people fall in love with me in that first minute. Hell, I’ve fallen in love with people in that first minute. And wow, is it heady! To have someone adore you; to have a person like (literally, nowadays, with Facebook) every single thing you think, say, or do; to have a lover see this person who is bigger, smarter, more fabulous than you know you are. Such adoration strokes our ego; it whispers to us, “see, you are amazing, and finally someone sees that.” Even if we manage to ignore those whispers, we can’t help but wonder if the gaseous emissions of this person’s constant yes, you are perfect won’t actually propel us to the state of grace they see in us.
The problem is that it’s all a lie. A dangerous lie, in fact, as Flynn showcases by taking such pedestalizing (I made a word!) to its ultimate extreme. As Flynn warns of trying to live up to someone’s perfect expectations, “it had to stop, because it wasn’t real, it wasn’t me.”
When that moment of reality hits, there is nothing more painful, for either party. To have eyes that once stared at you with pure adoration go hurt, then slowly become cynical, and then fall out of love because you were never the person they loved in the first place…that’s a pain to trump the pleasure of being loved so ardently for someone we never were…
And it’s a pain we very much deserve, for lying to ourselves and accepting what we know is untrue.
The big problem is that we know this. We know, as Flynn writes, “There’s a difference between really loving someone and loving the idea of her.” And yet we do it all the time, because when we cast a person in a role, we get to take on a role ourselves.
2) The Casting Couch
One of the temptations of loving someone is to cast them in a role. Conversely, casting them means we cast ourselves: if they are Romeo, we are Juliet; if they are the President, we are the President’s Wife; if they are the Daredevil, we are the Voice of Reason.
Don’t get me wrong: dating someone who mitigates some of your crazier tendencies or who complements your skills, experiences, and desires, is a fantastic basis for a relationship. There’s no greater pleasure than learning together, or having someone who genuinely challenges you. But there’s a huge difference between the active work of being ambitious in a relationship, of going into a relationship open-minded and interested and engaged, and of expecting someone else to be that thing that finally defines us.
Flynn describes this process beautifully in Gone Girl: “Nick and I fit together. I am a little too much, and he is a little too little. I am a thornbush, bristling from the overattention of my parents, and he is a man of a million fatherly stab wounds, and my thorns fit perfectly into him.”
Reading that passage shows us how this nefarious casting process works. Amy, here, has decided what she is: she is Too Much. I can’t help but hear Lewis Carroll here, lamenting a girl “losing her muchness” as she becomes a woman. But that’s another story. Here, Amy has decided that she is, really, Amazing Amy, her namesake. That means she needs a foil, so Nick becomes Too Little. He can never live up to her, but he can strive. And she gets off on exactly that, the striving: seeing Nick squirm to reach her heights. She belittles him to empower herself, her will to power not only exerting itself but creating an entire narrative to prop itself up. She’s thorns; he’s holes for thorns to fit. In her world, they must be, literally, one – - her thorns shoved into his holes – - to be in love.
Now, Amy is crazy. But lesser versions of this crazy are so tempting. To see the other person as This One Thing That Only I Can Truly Understand/Support/Bring To Fruition. In casting the person as something that depends upon us or upon which we depend, we take the foil’s role: we are the beautiful needy or the strong and supportive. Suddenly, we are delineated.
We have a role.
And that brings me to my third thing.
3) Get Your Own Fucking Dreams, Thanks.
One thing that hit home for me the most from Gone Girl was the mutual parasitism of Amy and Nick’s dreams, and how brilliantly Flynn took what can be The Whole Point (For Real!) Of A Relationship and twisted it to show how it so often goes wrong.
And that’s because everyone needs to have their own fucking dream.
I’m lucky. I have some super solid goals that I’m working towards. This fact makes me a pretty happy person, I think. It makes me feel grounded and yet striving at the same time. But every once in a while I meet someone who does the ultimate version of points 1 and 2, and tries to make my dreams their own.
In other words, they’re going to take charge of my career. Be my muse. Help me get to that “next level.” They’re going to Svengali me out of this stratosphere.
My response: Get your own fucking dream.
Again, don’t get me wrong. I love being supported. I feel so warm and fuzzy when my lover does something kind to help me, or is genuinely interested in my work. And if someone I really cared about actually read my book, I would probably cry, then do something unspeakably filthy as a reward. Conversely, I love supporting my partner. I am a disturbingly nurturing person for a woman who doesn’t want to have kids. I will bend over backwards for the people I love.
But I leave their dreams to them.
I’ll help, sure. I’ll be enthusiastic when they need impractical support. I’m also up for practical support: I’ll brainstorm, lend elbow grease, bring them dinner or clean their house. I’ll get as involved as they need me to be, when they need me. And then I’m gonna step back when they don’t.
Because we need our own dreams. In attempting to co-opt someone’s dream (“WOW! I had no idea I actually wanted to run a writer’s retreat until I met you but now it’s my dream too!” or “I’ll go ahead and take over building your business because you’ll be happy and we’ll be together all the time and united!”) we take away something sacred to them. We also push our own dreams aside, letting a false dream, a coo coo’s dream, nest in our own soul.
And just like when that person realizes we’re not perfect, either they must one day realize “Oops, this isn’t really my dream,” or we realize, “Shit, what happened to my dream?”, or both.
So get your own dreams, folks. For your sake as well as your partner’s. Otherwise, you might one day say something like Amy: “But one day I will wear him down, I will catch him off guard, and he will lose the energy for the nightly battle, and he will get in bed with me. In the middle of the night, I’ll turn to face him and press myself against him. I’ll hold myself to him like a climbing, coiling vine until I have invaded every part of him and made him mine.”
Flynn created twin monsters in Amy and Nick, yes. But in my final estimation, the reason they bother people so much isn’t that they’re so farfetched. It’s because there’s a little of both of them in all of us, as well as in our cultural narratives. We’ve alternately wanted to be that vine that winds, or the cavernous emptiness it fills.
We’re all a little Nick and Amy.