“America Loves Pregnant Women”: On GONE GIRL, the Justice System, and Likable Characters

My wife and I went to see Gone Girl. (ICYMI: Mystery film about a woman who disappears. It sorta looks like her husband did it; then it doesn’t. Based on a well-regarded bestseller, which I haven’t read, by the screenplay’s author, Gillian Flynn. Every kind of spoiler ahead.)

It was OK. The plot is fairly ingenious, though Flynn and Fincher’s film shares with the works of Christopher Nolan and (sometimes) Stephen Moffatt, among other auteurs of our plot-twist-obsessed age, a certain carelessness as to how seamless the gnarled fabric will appear once it’s stretched out complete. My wife and I both appreciated the liberal helping of cynicism that the film applies to our country’s justice system, which deserves it; but I found some of the dialogue unbelievable, in a nobody-speaks-in-Twitter-ready-aphorisms sort of way. And holy shit, is this film ever misanthropic. As we left the theatre, I thought of my favorite David Fincher movie and remarked to my wife, “Zodiac had a richer and more complicated view of human nature and that was literally a movie about the Zodiac Killer.

What continues to nag at me, however, is how concerned this mass-audience popcorn crime film is with American literary politics. Three major characters are writers. The missing woman, Amy Elliott Dunne, lent her name and (more or less) her likeness to a popular series of kids’ books by her father; in adulthood she has come to resent his continuing “plagiarism” of her life. Her husband Nick, meanwhile, writes for men’s magazines, and, in the film, one token of his decline, and of the souring of their marriage’s initial promise, is his abandonment of the novel that he’s meant to be working on. We hardly see anyone in this movie read, or get any sense at all of how books have formed Amy and Nick as people, but we know that Nick aspires to the prestige of “writing a novel,” and that Amy loses a chunk of her faith in him when he gives up on it. But most of all, Amy herself is a writer. As the film reveals, she has stage-managed her own disappearance and the public’s reaction to it with the masterful, manipulative cynicism of a Michael Bay or a Dan Brown; she has constructed a potboiling real-life melodrama, on the Scott and Laci Peterson model, that succeeds in ensnaring the entire country. She has written an airport bestseller with real people in it. And in the course of this metaphorical “writing” she does plenty of actual writing: the “clues,” supposedly part of an annual scavenger-hunt that she does every anniversary, that point the police toward her husband, and an entire forged diary, among other things. Amy supposedly hates her husband, but she hates her audience more. The film’s voice-over contains many little asides on the manipulability of the American public, and Amy meditates obsessively on the “likability” that allows her so to manipulate. This subject, in turn, gets picked up on by her husband and his defense attorney, who coaches Nick on how to grieve for the camera. (The film is nowhere truer than in its insistence that unlikability on the stand and in interviews will send an innocent person to jail.) At one point, we learn that Amy has gone to great trouble faking a surprise pregnancy, all because: why? Because “America loves a pregnant woman.”

So here we have two Manhattanite media professionals, one of them the daughter of a publishing fixture, talking on and on about… likability. The word jumped out at me, because “likability,” and literary characters’ having it or not having it, was the grounds on which we play-acted one of the louder recent revivals of that ongoing Punch and Judy show, Low Art vs. High Art. (Nick and Amy are just the types of people you can imagine forwarding Slate thinkpieces on this very subject to each other, with snarky asides added.) It’s a fake debate for hundreds of reasons: because it’s conducted at a level of vague abstraction so high as to amount to mystification; because, like so many American fights, it’s a Goliath-vs.-David campaign in which wealthy and powerful Goliath has gotten hit on the head a few times and started thinking he’s little, powerless David; because it’s premised on the false assumption that knowing recognized classics of literature confers half as much social capital, in most everyday encounters, than being up-to-date with reality shows and “edgy cable dramas”; because the important distinction is between good books and shitty ones, not between genres; because genres, anyway, aren’t the same as bookstore categories like “literary fiction”; because everyone ultimately knows this, and then promptly forgets that fact so that we can have another round of thinkpieces;  because it’s all about the fucking pageviews anyway; etc. It’s a fake debate, and so was the debate over “likable” characters in novels, which, you’ll remember, began when a famous author of romantic comedies attacked other, less famous writers, most of them female, for having the audacity to create characters that this particular writer didn’t like. She beat this drum hard for several years, to the point where other female writers, including some of her targets, began to push back mildly, in interviews, against the idea that every literary character should be likable. Whereupon this same writer—and this shit is so juvenile and trivial and insincere on all sides that it’s depressing even writing about it, but bear with me a moment—this same writer then complained that said female writers, who resisted the demand that every character be likable, were using “unlikability” as a mean-spirited coded way of attacking other women writers. (The idea! What woman writer would want to do that, besides the famous woman writer of romantic comedies who started this shit in the first place?)

Now there are many reasons to like a character, and many ways to be interested that have nothing to do with liking. Do I “like” Hamlet? Do I “like” Isabel Archer? Does it even come up? I find Isabel’s disappointments almost too crushing to bear, and I’m pretty sure, if I met her at a party, that I’d find her insufferable. I find enormous significance in Hamlet’s careen through life, and I know that my reaction to meeting him in the flesh would be the same as King Claudius’s: Lighten the fuck up, willya? Liking is a valid way to respond to a fictional character, but it’s obviously not the only way. Claiming that a fictional character should be likable is like claiming food should be tangy or that color should be peagreen.

I’m afraid, when I hear “likability” rhetoric, that what at least some readers are really demanding is a very particular kind of story: in fact, the kind of story Amy constructs. It follows a well-used sensational archetype—mysterious disappearance, smug husband, thorough comeuppance. The good person survives (or at least gets remembered prettily) and the bad person is punished. The bad person is just as important as the “likable” one. The other side of the demand for lead characters who are “likable” is always that someone else, usually the antagonist, be “unlikable,” preferably demonic. Because sometimes likability isn’t about characters at all; it’s about our desire to have flattering vessels in which to pour our empathy and identification, to give those qualities an appealing shape. “Likable characters” are those who, when we identify with them, allow us to like ourselves better. They’re like Superman, back before comes went all grim-n-gritty. “Unlikable characters,” meanwhile, are those who reinforce, via their persecution of the likable main character, our sense of secret superiority to those around us.

To a large degree, Gone Girl turns out to be about the American justice system and its for-profit media arm (televised trials, endless clueless punditry, Nancy Grace), and these institutions’ skill in purveying and then critiquing the effectiveness of self-righteously sentimental, manipulative, one-dimensional commercial fictions. To this extent, and only to this extent, it is a critique of such fictions.

This was fascinating not only because of its implied relationship to the livelihoods and social worlds of its writer-characters, but because of the role Gone Girl, the book, itself seemed to play in the whole high-vs.-low conversation. It was one of those books, like Lev Grossman’s Magician novels or the Harry Potter books, that showed how “literary” a “genre” book could be. (Who didn’t already know this? Nobody, but we’re constantly discovering it anyway, like the Gnostic Gospels.) Gone Girl was, like, deep, man, but also involving and racy, a page-turner, qualities supposedly lacking in the daily diets of “serious” readers. (The most intimidatingly well-read critics in America are, almost to a person, fans of hardboiled fiction, and the only trait that our best-regarded experimental writers have in common is an obsession with fucking that would scandalize a thirteen-year-old boy, but sure, whatever.) It was a smart, improving book that wouldn’t strain your poor brain muscles. It was, in fact, the Cool Literary Novel. It was a serious book you could belch and watch Adam Sandler movies with.

Again, I haven’t read Gone Girl and can’t assess whether any of this is true. It may be a marvelous novel, or it could be the ugly curio of our era’s internet-enabled misanthropy that Mary Gaitskill describes reading in her excellent review of the book. (Speaking of “literary fiction” writers who could teach you a few things about sex and violence!) So far as the movie is concerned, though, I didn’t buy it. Because as much as it invites us to question our need for “likable” protagonists (real or imagined) plagued by “unlikable” villains, and as much as it invites our contempt for those easily-manipulated rubes who form the audience for this story, it ultimately was such a story. The real hero of Gone Girl is a stubborn, smart, incorruptible, honest cop, who is the first to see through Nick’s good-guy facade and the last to stop trying to show up Amy’s psychotic manipulations. She has no inner life, except being righter than everybody else. In this way, a film that is otherwise so usefully scathing about our justice system yields to our most damaging fantasy about it: the idea that there are, in every town, smart, honest cops who care above all about getting the right person. Such people exist, just as women who make false rape allegations also exist (Amy’s use of such allegations have caused some to call the film, and the novel, misogynist). Both would appear to be very rare. Most cops are overworked and underfunded and will go with the perp they can convict. Because they’re not monsters, they often convince themselves they’re right after the fact, and many of them come to believe they possess a “sixth sense” that allows them to know a bad guy when they see him. (This is also a myth, meaning it’s empirically wrong, and it ruins lives.) But that’s not the same as a Desire for Truth at All Costs; it’s garden-variety confirmation bias. Our love affair with the dogged, pursuing cop is a sentimental melodrama with real consequences. I wish that this film, in every other way so withering, had taken its misanthropy a little further, and made its hero a little less likable.

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