Be Gone, ‘Gone Girl,’ and Never Darken My Brain Again

Gillian Flynn is quoted in one discussion of ‘Gone Girl’ as saying, “my goal was to make spouses look askance at each other.” How charming of her. So she set out to write something that made people distrust their partner? Okay then. That’s not weird at all.

At some point, I am going to read something I like and then write a really over-the-top sonnet about it. There will be glowing metaphors and a truly delightful couplet at the end. People will probably use it as a reading in their weddings. Clinton Cards will steal my words to put on Valentine’s cards (actually, is Clinton Cards still a thing? Never mind). Sadly, ‘Gone Girl’ is not the book to inspire this act of devotion. Because ‘Gone Girl’ is a nasty, misogynistic, misanthropic little book and doesn’t even have the good grace to actually be that little: 430 pages of this was a bit too much to take.

I don’t think you have to like the characters you’re reading about. Sometimes it is far more entertaining to hate them. But, seriously, is there a more unlikeable pair in literature than Nick and Amy Dunne? Both of them have a relentless and exhausting capacity to bang on about themselves and how brilliant/sad/misunderstood they are; really they’re just horrible people who deserve each other. The parallel narrative is a technique that’s just been done to death now; here, it is at least effective, if only in highlighting that these two vile characters have met their soulmate. The shift from Amy’s diary to her ‘real’ narrative is one of the novel’s big reveals and it works in terms of providing a big twist, but, for me, Amy was nearly as despicable before she turned out to be a ‘psycho bitch’ (a phrase delightfully employed repeatedly). We get it, Amy; you really hate all other women and are just massively superior to all of them. Well done; that’s clearly shaped you into a lovely person.  Not to mention the sense of entitlement you feel in relation to your parents; again, well done.

I note from a quick Google search that accusations of misogyny have been thrown at ‘Gone Girl,’ as well as Flynn’s other novels. The casual nature of it is what troubled me. In her diaries, when Amy is trying to present herself as the perfect wife and innocent victim, she happily dismisses women as idiots, annoyingly claiming, “it’s a very female thing, isn’t it, to take one boys’ night and snowball it into a marital infidelity?” Because, obviously, ALL WOMEN ARE EXACTLY THE SAME. When she begins to tell the more truthful version of her story, she comes out with this beautiful analysis of her gender’s place in society: “it’s easy to like pregnant women – they’re like ducklings or bunnies or dogs.” Lovely. Not that men are presented particularly nicely either. Flynn’s message here seems to be that all women are crazy and all men are cheats. I bet her husband, who she had only recently married when the novel was published, loved that.

There’s just so much in ‘Gone Girl’ to dislike. Nick seems to think that any unpleasant quality he has comes from his father, whose Alzheimer’s apparently manifests itself solely in calling women ‘bitches.’ It is no real surprise to the reader that everything Amy has ever told everyone is a lie; not because she’s a ‘psycho bitch’ but because, clearly, people just tell massive lies all the time. A key detail in the gradual discovery of Amy’s real nature is her accusation of date rape against an ex-boyfriend; the novel labours on the issue of husbands always being persecuted by the police and media when their wives go missing, but Flynn appears not to have similar sympathy for the women whose reports of rape go uninvestigated and their attackers unpunished.

And this is the main problem with ‘Gone Girl.’ Amy is clearly unhinged, unpleasant and entirely unlikeable. But she’s also basically motiveless. Yes, Nick cheats on her; setting him up for her murder is something of an over-reaction, no? Yes, Desi is clearly a bit obsessed with her; was murdering him really necessary? And don’t get me started on the whole turkey-baster situation at the end. Amy is a completely unbelievable character, even amongst Flynn’s desire to assert some weird version of feminism in which women can be evil too. Because that’s what women burned their bras for, obviously. Her emergence as the ‘psycho bitch’ is completely reductive (to use a word beloved of all pretentious people); 430 pages of the marriage breakdown, plotting against Nick and executing the plan are wasted when Flynn is then happy to present her as a basic common-or-garden lunatic.

I can’t bear to even think about this horrible book any more. I will not be looking askance at my spouse but will be very suspicious of the words ‘New York Times Bestseller’ in future.

‘11.22.63’ or How Aslan Could Have Saved JFK

Spoiler alert!  But you should read ‘Libra’ by Don Delillo instead of ‘11.22.63’ anyway.  So don’t be sad.

It is at least partly my fault that ’11.22.63’ by Stephen King annoyed me so much. Labouring under the misapprehension that this lengthy novel was about what might have happened if JFK hadn’t been assassinated on the eponymous date (which, by the way, is clearly a horrible title), I expected an intriguing tale of Oswald being thwarted and a utopian USA emerging as a result. Clearly, this is what happens when you don’t read the synopsis properly. Rather than the ‘counter-factual’ novel I expected, it quickly became clear that ’11.22.63’ is a time travel tale: something I really prefer to avoid altogether. I can’t think of a novel of this kind in which the logistics of time travel are satisfactorily explained, and this was no different.

The narrator, Jake Epping, is essentially a cipher for the story King wants to tell, which is not the worst criticism to throw at a work of fiction, but it makes his decision to attempt to change history and sacrifice large parts of his own life – not least, the five years he’ll have to stay in what is annoyingly referred to as ‘the Land of Ago’ – quite baffling. He doesn’t know much about American or world history and his frequent excuse of ‘I’m an English teacher’ is, frankly, stupid. I’m an English teacher too; this does not mean I don’t know anything about any other subjects (apart from physics, obviously). Jake has little holding him in the present, but this is probably because he is fundamentally too dull for anyone to want to be his friend, apart from people who are already dying and won’t have to put up with him for long. Throughout the novel, as he meets the people of the past and does stupid things like asking for medication which hasn’t been invented yet or singing the lyrics to songs yet to be written, he seems to spend the whole time with one eyebrow raised, willing someone to ask, ‘but are you from the future, Mr Amberson?’ It is rather like the time a touring musical came to York and its stars – Noel from Hearsay, one of Steps and the little one from S Club 7, if you’re wondering – walked around town in sunglasses and lowered caps, desperate for someone to recognise them and, I don’t know, do a dance routine at them or something. Jake, or George, as he calls himself in Ago-land, seems so eager for someone to notice how brilliant and special he is – why else does he drop incredibly outlandish bets with bookies who everyone else seems to know are mobsters? – that he might as well be wearing a sandwich board declaring, ‘I COME FROM 2011! ASK ME ANYTHING AS LONG AS IT’S ABOUT NOVELLAS OR SOMETHING CALLED ‘THEMES’ WHICH I AM APPARENTLY OBSESSED WITH!’

This feels very cathartic. This book has been annoying me for a whole week. Does it show?

’11.22.63’ is a very long novel. It is also, in large parts, not very interesting. Jake/George/90s pop has-been spends an annoyingly long time complaining about how crap Dallas is (the city, not the TV programme. Although, given his propensity for accidentally mentioning things that haven’t happened yet in the 1960s, it is a miracle he doesn’t start humming the theme tune and asking people who shot J.R.) and explaining how to swing dance. The romantic sub-plot soon becomes the sole plot and, charming as it is, I couldn’t help but wonder whether Jake wouldn’t have been better off, you know, actually killing Lee Harvey Oswald instead of fannying about directing the school play and using ‘poundcake’ as a really creepy euphemism. When he finally does get off his arse to do what he came to the past to do, there doesn’t seem to be enough of the novel left for things to be resolved in a non-annoying way.

And then there’s all the nonsense about the past being ‘obdurate’ and placing – or, more appropriately given the events described – launching obstacles in Jake’s not-particularly-motivated path. Ooh, a crazy ex-husband. Oh no, diarrhoea. Gasp, an angry bookie with a name that makes it quite clear he’s going to be a baddie (come on – Akiva? In a book where everyone seems to be called George? Ooh, subtle). By the time Jake can be bothered to try to stop Oswald (half an hour before he’s going to shoot the president; presumably he tells his students not to leave their assignments till the last minute, and so he is not only a tiresome procrastinator but also a hypocrite), the past is being particularly obdurate and, if any of the bystanders were also time travellers and had happened to see ‘Speed’ or the last twenty minutes of ‘Con Air,’ they would be feeling a strange sense of déjà vu. It’s a shame I was so annoyed by the book by that point, as all the transport mishaps might have bordered on exciting without all the waffling before. Okay, Stephen, we get it: stuff was really cheap in 1963. Let’s all move on now. It is also at this point that ’11.22.63’ gets really mawkish, which is understandable but something that surely must have tried the patience of other readers too.

As for the question of ‘what might have happened if JFK hadn’t died?’, the answer, according to King, is ‘every single awful thing you can imagine.’ Yes, everyone; if JFK had lived, One Direction would be even more popular. And we’d all be speaking Martian. Actually, the three pages in which Jake finds out why he appears to have returned to the fictional ‘1984’ instead of his actual 2011 are the most interesting in the whole novel. Although I do wonder what King has against Paul McCartney. And plate tectonics.

Finally, I come to the thing that annoyed me most about this novel. To get to the past, one goes through a pantry. However long you stay in the past, it is only two minutes later when you return to the present. While through the wardrobe… oops, I mean ‘pantry’… you may encounter a friendly fawn and some hospitable beavers, before a really cool lion gets involved. What’s that, Stephen King? You didn’t just rip the whole thing off from ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’? Yeah, right.  Aslan would definitely have finished off Oswald and wouldn’t have got amnesia at the crucial moment either. 

I was going to read ‘The Time Machine’ next, but Jake Epping and his rambling on for 600 pages has put me right off. It might be safer to read ‘The Gruffalo’ instead. I would be genuinely interested in the views of anyone else who has read ’11.22.63.’ If anyone else survived the experience…

‘Oh strawberries don’t taste like they used to and the thighs of women have lost their clutch!’ A Love Letter to Steinbeck’s ‘East of Eden’

‘East of Eden’ is really old and is hardly ‘The Sixth Sense.’ So I am going to liberally sprinkle this with spoilers. Really, how likely are you to read this book if you haven’t already? Having said that, it is epic in both senses of the word so you probably should.

Here is my shocking confession. Forgive me, Mr Steinbeck, for I have sinned. I don’t actually like ‘Of Mice and Men.’ Yes, it’s emotionally affecting; yes, it’s a really good text to teach in a hurry and isn’t that hard to understand; yes, it is good when Curley’s hand gets crushed. But, my god, isn’t it really boring and repetitive? The first time I taught it, everything was fine. We were at least halfway through before the phrase ‘animal imagery’ began to make us want to die. But subsequent experiences of ploughing through George and Lennie and the bloody rabbits have left me cold. Apparently, Steinbeck left the first manuscript of ‘Of Mice and Men’ in the house with a puppy and came home to find it destroyed. I have two theories here: the first is that this puppy was very intelligent, read the book and thought, ‘mate, nobody wants to read this many adverbs.’ The second is that this first draft was 800 pages long and included – I’m just guessing here – character development and maybe more than one woman, but, upon discovering the naughty puppy’s exploits, Steinbeck couldn’t be arsed rewriting the whole thing and knocked the version we all know and love out in about an hour. I do not shed any tears for the removal of ‘Of Mice and Men’ from the GCSE syllabus. There are only so many times you can say ‘and this is like the Great Depression’ before you start to experience one yourself.

However, I vividly remember enjoying ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ as a teenager (before I put myself through 100 pages of ‘I’ve got you and you’ve got me, Lennie’ – incidentally, does anyone else find themselves doing the moves to S Club 7’s ‘Reach’ while reading ‘Of Mice and Men’?) and recently developed a weird urge to read something by Steinbeck that would restore my faith.

And ‘East of Eden’ certainly did that. It is difficult to truly express how good bits of this novel are. My enjoyment can be essentially summed up in two words: Cathy Ames. I became obsessed with her before Steinbeck had even revealed her name; the chapter in which she is introduced begins, ‘I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents’ and this precedes a wordy but compelling discussion of what makes a human a monster. We are told, ‘there was a time when a girl like Cathy would have been called possessed by the devil;’ okay, it’s not exactly ambiguous, but, when Steinbeck compares her to a witch, he doesn’t disappoint. Cathy’s crimes range throughout the novel: the murder of her parents; the deliberate entrapment of Adam Trask, prior to marrying him then shooting him and leaving him to care for the twin boys, who, incidentally, are probably his brother’s sons anyway; the kind of manipulation of the elderly which you might see being decried by Dominic Littlewood on BBC daytime classic ‘Saints and Scroungers’, before torturing and killing her victim, then assuming control of her brothel… Cathy really is a busy bee. Critics complain about the lack of ambiguity in Steinbeck’s presentation of Cathy, but is it really so important for a character to show shades of grey? And, in any case, Cathy is a more complex character than the out-and-out monster she initially seems. There are question marks over the veracity of stories of her childhood promiscuity and there can be no doubt that her final moments in the novel see her tortured by fear and doubt – albeit fear that someone will discover her crimes, rather than fear that they make her a bad person. Cathy knows she’s bad and she doesn’t care; in fact, she loves it. Her horrors are perpetrated sober, too; a girl after my own heart, Cathy cannot handle her drink and suffers from serious lack of filter with a bit of bubbly inside her. Let this be a lesson to all those who try to force me to drink instead of just leaving me alone with my tap water…

For me, ‘East of Eden’ came alive when Cathy was introduced, but what precedes her first appearance is compelling too. Cyrus Trask and his venereal disease (a recurring theme throughout, it must be said); the tragic way in which Steinbeck describes his first wife’s puddle-based suicide (also a consequence of venereal disease); the rivalry between Cyrus’ two sons (unless it was very subtle, there was no venereal disease here) – it makes for a more fascinating start than the first few pages of ‘here are some mountains…here is a tree…ooh, another mountain’ would suggest. Cyrus and his sons – Adam and Charles – are all intriguing and rounded characters whose actions resonate throughout the novel; it is, perhaps, a shame that it is Adam who survives the longest as he is slightly dull, but in a nice way. Sort of like Gary Lineker but obsessed with lettuce instead of crisps.

I’ve mentioned the lack of subtlety on show and that is something that provides a slight irritation at the beginning and end of the novel. I suppose you can hardly be surprised that, with a title like ‘East of Eden,’ Steinbeck wants his reader to draw some religious parallels. As with the itinerant workers of ‘Of Mice and Men,’ a large number of the men here seem obsessed with living off ‘the fatta the lan’,’ attempting to create their own Eden in the Salinas Valley. Even with my highly limited knowledge of the Bible (apparently Steinbeck’s favourite book – it’s okay, they didn’t have ‘Fever Pitch’ then), I clocked onto the fact that the brothers who appeared to hate each other and their names (Adam and Charles, Aron and Cal) were probably an oblique reference to Cain and Abel. Although none of them actually kill each other, there is at least one nasty attempt. The relationships between siblings, fathers and sons, father figures and surrogate sons form the background of the novel and this does give rise to some nice moments. Quite partial to a literary family saga, I enjoyed this aspect of ‘East of Eden.’ It would be nice if mothers and sisters were given something more interesting to do than just dying, but I suppose you can’t have everything.

Dying is something that happens a lot in the novel. In fairness, it is very long, takes place over a lengthy period of time and there are a lot of characters. But it did feel like all that happened in the last 100 pages was people getting letters to tell them someone had died. Sometimes variety is provided through the use of a telegram instead, and that added some real excitement.

My only real moan about ‘East of Eden’ is Lee, who is a particularly annoying character who somehow becomes really integral to everyone’s lives in the last third of the novel, thanks to his position as house-keeper, au pair and all-round pain in the arse in Adam’s household. He is the literary equivalent of that person who corners you at work to tell you they’ve just sent you an email and then tells you at length what’s in the email. I basically wanted to reach into the narrative, grab him by his feet and drag him out to poke him in the eye and tell him to shut up. He seems to spend about half the book having deep, ponderous conversations about the use of one word in the Bible; the word is ‘timshel,’ in case you’re wondering, and the only effect this had on me was to make me think about a really dull Mumford and Sons song, which is probably not the effect Steinbeck had in mind. At one point, Lee starts an anecdote with the words, ‘I’ll keep it very short,’ and then is still talking a week and a half later. You could watch ‘Django Unchained’ twice in the time it takes him to tell this story. Okay, it’s a fairly dramatic story of how his mother had to pretend to be a man while pregnant and how this ended in a particularly horrible way. But by this point, you do wish someone had sent one of those telegrams I mentioned about him rather than any of the more interesting and less verbose characters.

Although nearly everything in the novel is basically amazing – apart from Lee, obviously – it is almost a shame it isn’t a bit shorter. Generations of children have probably read ‘Of Mice and Men’ and then never felt inclined to read anything else by Steinbeck, but ‘East of Eden’ offers far more varied plotline, an actual fully-realised female character who does more than just wear red and talk about being in ‘pitchers’ and some exquisite language which I would have enjoyed unpicking far more than Lennie having paws. As an example, Samuel – someone else who never seems to shut up but makes up for it by referencing ‘Othello’ despite being a presumably quite uneducated farmer (now, there’s a well-rounded character) – benefits from the following description: ‘places were important to Samuel. The ranch was a relative, and when he left it he plunged a knife into a darling.’ How glorious is that? It certainly beats George speaking sharply for the millionth time.

Sigh. I want to read all the bits about Cathy again now. Except for the part where she uses a knitting needle for something that it clearly wasn’t designed for and Steinbeck sees fit to use a word I never needed to see in writing and which would mean I could never teach this novel anyway.

I see now that this discussion of ‘East of Eden’ is nearly as long as actual ‘East of Eden.’ So I’ll let Steinbeck sum it up himself, cannily placing this novel in the pantheon of all literature: ‘we have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil.’

‘The Goldfinch’ by Donna Tartt

This probably contains some spoilers so don’t get in a beef with me if you read it and I ruin your life or anything.

There was a time when the length of a book was no barrier to me deciding to read it. ‘Les Miserables’ took me two days. I once read a 1000 page account of the Spanish Civil War (I think it was called ‘The Spanish Civil War’) in the space of a few days of my summer holiday. ‘Birdsong’: one day by the pool in Mexico. ‘American Psycho’: ditto. I was a speed-reading machine; not only that, but I had a superhuman recall for everything I’d read too.

Then I had a baby.

I do not subscribe to the ‘baby brain’ idea – constructed, as it clearly is, by men who want an excuse to undermine women in the workplace without being subjected to disciplinary procedures– but, one thing is for certain: this little person really eats into my reading time. Aside from the fact that I now only manage a book a week (and sometimes not even that, shamefully), length is now an issue too. While on maternity leave, I tried to take advantage of The Child’s naptimes to read ‘War and Peace,’ but when my Kindle told me it would take me 24 hours to read it, I saw no option but to concede defeat on the grounds that 24 hours probably represented six months of my life at that time. Also, ‘War and Peace’ is, as it turns out, almost painfully boring.  Leo, if you need a list of characters at the start of every bloody chapter, you’ve got too many characters.

So ‘number of pages’ is now a category that must be considered when choosing a new read. This is why I approached ‘The Goldfinch’ by Donna Tartt with trepidation. 850 pages? Really? Could I honestly commit to this?

Clearly, I did. The novel (I’m an English teacher, so I have to refer to it with this slightly more pretentious description) starts in Amsterdam, with one of those ‘everything is a mess now, but I’m not going to tell you how it got this way for another 800 pages’ openings which seems to be a legal requirement these days. I only actually remember this first chapter because I’ve referred back having finished it; I think Tartt may be pushing her luck if she expects anyone to connect the dots when Theodore Decker, the narrator, finally makes it to the Netherlands.  And even if they do remember it, they’re probably still thinking, ‘but seriously, why are you in the Netherlands?’

The second chapter begins with what could have been a great opening sentence: “things would be turned out better if she had lived.” Had this been the first sentence of the novel, it’s the kind of thing which would provoke my well-drilled year ten class to make salient points about the ambiguous use of “she” and the assumption that things have turned out badly, but the lack of information about why; this, kids, is ambiguity. In fairness, things have turned out to basically suck for Theo; on a visit to a gallery with his mother (a visit only happening because she has been summoned by Theo’s school principal for an ominous-sounding meeting) SOMETHING TERRIBLE happens and Theo’s life is never the same again. The SOMETHING TERRIBLE is described quite brilliantly; obviously it’s the catalyst for everything else that happens so it has to be at the beginning, but I wonder whether it’s the best bit of the whole novel and everything that comes after is slightly less fascinating. Especially the bit in Amsterdam which all seems a bit overblown and ridiculous.

After that, it all gets very Dickensian; there are uncaring grandparents, a dissolute father, an Eastern European approximation of the Artful Dodger and a point when it seems inevitable that poor hungry Theo is going to approach someone with a bowl and ask for some more. There aren’t any Muppets though, which is a tad disappointing.   The Dickens parallels were mentioned in a review I read before starting ‘The Goldfinch’ and they are almost amusingly noticeable by the end. Apart from the weird bit in Amsterdam, which I don’t think ever happened in ‘Great Expectations.’

Everyone around Theo does seem to be spectacularly awful in a way that would even cause Tiny Tim to sympathise. He is a little bit awful himself, but I wanted to punch him a lot less than I did Amir when I read ‘The Kite Runner,’ which is now the standard-bearer for incredibly annoying books with incredibly annoying narrators. Tartt’s depiction of Theo’s father is, now that I think about it, pretty genius; he is clearly a terrible dad with no real knowledge of or interest in his son, but there are a few fleeting moments when he becomes almost sympathetic. Perhaps the Dickens comparisons run to slightly flat characterisation; Hobie, for example, is the loveliest man in literature since Atticus Finch, while Lucius Reeve is basically Voldemort in a cravat (I’m not sure if he’s ever described as wearing a cravat, but that’s how I picture him). I suppose the first person narrator is the reason for this; we see people the way that Theo sees them, which becomes particularly interesting when he talks about Kitsey.

Aside from the sheer length of the novel, the other thing which almost put me off was the experience of reading Tartt’s other works: ‘The Little Friend’ and ‘The Secret History.’ It is a few years since I read either and, as previously mentioned, I have forgotten everything I have ever read since The Child made her appearance, but I do recall enjoying both of these right up until the end. I don’t remember why, but my abiding memory is of rubbish endings. And ‘The Goldfinch’ sort of continues this trend. Maybe it’s because I was desperate to finish reading before I went to bed at some extremely rock and roll time like 9.30 and read too quickly, but the way the drama was resolved seemed slightly too convenient for me; I can’t be the only person who read it and thought ‘but why didn’t you just do that in the first place?’ Because, once the SOMETHING TERRIBLE has happened, Theo is tormented by his continued possession of a painting – the eponymous ‘Goldfinch’ – to the extent that it seems to make him completely mad. I know it’s the symbolism and the connection to his mother, blah blah, but I’m sure there are better ways to deal with accidental major art theft than his method. It does, however, facilitate a twist which, on reflection, was brilliant and sort of weirdly hilarious too. Ahh, that Boris.

I’ve crossed the line into talking about characters like they’re real people; this is exactly what makes me get the red pen out when marking. Time to sum up. ‘The Goldfinch’ was epic in length and, at times, in nature; I’m glad I read it, and not just because now I know some Ukrainian swear words.