When a literary author critiques a mass market success, it's easy to assume the review to be a case of a highbrow author looking down on less "substantial" genre work. But that supposedly wasn't the case with Mary Gaitskill's recent scathing Bookforum takedown of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn's wildly successful thriller.
The review attracted immediate attention for both its lateness and for its harshness — a cold, harsh wind to announce that lazy summer is finally over.
While Gaitskill, who found the novel "irritating" and "sick," admitted to The Atlantic Wire to not reading mystery stories often, she's not a book snob. "There are no books that I feel I shouldn't be interested in, I read what I feel like," Gaitskill wrote in an email to The Wire. "I think curiosity about anything with mass appeal is a good reason to look at it, that is if you are interested in the world around you."
In the case of Gone Girl, Gaitskill, like many fans of the book, was drawn in my its popularity. "It was a bit of a cultural event; I don't think such events stop being interesting 12 months later and apparently I'm the not only one to feel that way," she wrote to The Wire. The Don't Cry author's review, which has gained a lot of attention for both its tone and its contrarian take, began with an overview of why, against the odds, she started reading the book:
This is not a book I would normally read; I rarely read mysteries, and the title, Gone Girl, is irritating on its face. I bought it anyway because two friends recommended it with enormous enthusiasm, and because I was curious about its enormous popularity: the millions of copies sold, the impending movie by David Fincher and Reese Witherspoon, the glowing reviews. I found it as irritating as imagined, populated by snarky-cute, pop-culturally twisted voices coming out of characters who seem constructed entirely of “referents” and “signifiers.”
Several people found that first sentence problematic. "It's embarrassing that Mary Gaitskill opens her (unconvincing) takedown of Gone Girl with 'I rarely read mysteries,'" tweeted author and book reviewer Charles Finch. Mystery write Harlan Coben shared a similar sentiment.
Writer and publisher Jason Finch joked about Gaitskill's possible response to another cultural icon. "Mary Gaitskill reviews Star Wars: "I don't like science fiction and none of the characters have realistic names," he tweeted.
But Gaitskill, an author especially concerned with sexuality and gender politics, isn't concerned with the book's genre or mass appeal, but the ideas the story presents.
"The sick and dark of Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, is less in the plot (which is a masterpiece of cuckoo-clockwork), more in the book’s vision," Gaitskill wrote in her review. Amy and Nick, the two main characters, represent "grotesquely smiling masks driven by forces of extreme artifice" rather than actual people, and the book itself evokes "a hyperartificial, hive-minded way of relating, combined with what has become a cultural ideal of relentless feminine charm tied to power and control." If anything, she's critiquing modern pop culture more than genre writing.
And despite the bristling of the mystery/thriller community, however, Gaitskill does read mystery from time to time (hence the use of "rarely," not "never, ever"). When asked, she offered up Out, a 2005 mystery by Japanese author Natsuo Kirino, as a "great" iteration of the troubled marriage suspense thriller.
As for possible Gone Girl successor The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison, Gaitskill can't comment one way or the other on the hyped novel's merits. "I haven't read it," she wrote. "Do you recommend it?" Here, we found ourselves rather too timid to answer the question. Say what you will about her takedown of Flynn, Gaitskill is a woman who knows what she likes to read.