A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
It takes a while sometimes to work out what you like and what you don’t like about a book. It took me a while to work out what I didn’t like about Gone Girl, maybe because everyone else loved it so much and the premise was fabulous and it featured, for once, a woman being bad. I felt primed to like it, but I didn’t and it was only after several weeks of living with a niggling sense that something important was eluding me that I realized why.
I explained my theory here and it turned out – or so I believed – that my problems with Gone Girl have more to do with who we are as a society than the book itself, so when I ordered Sharp Objects, Flynn’s debut, I didn’t expect to have the same reaction. It’s a different book, about a different character and it didn’t get the reaction as Flynn’s third and currently most-famous book. This meant I came to it without expectations. Yet, despite myself, despite the writing (which is really, really good) I ended up feeling the same way about Sharp Objects as I did about Gone Girl: wishing I hadn’t read it.
This is my problem. I can sum it up in three words:
Flynn hates women.
Now by that I don’t mean that Gillian Flynn as a person hates women. I’m sure she doesn’t. I’m sure she’s a well-balanced individual who approaches people, like most of us do, with the sense that we’re all human and we all deserve respect. I’m sure she has good, solid relationships with other women and is a true and trusted friend to many.
That’s Gillian Flynn the person.
Gillian Flynn the writer is a different matter. Gillian Flynn the writer has an unnerving talent for putting female behaviour under a microscope and watching it wriggle.
But don’t take it from me. Let’s allow Flynn to speak for herself.
Here’s the one-line premise for Sharp Objects: Camille, a journalist for a struggling Chicago daily, has been sent by her boss to her home town of Wind Gap, Missouri to report on the killings of two young girls. In this scene, the main character Camille is taking lunch with some friends of her mother. Amma is her much younger half-sister.
‘Oh shit, I always forget Amma and Camille are related – different lifetimes, you know?’ Jackie smiled. A hearty pop sounded behind her and she lifted her wineglass without even looking at the waiter. ‘Camille, you might as well hear it here: Your little Amma is truuuuuble.’
‘I hear they come to all the high-school parties,’ DeeAnna said. ‘And take all the boys. And do things we didn’t do till we were old married women- and then only after the transaction of a few nice pieces of jewelry.’ She twirled a diamond tennis bracelet.
These women are straight out of a Jackie Collins potboiler – the kind of puddle-deep harpies whose mercenary view of male-female relationships would cause a medieval marriage-fixer to blush – but entertaining as they are, the tone is disturbing. Women stab each other in the back, reads the subtext. They use sex as currency. They compete with other women for male attention and resort to slut shaming if they lose.
But these are the secondary characters. What about Camille herself? It could be that Flynn’s tactic is to highlight the difference between what these women are and what they could be by giving us a main character we can respect.
Camille is a cutter, her body covered in scars. My skin, you see, screams she says. It’s covered with words. She carves words into herself, the choices apparently random and inexplicable. I had a dirty streak my senior year, which I later rectified, she reveals. A few quick cuts and ‘cunt’ becomes ‘can’t’.
You can’t help, in some dark way, being enchanted by the twisted inventiveness of Flynn and the monstrous, bleeding Camille. Yes, at some level Camille – the result of a truly autistic form of mothering – represents how women deal with pain. We turn it inward. We obliterate ourselves. We turn cunt into can’t. Camille shows moments of decency and clear-thinking. She attempts to rescue Amma. She sees the people of her hometown the way they really are – petty, cruel, deluded – and digs away to get at the truth of what happened to the dead girls. She also says this to Richard, the police officer in charge of the investigation:
‘If I got a little too drunk tonight and was out of my head and had sex with four guys, that would be rape?’
‘Legally, I don’t know, it’d depend on a lot of things – like your attorney. But ethically, hell yes.’
‘You’re sexist. I’m so sick of liberal lefty men practicing sexual discrimination under the guise of protecting women against sexual discrimination.’
‘I can assure you I’m doing nothing of the sort.’
‘I have a guy in my office – sensitive. When I got passed over for a promotion, he suggested I sue for discrimination. I wasn’t discriminated against, I was a mediocre reporter. And sometimes drunk women aren’t raped; they just make stupid choices – and to say we deserve special treatment when we’re drunk because we’re women, to say we need to be looked after, I find offensive.’
Sometimes drunk women aren’t raped; they just make stupid choices. At this point I badly wanted Richard to point out to her that the law doesn’t take into account whether our choices are stupid or not. It takes into account whether we were able to give informed consent. You don’t need to dig too far under the skin of Camille to understand that her hatred of women runs deeper than simply observing the antics of her mother’s silly friends and the equally silly women she grew up with. Her attitude is that women need to understand that they live in a world where the chips are stacked against them. If they get drunk and shit happens to them, no one should care.
You can find attitudes like that all over 4chan. It’s depressing to find them in a work of fiction too, especially one written by someone as talented as Flynn. If you think, halfway through Sharp Objects that the point of all this anti-female vitriol is to give Camille a redemptive arc; then you are wrong. The only two decent characters in the book are both men: John, the brother of one of the victims, who genuinely mourns the death of his younger sister and Curry, her boss and the father figure who sends her back to Wind Gap. It might be good for you he says. Get you back on your feet.
Listen up, Flynn is saying in Sharp Objects. Women hate each other. They hate themselves. And Daddy always knows best.