My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Aesthetics: This is a commercial thriller. I am not exactly sure why some describe it as a literary crossover–aside from the fact that its characters are somewhat superficially literary, Flynn’s prose is commercial through and through, zippy and poppy, written at least in part to be skimmed or perused, and full of cliffhangers, cliches, and stereotypes. As a commercial thriller, how is it? Very fun, and pleasantly insalubrious. I would not re-read it, but I had a good time reading it. One complaint: I am not really persuaded by the voice of “the real Amy.” It seems to me that such a person with such a background would express herself in a slightly more elevated register, with less slang and swearing and more assumed dignity and erudition. Her acerbic observations—especially in the casino—were effective though, elegiac and darkly comic at once; I bet Flynn has it in her, should she ever want to attempt something more flagrantly “literary,” to create a female Humbert Humbert figure.
Thematics: So what is this book about? The Battle of the Sexes is the theme that has captured most reviewers’ attention, but I find it to be a critical MacGuffin. Flynn carefully structures her novel to enable readerly identification from every point on the gender spectrum, from the elitist-feminist Amy to the everyman Nick to the normal-girl Go. And surely I am not the only reader—not even the only male reader!—to enjoy Amy and even, in a highly metaphorical way, relate to her quest for the truly lived life. Fincher’s icily formalist film throws these balances off to present a more traditional misogynist narrative, signaled by the central scene of bloodshed that serves as a rebuke to the novel’s bestseller slickness, but that is because commercial cinema is a boy’s club; commercial fiction, on the other hand, is a girl’s club, and Flynn manages everything so that various types of female reader have a surrogate even as some of Amy’s complaints about men are more or less unanswerable. If the novel is not about The Battle of the Sexes, what is it about? This from Nick:
I sat in the doorstep of a vacant storefront. It occurred to me that I had brought Amy to the end of everything. We were literally experiencing the end of a way of life, a phrase I’d applied only to New Guinea tribesmen and Appalachian glassblowers. The recession had ended the mall. Computers had ended the Blue Book plant. Carthage had gone bust; its sister city Hannibal was losing ground to brighter, louder, cartoonier tourist spots.
And this from Amy:
“You don’t get to be some boring-ass middle American with some boring-ass girl next door.”
The novel’s underlying fantasy is one in which the middle class regains sufficient nerve to rebuild the ruins of suburbia and restore the class-mobility shuttles to carry the most promising youngsters of Middle America to the urban cultural centers on the coasts. It is a restoration fantasy for a class deposed by the revolt of its financial elites. It is a petit-bourgeois tirade against the abandonment of us middling Americans by our ruling class; and Amy is our class warrior, cutting the throats of those decadent elites even as she scorns the underclass while borrowing their ferocity, all in order to make better men (and women) of us all. Being of this deposed class myself, I cannot say I don’t relate; but anyone mindful of history should see the dangers of this narrative. Back in grad school, we had a word for this sort of thing (it starts with an “f” and it is not “feminist,” though the relation of feminism to this other discourse is more complicated than it may at first appear).
Practical political implications? Well, we have here the troubled but resilient marriage of an ambitious and accomplished and ruthless and brilliant woman often perceived as brittle and unlikable to a feckless boy-man who is a seductive charmer, a sleazy and ever-promising golden child. The woman will improve, has improved, the man, even as she glows in the reflected light of his edgy charisma; moreover, she promises to restore the middle class: Hillary 2016!