Summer Reading List

Cringe Top Pick

Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel

IMG_9313A post-apocalyptic novel about the power of art to keep the ‘human’ in ‘humanity’, and also “friendship, memory, love, celebrity, our obsession with objects, oppressive dinner parties, comic books, and knife-throwing.” In the aftermath of a global epidemic a group of traveling Shakespearean actors bring theatre to isolated pockets of habitation. It’s a beautifully written spec fic novel dealing with issues of character, relationship, ethics and power that are more important in these times than ever before. I’m hoping that along with J by Howard Jacobsen we’re seeing the dawn of a new age of adult literary dystopias.

 

Highly Recommended

The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt

IMG_9315“If a serious book really catches on, it may be less important that its strictly literary quality is not as great as one might have hoped and more important that it’s touched a nerve.” So says literary editor Leon Wieseltier of the great opinion divide on Tartt’s latest Pulitzer prize-winner. Whatever the verdict, Donna Tartt only comes round once every decade so make the most of her while she’s here.

 

Perfidia – James Ellroy

IMG_9314“I wanted to give people crime fiction on an epic, transcendental scale.” Summer reading wouldn’t be complete without something to darken your doorstep like a good old crime noir. Ellroy’s first LA Quartet was a genre-definer, and the new ‘prequel’ series looks to be even better.

 

Yes Please – Amy Poehler

IMG_9316“Be Whoever You Are.” Those not familiar with the brilliance of Parks & Recreation will not fully grasp how qualified Poehler is to bring us this wisdom in her kind-of-memoir. Don’t tell the Paris Review but SNL has delivered to the world some great minds through the medium of comedic tomfoolery, and Ms Poehler is no exception.

 

Further suggestions

Readings’s Guide: http://www.readings.com.au/summer-reading-guidelines

SLQ’s Summer Reading Club (for children): http://www.summerreadingclub.org.au

Top Ten Christmas Movie Themes

If you need an alternative to “Jingle Bells” for your seasonal playlist this year, the following Christmas movie themes will more than suffice.

Pushing beyond vocal soundtracks the movies on this list are notable for their incredible orchestral themes and underscoring, though some do have quality soundtracks (double win) and also happen to be great movies. Really, this is an all-round great list for your festive entertainment needs.

Home Alone

  1. Home Alone (1990) – John Williams

There’s no particular order here but it wouldn’t be right unless “Home Alone” had the top spot. Remember the old days when kid’s movies had live actors? Just one of the many reasons this movie is an eternal classic. Another is John Williams. No one writes a melody quite like him and you’ll be humming “Somewhere in My Memory” for days. The overture opens with a foreshadowing of Williams’s “Harry Potter” in playful jingle bells and creepy Christmas-mystery chromaticism, and then expands magically into that simple but perfect melody, the quintessence of Christmas movie magic. Add a children’s choir and melt-in-your-mouth strings and the effect is complete. Home Alone 2 revisits the same melodic material, and some claim it’s even better than the original.

  1. Love Actually (2003) – Craig Armstrong

The first and best (and most English) of ensemble movies, “Love Actually” is a proven hit. Managing to be equal parts festive, funny and romantic the movie gets away with the cheese by being just the right amount of self-deprecating and then nailing the emotional climaxes. Bill Nighy’s “Christmas is All Around You” is a highlight, but the true magic happens in the scoring. You’ll never forget the revelatory moment when Juliet watches Mark’s video to that simple, heartbreaking piano motif. The Portuguese Love Theme is another gem, delicate yet triumphant, but the penultimate scene with Sam running through the airport toward his New York love would be nothing without Armstrong’s immaculate scoring. He wields strings, French horns and timpani in a grand, festive crescendo and if you aren’t struck with goosebumps for those few minutes than there’s something wrong with you.

  1. The Holiday (2006) – Hans Zimmer

A more predictable festive romance, “The Holiday” is still a well-produced story with some surprisingly fun details, the best of which is Eli Wallach. Hans Zimmer wisely opts for a lightly textured score, steering away from grandiose orchestral romanticism that could have cheapened the fairy-floss story. Where Williams is master of the melody, Zimmer specializes in layered motifs, making clever use of piano, electric guitar and drum kit alongside strings and minimal woodwind. The oscillating string movement of the central theme is stirringly uplifting while also cleverly evoking the wildness and mystery of the Santa Ana winds. Zimmer also does a great job of blending with Frou Frou’s spacious soundtrack items. The emotional climax of the story, the Cry, is an appropriately triumphant moment without pushing too far into cheese territory.

  1. The Polar Express (2004) – Alan Silvestri

Criticised by some for being too dark and ghostly (have people not seen A Christmas Carol?) “The Polar Express” is a quirky magical journey and a welcome alternative to the bubbly children’s comedies usual of the genre. Alan Silvestri is no stranger to Christmas movies and his bouncy music-hall tunes and expansive orchestral landscaping mark one of the highlights of his composing credits. Try not to focus on the nasal twangs of Tom Hanks half-singing the title song, and listen instead to the musical genius beneath. The opening refrain of the main theme is epic, mysterious and appropriately skin-tingling, complete with wordless choir and wind-chime glissandos. Silvestri contrasts the grand orchestral moments with sections of shimmering strings and panpipe, evoking the glistening moonlit landscape. The songs are also clever, fun and catchy, especially “Hot Chocolate” and “Polar Express”.

  1. Miracle on 34th St (1994) – Bruce Broughton

Even with credits like “Silverado” and “Tombstone” to his name, Bruce Broughton is strangely no longer a household name in movie composition. Though he continues to write for the screen to this day, “Miracle on 34th St” marks one of his last well-known scores. Opening with the famous Christmas-bell herald that forms the musical leitmotif of the movie, Broughton segues seamlessly into the Miracle theme demonstrating a deft hand at the powerful evocation of Christmas joy (he also composed for “All I Want for Christmas” in 1991). He creates a delicate atmosphere with light strings, brass, and, of course, Christmas bells. You may notice the ‘evil’ theme sounds strangely similar to parts of “The Lion King”, composed by Hans Zimmer in the same year. The truly amazing moment, however, comes with his use of a cappella children’s choir, building a powerful, sacred moment from a wordless medieval melody.

NOTE: Though the movie is enjoyable, and stars David Attenborough, do yourself a favour and unearth the 1947 version instead.

NightmareBeforeChristmas985

  1. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) – Danny Elfman

Tim Burton and Danny Elfman go way back, a unique artistic partnership that has given us such flawlessly deranged movies as “Edward Scissorhands” and “Corpse Bride”. “The Nightmare Before Christmas” is no exception, and it’s dark silliness forms a fun counterpoint to the whimsical romantic comedies on offer. The Overture demonstrates the artistic variety of Elfman’s scoring, opening with a Star Wars-esque expansiveness which soon breaks into a zany galloping dance and then into melodic hints of the great songs to come, “This Is Halloween” and “Jack’s Lament”. With bells and other metallic percussion used liberally throughout, contrasted frequently with heavy lower brass and woodwind, Elfman masterfully blends chromatic eeriness, dreamlike delicacy, and heavy black drama into an active score. Listen attentively and you’ll soon realize that the music is as vital to the story as the brilliant animation, never once letting up for the entire movie.

  1. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) – James Horner

A fitting contrast to Elfman’s lively, detailed scoring, James Horner specializes more in full orchestral sweeps and unobtrusively fluid themes. Famous for his work on “Titanic”, “Avatar” and “Braveheart”, it’s clear that subtle grandeur most defines his style. Employing full, slow-moving string layers with delicate woodwind and piano solos (you’ll notice how much he loves the oboe), and the requisite Christmas bells, he creates a suitably glistening carpet of sound to mirror the snowy beauty of Whoville. It’s rather clear his talent doesn’t lie in comic songs (eg, “Happy Who-lidays”) so fortunately most of The Grinch is orchestral and Horner more than makes up for it in moments like Memories of a Green Christmas.

  1. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) – Vince Guaraldi Trio

The sophisticated comic awareness of “Peanuts” creator Charles M. Schultz is perfectly depicted in the musical choice for this animated Snoopy short. The link between childhood innocence and timeless wisdom is brought to life in laid-back jazz meanderings from the Vince Guaraldi Trio. Improvising on some well-known Christmas favourites, such as “Christmas Time is Here” and “O Tannenbaum”, the Trio also add brilliance to the simple beauty of character scenes like Ice Skating. The full soundtrack makes for excellent Christmas cocktail-party music, and would be equally useful for a romantic eggnog-by-the-fire evening.

  1. Joyeux Noel (2005) – Phillippe Rombi

The power of a single voice was the inspiration behind “Joyeux Noel”, and it fittingly forms the genesis of the most powerful Christmas movie moment ever. Though not a festive song, the simple, rustic melody of “I’m Dreaming of Home” evolves powerfully from a wordless hum into a fully orchestrated work under the brilliant hand of Phillippe Rombi, with echoes of Barber’s “Adagio for Strings”. A truly exceptional musical experience on its own, the movie itself is another level altogether. The titular scene, complete with bagpipes, a Scottish men’s chorus and an a cappella rendition of “Stille Nacht”, will have you in goosebumps from the outset if not in a complete teary mess. If you’ve lost some Christmas spirit over the years, this movie should be the first on your list.

Joyeux Noel

  1. L.A. Confidential (1997) – Jerry Goldsmith

It’s not the most Christmassy narrative on the list but it’s a perfect antidote to glimmering holiday cheer if it all becomes a little to much. The soundtrack itself is brilliant, with upbeat jazz-age standards mixed among festive favourites, but the movie gets its lone-wolf noir atmosphere from the haunting solo trumpet brilliantly woven through the score by Goldsmith. He also plays a clever hand blending grand orchestral sweeps with edgy jazz drum fills. Understated but extremely clever, Goldsmith’s score plays a huge role in the movie’s success as one of the most highly rated films of all time. Ok, yeah, and Kevin Spacey might also have something to do with that. 

Special mentions

Definitely worth a watch for its full-length orchestrated score that brings the innocent animation to life, but most notable for it’s ethereal child solo: Walking in the Air.

Silvestri blends echoes of every famous carol into a surprisingly original score. Perfect for clever instrumental reinventions of your favourite carols.

This one is more famous for the songs but that’s only because almost all of them have since become Christmas standards, particularly “White Christmas”, made famous by Bing Crosby in “Holiday Inn” long before the movie of the same title was made ten years later. Berlin is also responsible for bringing us “Happy Holiday”. If that’s not enough, just watch it for Fred Astaire and Bing himself. Swoon.

Finally…

If you need some more Art music ways to enjoy Christmas, find a live performance of “The Messiah” or “The Nutcracker” that you can witness in the flesh. You won’t regret it. If none are accessible in your local area, try these exceptional versions on YouTube:

Why am I afraid of failure?

erasing-fearIf I think about it clearly, I’ve encountered failure in some way, shape or form as often as I’ve eaten cooked dinners . Big fails (taking a job not suited to me, letting important relationships fizzle out). Little fails (making the train on time, getting my mash potatoes the right consistency). And everything in between (learning Paranoid Android on Guitar, speaking German ).

Why have I failed?

Lack of ability. Lack of application and discipline. Expectations set too high. Unreasonable and unachievable goals.

How’s that for a dispassionate and disinterested assessment on why I don’t always succeed. But you know what?

I am still shit scared of failing, of being seen as a failure.overcomin-failure-in-life

If there’s one thing I want to be known for in this life, it’s as a person who does what he says he will do.

And failure gets in the way of me keeping my word (see above as to why I’m not always able to make good on my promises).

But failure is just a word, only a label, imposed by me (or others) upon me.

Definitions change. People change. Labels fade and become redundant, as the world changes. The adhesive dries, the corners come loose and curl inwards. Soon it’s easier just to tear it off and throw it away .

There are many dimensions to who I am, multiple threads of my life that are interweaving concurrently with other threads.

So here’s what I tell myself: Don’t let failure become a cul-de-sac or full-stop. Follow failure with ‘OK, so here’s what I’ll do next…’

In practical terms I’m learning to give failure meaning and context by using it as a link in the chain:

I (my novel) recently failed to get selected for the advanced round of a manuscript development program I was involved in. My opus, my era-defining statement, slighted and overlooked .

Pow! Bam! Take that, you Donna Tartt, Bret Easton Ellis wannabe!

As the sting of rejection lessened a realisation began to form.

I still haven’t worked out what my novel is about. The core message, and therefore the voice, of the novel isn’t clear. The jumble of ideas I have in my head for this project, are still just that – a jumble.

So yes, it’s a setback along the way, but nothing more. A reminder that the twinge in my gut, the snap of frustration, the bitter taste in my mouth is because what I’m doing means something, and I need to go again, work harder, persist, persist, persist .

No-Pain-No-Gain-550I came across a quote recently, during a seminar I attended:

Fail Fast. Fail Early.

Embrace it, don’t be consumed by it. Take the lesson on the chin then move on.

Keep fighting the good fight, because it matters, to you, if no one else.

On “Strange Fruit”

punksingerThe Punk Singer is a 2013 documentary about iconoclastic singer/songwriter Kathleen Hanna. The movie charts her brilliant, sad, radical, and sometimes violent trajectory across the musical landscape of the American Northwest in the ‘90s. Her limelight began in 1990 fronting the hard core 4-piece Bikini Kill. When criticised for not being able to play their instruments, the band’s response was simply ‘And?’ They  were part of the make-it-up-as-you-go-along ethic of politics, fashion, music and art that owed as much to the Punk vanguards of the ‘70s as it did to the Beats and Dada. Kathleen Hanna was Punk as Kathy Acker was Punk. Barbara Kruger. Her music was the Revolution Rock revived from its reggae roots by the Clash. With Kathleen Hanna, the protest song was taken to a new velocity, with new levels of impact and immediacy, but her musical and political genealogy ran deep, beyond Punk and the protest movement of the ‘60s, to Blues, and Jazz, and perhaps one of the most beautifully haunting protest songs of all time. Billy Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”.

strangefruitsmall“Strange Fruit” was written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish high school teacher and member of the Communist Party in New York. It was first sung by Holiday in 1939, 15 years before Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on a bus to a white person inadvertently kicking off what history remembers as the Civil Rights Movement. The song is a simple, poetic, and deeply evocative protest against lynching in the South, where, amidst the fresh scent of magnolias in the breeze, black bodies swing from the poplar trees.

“Strange Fruit” was considered so hot at the time, so incendiary, Billie Holiday’s record company Columbia actually released her from contract, for one day, to record it. (It became her largest selling album.) When she first performed it at Café Society in New York’s Greenwich Village, it closed her set. The manager had all the waiters stop serving, threw the entire room into darkness with a single spot illuminating Holiday’s face, and she sang the entire number with eyes closed, as if in prayer, lamenting:

The bulging eyes and the twisting mouth

Here is the fruit for the crows to pluck

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck

For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop

Here is a strange and bitter crop…

(Meeropol, 1937)

Billie HolidayBilly Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” is a very different scream to Kathleen Hanna’s bullet vocals trashing the hypocritical mores of sexuality and violence and celebrating the wild autonomy of feminism, but the punk girl’s anger grows from the same soil as the blood soaked poplar trees of the American South. In “Strange Fruit”, as Billy Holiday reaches the final word of the final phrase, her voice lifts. Like the opening of a window. Because within every hard core protest song is also a song about freedom and possibility.  As Kathleen Hanna points out in The Punk Singer, there’s no point singing about revolution unless you can dance to it.

Sean Macgillicuddy

Meeropol, Abel. (1937). As “Bitter Fruit”. The New York Teacher (ed. unknown). New York.

Sir Partridge Gormley Speaks

Hello blots,

When The Cringe begged me to become an agony uncle for them, I sent the word out to my enormous fan base. Naturally, I was subjected to a veritable blizzard of need, most of it drivel. Only this missive struck a chord:

Dear Uncle

Firstly, let me say that I worship you like a god.

Now, listen to this. When I got married seven years ago, a distant relative was charged with videoing the event. He has since returned to his native Fremantle and not a peep has been heard from him since. I’ve emailed him frequently asking for a copy of the video but to no avail. I even sent him a crisp $50 note to cover the cost of postage but the bastard simply trousered it.

I’m going to Perth soon for a mutual relative’s wedding where I will surely bump into him. Rather than endure a ‘scene’, is it reasonable for me to simply lift the money from his wallet, should the opportunity present itself?

Yours in righteous indignation

Egbert T

Well, Egbert, you have been betrayed. I can visualise this strange relative of yours. Perhaps he is in advanced middle age, corpulent, fancies more than the odd tipple and is not averse to leering at the young and winsome. He is a cad, and as such the usual rules of human conduct do not apply.

Of course there may be an entirely reasonable explanation for his failure to provide you with what is rightfully yours. Perhaps he has died. Perhaps he never received your funding, or has been forced to hand it over to a bookie. Who knows or cares?

Therefore the simple answer to your question is yes, by all means slip the bugger a mickey, rummage in his hip pocket, restore the cash to its rightful owner, and why not lift an additional crafty fiver for your trouble? After all, you shelled out 50 of the hard-earned and whether he received it or not the bastard owes you a wedding video, which he has presumably either lost or taped over with something unsavoury.

Huzzar!

Sir P

A man who has long needed an introduction, Sir Partridge Gormley is a baronet, raconteur, bon vivant and genteel nutter. With plenty of time on his hands he welcomes queries from anyone who’s confused and dilemma-ed. Sir Partridge’s verbal emissions are rendered as coherent as they can be by the ever-patient @ConanElphicke 

Conan Elphicke

Have a question for Sir Partridge? Email your query to thecringeblog@gmail.com.

‘Gone Girl’: A Discussion of Themes & Implications (spoilers)

When the dust settles what does Gone Girl tell us about men, women and relationships*?

gone-girl-01_Amy DunneI’m still on the fence about Gone Girl. While I admire the clever plot and the exceptional interrogation of human nature, I find myself a little angry at the negative depiction of marriage and gender that such a contradictory book delivers. Whatever your opinion, one thing is certain: the book is incredibly influential. Creative influence is a responsibility, and not one to be taken lightly. As with any book carrying significant cultural weight, it’s important to consider the themes raised in the book and the impact they may have on gender issues and relationships.

The story is clever and the themes are unsettling. Both elements make the narrative particularly engrossing, but when all is said and done we are left with some confusing messages. It’s a mistake to write off the portrayal of Nick and Amy’s marriage as complete fiction, as the story raises many significant issues about how men and women see themselves and each other. I think it’s equally dangerous to take it at face value, as some have done, and use it as proof that all men are dicks and all women are evil and the world is screwed.

This is where I get concerned. Considering the impact such a widely popular story will have on people, I wonder exactly what Flynn had in mind besides making a pretty dollar off the sensationalism.

Nothing is sacred in the novel. Love, marriage, family, neighbours, men, women, city life, country life, the media, the economy, the police, the judicial system, the masses, parenthood, childhood, fame, destitution, old writers, new writers, cultural legacy, pop culture, rich people, poor people, the educated, the ignorant, the young, the old, sanity, mental illness, you name it. The only safe element is the cat, Bleecker. It’s hard not to leave the story frustrated by the utterly desolate portrayal of everything that makes up our modern way of life. Sometimes you can’t help but feel that Flynn has created a story that shits on everything just for the sake of it.

Many people hated the book and the movie for this reason, mainly because they expected some kind of justified resolution. They wanted someone to win: a righteous ending so justice could be served, or utter tragedy so the audience could write it off as black fiction. The exact awfulness of the ending is just unresolved enough to leave us perpetually uncomfortable because we can’t just tuck it all away in a convenient genre. We actually have to think about it, and we don’t like that because it cuts too close to home. I think a lot of the people who have denigrated the novel entirely are people who ultimately don’t want to admit that there was a lot of truth to the characters.

Perhaps that’s what Flynn is ultimately trying to say: that we deceive each other and ourselves because reality is too damn hard. Yet the truth about marriage is much more nuanced and positive than Flynn would have us believe. The fact is that men and women do have different expectations of each other when entering a relationship, and rarely are those misunderstandings fully solved. But the final ‘comment’ of Flynn’s story is that you can never be yourself in a partnership; that the only way things work is for both to continue in self-deception. While I don’t agree that this is the only possible outcome for all relationships, I do think it bears some consideration.

Here’s a quick look at some ideas raised in the book.

Marriage
GONE GIRL, from left: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, 2014. ph: Merrick Morton/TM & copyright ©20thThe novel explores many contemporary issues about marriage that are disturbingly relevant. Foremost are the tensions created by external factors, such as job redundancies, financial constraints, cultural tensions between the city girl and the country boy, the stress of relocating, the influence of in-laws, and dealing with family sickness and death. These are all highly powerful influences on the health of a marriage, and Flynn depicts both positive and negative reactions to these issues in Amy and Nick’s relationship.

Just as relevant are the internal factors, such as whether or not to have kids, where to invest money, deciding to relocate, how to handle dwindling romantic energy, how to balance gender roles, how much to expect of each other, how to be attentive, how to communicate effectively with each other, how to consider one another’s needs and desires.

In reality, most marriages have successfully overcome or compromised on these issues, but many have also sputtered and failed as a result. Flynn’s depiction of the slowly building tensions and the lack of effective communication between Nick and Amy is frighteningly realistic, more detailed and accurate than the normal reader expects from a thriller. The way the novel’s characters respond to relational fallout has a lot to do with their upbringing, their personalities, and their mental health. As Amy is clearly a sociopath (or technically, suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder), her response is not ‘usual’ so we can (hopefully) assume that not all relationships will end in someone trying to frame the other for murder. However, as we all have a little bit of crazy, and mental health is a very present factor in a lot of marriages, it can also be expected that most of us won’t necessarily respond well to all of these issues.

So where does reality sit? The bottom line is that relationships are tough, but we can’t exist without them. They require some effort, but inevitably they make your life worth the living. You can’t expect any relationship to be perfect, but you can expect it to be great. The key, really, is to know when and how to compromise and when and how to stand your ground. Be ready for the crap when it comes (because it inevitably will) and be determined to overcome it together and move on.

This is where Nick and Amy really fail each other, long before the affair and the set-up. It’s too easy to say they were screwed from the start because she was a psycho and he was a spineless mummy’s boy. The cracks came through in the false expectations they had of each other and of marriage. Perceived failure, resentment and guilt, incubated by a lack of authentic communication, ultimately drove them apart, resulting in the vengeful actions (on both their parts) that lead to the events of the novel.

Men
gone-girl-vigilThe portrayal of Nick Dunne is complex and exceptional, and it’s unclear at the end of the novel if he should be regarded as the hero of the book, or an equal and willing partner to the horrors he’s endured. When it comes to male gender identity the important thing is not deciding if his behaviour is right or wrong, but in filtering through the sensationalism to find the truth in his character.

Nick starts out genuinely wanting to make things work with Amy but gradually stops trying, ultimately starting an affair and wanting a divorce. The hinted reasons for this change include his hurt pride at being made redundant, his dependence on Amy’s finance, his constant guilt about moving them to Missouri, further guilt about not living up to her (treasure-hunt) expectations, his inability to effectively communicate his feelings, and a deep-seated resentment toward strong women (a feeling which he suppresses and denies, but still surfaces).

Is this a true representation of all men’s response to marriage? No, but it would definitely ring true for some. The grey area here is that all these reasons can both be valid and invalid in their own way, and so it becomes far too easy (and incorrect) to place blame wholly on him or wholly on her.

For example many would argue that the difficulty of relying on your wife for financial support is a result of deep-seated ‘provider’ psychology in males and is therefore justified. While this may be true, is it not fair then to say that sometimes we need to get over our pride in order to make a relationship work?

Another example is his perceived guilt for not living up to Amy’s expectations. Again, this is valid on some level, but is it ok to live in resentment without trying to communicate how you feel? Is it not valid for Amy to have some expectation for how she wants the marriage to work out? Was his guilt a result of knowing he had deliberately failed to consider her in some decisions?

At one point he complains that he is sick of being surrounded by nagging women, but earlier in the book Amy points out that there are behaviors he reverts to that force her into a nagging role. Both valid. Yet he often genuinely wants to help people and do the right thing, and frequently acts out of love for the women in his life: moving home to help his sick mother and maintaining a consistently positive relationship with Margo.

All of this simply serves to illustrate that Nick is human. He fails and is likewise failed by others, ultimately playing an equal hand in the disintegration of his marriage. Unfortunately, in the wake of the revelation about Amy’s deception, the novel leaves us with a conflicted portrayal of male identity in marriage and in society.

Nick’s insecurities about turning out just like his own father haunt his every step, and it’s ultimately this fear that makes him decide to stay with Amy: he wants, above all, to be the great father he never had.

Making his determination all the more poignant are the behaviors and attitudes that surface throughout the book that show him to be exactly like his father. While we are left with a somewhat positive impression of Nick’s commitment to his unborn son, Flynn has created just enough grey area so there’s no guarantee that he won’t gradually succumb to the emotional pressure of living with a murderous sociopath and become the same father he resented.

Nick’s upbringing has far-reaching effects on his emotional life and reflects a very relevant issue in modern families. At the core we have the negative male role model in Nick’s life: the emotionally abusive, woman-hating father. The de-masculinising of men is a real problem in society and one that must be addressed, but does it excuse weak and abusive behavior in men? Of course not.

How, then, are men expected to behave? And are the expectations society generates actually valid? And what prevents some men from being present in the family as strong parental role models? It’s a cop-out to say that bitchy women or spineless men are to blame for this modern gender identity crisis, but unfortunately that’s one way Flynn’s narrative could be interpreted. The greyness and complexity of this issue is subverted by the fact that Amy is a sociopath. It then becomes too easy to blame all his selfish actions on her craziness, or to blame her breakdown on his selfishness.

Nick is portrayed as sympathetic but also flawed. He does try to be a good guy but he also deliberately distances himself from Amy instead of trying to work out their issues, ultimately choosing to have an affair. The point is not that Nick was or wasn’t valid in his feelings and actions, as his insecurities are borne of real struggles that many men face. The point, again, is that he and Amy failed to communicate effectively about them, resulting in destructive responses from both.

Women
gone.girl_diaryLeaving aside the fact that Amy is a sociopath, her reflections on what it means to be a woman in a relationship are often accurate and insightful.

Her rant about the ‘Cool Girl’ syndrome is particularly true, and bears some serious consideration. Cool Girl is described, basically, as being effortlessly and consistently gorgeous, sexy and brilliant, having flawless confidence and easy-goingness, and unfailingly loving all the things men love. As Amy rightly says, Cool Girl doesn’t exist. She is a myth perpetuated by women pretending to be what men want, and men lazily expecting their women to be exactly what they want. Flynn’s discussion of Cool Girl lasts over four pages in the novel and is itself an essay in contemporary gender dilemmas. And that’s the problem. It’s not something that sociopathic women like Amy invented in order to hate on men; it’s a real and present issue in modern society.

So, why, Flynn? Why write such an insightful and concerning gender essay and then make the character an unhinged murderess?

Amy’s desire to constantly be the perfect partner is an accurate depiction of most women, the extent of which depends on individual personalities but nevertheless rings true. How many women spend their lives adapting to perceived expectations, only to end up exhausted and frustrated? Too many. Again, this is a two-sided issue of women perceiving expectations from their partners that are not necessarily true, but also of partners not observing that their wives are making such an effort.

As discussed above, a lot of Amy’s problems with Nick come down to her miscommunicated expectations and the resultant feelings of guilt in Nick. The point about the treasure-hunts is disconcerting, because of course everyone wants to know that their partner ‘understands’ them and cares enough to notice what they’re like. At the same time, everyone is human and you can never know everything there is to know about another person. To avoid this becoming a huge issue in their marriage, Nick and Amy clearly needed to make some effort: Amy to mitigate her expectations, and Nick to make a concerted effort to be more attentive.

Though it’s impossible to know exactly how much Diary Amy is Real Amy, it’s clear that most entries are an accurate reflection of her feelings and actions. If I put myself in her place, I can’t help but sympathise with her feelings of desolation and her desire to make things right (though I wouldn’t go about it quite like she did).

If I faced two job losses in the household and my parents’ financial ruin, and then my husband up and moved me away from my hometown without consulting me, I would be more than momentarily upset. I would start to question the health of our marriage. Having similarly relocated to my husband’s hometown (though voluntarily; my husband would never force that on me), I completely sympathise with Amy’s feelings of isolation and the difficulty of trying to fit in with a family and a community culture that is vastly different to your own. If my husband then continued to distance himself from me, used our remaining finance to set up a ‘hobby’ job, and cared so little for me that he didn’t even know what I did with my time, I would start to freak out emotionally too. If I then caught him cheating on me with a ‘perfect’ young girl after I had tried so hard to be the perfect wife? Well, that would be a tipper. Would it induce me to commit murder by framing him? No. But then again, I’m not a sociopath.

And this is where I get annoyed at Flynn. She sets up sympathetic and complex male and female identities, creates a compelling case for marital disharmony, and then screws over any truth to their relationship by making Amy a murdering sociopath. This then gives every dissatisfied and ignorant man an excuse to blame any valid female behavior that they don’t like on the misguided premise that all women are psychos. Of course, the book wouldn’t have worked if Amy had been sane, but the true concerns raised by Flynn combined with Amy’s extreme behaviours create a disturbing message about female identity, one that can confuse both men and women.

In a way we should thank Flynn for creating such an impeccable female villain. It’s about time, really. But instead of the one-dimensional, totally crazy villains we expect from this kind of story (Norman Bates) Amy is a real woman. Which sadly makes it seem that any remotely intelligent woman with expectations and standards in life must be a sociopath.

I hope that modern audiences are open-minded enough to both accept the truth of this novel and also to see beyond the final curtain to a balanced view on the nature of relationships. Unfortunately a quick scan of recent forums demonstrates this is not the case; it’s too tempting for modern readers to let the novel validate their malcontents instead of challenge them. Try to put your knee-jerk irritations aside and examine these issues in an honest way. Interrogate the truth to Flynn’s characters while also seeing them for what they are: a simple exercise, albeit a highly successful one, in mass-sensationalist controversy.

Elise Janes

What are your thoughts?

 

*Note: The discussion in this essay stems from heterosexual marriage and gender identities due to the subject matter of the novel.

‘Gone Girl’ by Gillian Flynn – Review (no spoilers)

The Book

Gone_Girl_(Flynn_novel)

These days it’s rare to find a novel that can truly surprise readers. We’re all too busy and too opinionated to be messed around by sneaky genre-bending narratives. Authors are encouraged to satisfy reader expectations and dance to the tune of stylistic conceits, in ‘literary’ works as much as in ‘commercial’ fiction. While Gone Girl sits firmly in the crime/psychological thriller category, the explosive success of the novel has much more to do with how well Gillian Flynn bends the rules than with how well she follows them.

The novel has far more reality than we usually expect from our crime fiction, and a bit too much character exploration for our ‘genre’ comfort-zones. Predictably, this means people either love it or hate it, and vehemently so, which is indicative of both the quality of writing and the intensely disturbing plot. One thing is guaranteed, though: the novel will surprise you.

Premise:
Amy Dunne goes missing under suspicious circumstances on the morning of her fifth wedding anniversary and her husband Nick is caught in the headlights of the ensuing media frenzy. It unravels from there in alternate POV threads: the husband in present tense, and the wife’s diary entries leading up to the fateful day.

Surprise 1: Narrative
With twists coming in unexpected ways and at blindsiding intervals throughout the narrative, it’s very difficult to talk about the book without ruining it completely. Audiences love a good sting but this is one novel where you really will be guessing at the numerous red herrings (wondering if they even are red herrings) right up to each reveal, and sometimes beyond. And even if you do guess right, Flynn finds another way to slap you in the face.

Surprise 2: Characterisation
Flynn masterfully creates two distinct and intricate voices in Nick and Amy. Her painstakingly thorough character portraits feature some of the most insightful portrayals of human nature you can read. You find yourself squirming at the blatant honesty of these two flawed and complex people and you will think (more than once) they are repulsive; they are just like me. Add to that a well-pitched supporting cast, with some surprises of their own, and you realize you are dealing with an expert in emotional intelligence.

Surprise 3: Style
Overlaying all the narrative details and character complexity, Flynn weaves a beautiful and immensely readable style. She manages to circumvent all normal adjectival use by endlessly inventing new and brilliant ways to describe people, things, events and emotional reactions. Even though she kind of breaks Strunk & White’s Rule #17, you forgive her for the hyphenated adverbs because they are so darn clever.

One technical downfall that bears noting is that the structure seems a little out of balance. The first half of the book crescendos at a measured and excruciating pace and the following sections feel rushed in comparison. Pushing reader patience at 470 pages, Flynn could have paced with greater care.

Surprise 4: Themes
Binding all these elements together and making the novel truly uncomfortable to read is the stark interrogation of marriage and relationships in the 21st century, and therein lies the issue most people have with the story. Flynn has applied her twisted realism to the portrayal of all relationships in the book, but the interaction between Nick and Amy, with their fragile in-jokes, dangerous misunderstandings, and niggling frustrations, will make you question the tumultuous undertow of even the very best marriage. Highly disconcerting.

So, despite it’s brilliance I have to be honest and admit I didn’t actually enjoy reading the novel. It reads like witnessing a tragic disaster in slow motion, and if you’re angling for a nice generic who-dunnit, this is not your biscuit. The thematic surprises have pissed off more than one reviewer, proving that messing with our expectations is not always a popular angle. Though, considering the enormous hype borne of this controversy, one might be forgiven for suspecting that’s exactly what Flynn was going for. It doesn’t change the fact that I read the whole thing and would encourage you to do the same.

The Movie

Gone-Girl-Ben-Affleck-Rosamund-Pike-Entertainment-Weekly-cover

Apparently Gillian Flynn did what all Hollywood executives fear: demand to write her own screenplay. While many have lauded her screenwriting talent I suspect it’s largely on account of the brilliance of the story rather than the particular quality of the dialogue, detail, and pacing. Flynn did write the story and deserves to be commended for it, but I think a writing partnership would have drilled out those minor niggles that a lot of amateur movie reviewers are latching onto, such as the shortened-timeline issues (different in the book), perceived ‘holes’ in the narrative (there are none, they just aren’t well explained in the movie), and misrepresentation of certain character motives (again, more explicit in the book). She did well to pack all the relevant plot points into a two-hour movie, but those small inconsistencies were distracting and would have been ironed out by a fresh writing eye.

Nevertheless it is an impressive, entertaining, and affecting standalone movie. Director David Fincher (Fight Club, Se7en, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) seems to specialise in mystery narratives with a twist. He was an ideal choice to direct a character-focused, deliberately paced thriller, and as expected his work is clever and visually beautiful. Under another hand the movie could well have been ruined through over-dramatisation or visual monotony. Yet his style can be distracting, as is the case with any unique director, and you find him at times being a little too clever for his own good.

Ben Affleck is slowly crawling back into public favour with his recent acting and directing credits and he is perfectly cast as Nick Dunne, more or less described (physically) as a guy whose face you’d want to punch (you could say Affleck was born for the role). While his coiled reserve was highly effective, I was disappointed he didn’t do more with the emotional fallout, particularly in the second half of the movie.

Rosamund Pike I’ve found generally underwhelming but she’s pleasantly surprising as Amy Dunne. Considering the other casting options (only Chastain could have brought the same wide-eyed distance) she was the obvious choice. Her portrayal is excellent, restrained and effective: just the right amount of everything. Can’t say more without spoilers.

The supporting roles were impressive, particularly Kim Dickens (Boney), Patrick Fugit (Gilpin) and Tyler Perry (Bolt). Sadly Amy’s parents were cast to emotional stereotypes, and Neil Patrick Harris, though perfect as Desi, could’ve tried harder. My one real bone was Margo. Many reviewers liked her but I don’t think she was the right fit. As I read the novel I kept picturing Jennifer Carpenter from Dexter as the confused but devoted sister. I suppose after her brilliant portrayal of Debra Morgan no other screen sister will impress me.

I won’t discuss the ending here but will explore the themes in the follow-up essay. I will say that people either love the movie for its clever plot or dislike it for the themes and implications. And both views are justified.

My final take on the movie, despite its obvious strengths and weaknesses, is that the director tried too hard to make it cool. It felt a bit like clever mumblecore with a plot. Literally there were moments when I couldn’t understand the dialogue because of the bad sound mastering, but jokes aside everything felt a little underdone. The performances were just a bit too unemotional; the editing just a bit too sharp and clever; the score just a little too smug and creepy. Ten years ago we reveled in the indie revolution of understated grit and moping characters, but for a movie like this it just feels contrived. Across the board, now, the subtlety for subtlety’s sake is getting tiresome.

It’s a brilliant story and worth a view, but not as perfect as all the hype would lead you to believe. The high scores it’s garnered are a result of the shock value of the plot, which is warranted, but after that wears off the movie loses a star or two under objective reflection.

Elise Janes