Because I follow disability news pretty closely, I knew where this book's title came from as soon as I saw it, and just seeing it made my blood run coBecause I follow disability news pretty closely, I knew where this book's title came from as soon as I saw it, and just seeing it made my blood run cold.
(If you don't know, it came from a news story from a few years back, about a boy named Jonathan Carey who lived at an institution for the developmentally disabled in New York. He was being driven somewhere in a van, with one aide driving and another riding in the back seat with him, and the aide in the back seat got on top of him and smothered him, crushed him beneath his weight. The aide who was driving later said he overhead the aide who killed Jonathan Carey say "I can be a good king or I can be a bad king" to the boy as he struggled. So for me the phrase evokes, not just the absolute power of life and death that support staff wield over their disabled charges, but also the deliberate choice this man made to use it in one of the worst possible ways.)
The book doesn't start out this heavy, though: it starts by introducing us to its protagonist, a sixteen-year-old girl named Yessenia Lopez, who has just lost the aunt who has raised her, and whom she thinks of as her mother. She's absolutely distraught, and she gets into a fight at school, which results in her being sent first to juvie and later to a group home for disabled young people called ILLC.
(Though the book is told from multiple characters' perspectives, and shifts perspective every chapter, I consider Yessie to be the protagonist because 1. the first and last chapters are hers and 2. her actions drive the plot towards its resolution.)
ILLC is the common thread tying all the different characters' stories together: besides Yessie, the viewpoint characters include her fellow residents Mia Oviedo and Teddy Dobbs, staff members Ricky Hernandez (the bus driver), Joanne Madsen (a data entry clerk who is also disabled herself, and who sees a lot of things the other staff members don't about what things are like for the residents), Jimmie Kendrick (a "houseparent," which is the book's generic term for what you might also call aides or orderlies) and one character who works for the company that owns ILLC and a lot of other nursing homes as well, and whose role in the story is to investigate ILLC and look for ways her company might be able to save money in running it.
The overall plot of the book involves several horrific incidents of abuse or neglect, which -- with Yessie's help in bringing the incidents into the public eye -- result in huge changes to the way ILLC is run, and in the arrests of all the bad actors. Yet the book makes clear that the problems with ILLC (and, by analogy, with similar institutions in the real world) go much deeper than a few bad apples. Ricky's chapters work well to illustrate how even a good person can be pressured to do bad things -- he has several lines where he questions the morality of what he's doing, or says he doesn't like the person he's becoming.
Seriously, Nussbaum did a great job choosing her viewpoint characters. Each one serves a vital purpose in the narrative, and each one has their own plot points that appear first in just their chapters, and later spill over into everyone else's.
One character in particular I feel like I need to single out because she surprised me. Michelle Volkmann, the woman from the parent company, first appears as a vacuous, amoral character concerned only with money, but as the story goes on she starts to look beyond that, to reveal herself as a human being with a conscience. (It's no accident that she is one of only two characters who ends up worse off than she began. For her, there is a heavy emotional cost to learning just what kind of a system she's been part of. I even pitied her by the end, and I had spent most of the book hating her!)
Anyway, if you think you can handle the graphic descriptions of abuse in an institutional setting, this book is well worth your time. I would compare Susan Nussbaum to George Eliot in her meticulous rendering of individual characters' psyches, and her deep interest in each character's moral development....more
A really short novel that nonetheless manages to tell a story that is epic in scope and spans multiple generations of characters.
Part of the way it doA really short novel that nonetheless manages to tell a story that is epic in scope and spans multiple generations of characters.
Part of the way it does this is by using a really impersonal narrative technique, having no single viewpoint character and following each character for only a short time, as long as their part in the central narrative lasts.
It begins with a civil servant named Henry Limpkin going to visit a retired general named Toriman, who is famous for his heroics in some long-ago war and who now lives a luxurious life in a castle where he apparently spends his time pondering the future of humanity. This Toriman proposes an unfathomably ambitious idea to Limpkin: that Limpkin's government devote as much manpower and resources as they can to building a vast spaceship big enough to carry all the people away to some fresh world where their pioneering spirit can be invigorated and they can build a civilization the likes of which now only exist in memory. At first this should be done in secret, but once enough headway has been made the project should be made public, with every citizen invited to help build The Ship, which Toriman intends to be a symbol of the national pride and ambition he hopes to reawaken through this unimaginably large-scale public works project.
At first Limpkin is skeptical, but he does not dismiss the idea outright because he has also observed the thing Toriman hopes to overcome through the Ship-building project: a sort of deeply ingrained fatalism that Toriman blames on the World itself. He describes a sense that the World is too old, that the memory of all the civilizations that have ever existed, and the knowledge that all of them have ultimately fallen, that works against any present-day efforts to build anything that lasts.
This is his real objective: not to escape the World, really, but to show the people that they can build something that will endure. The Ship, he explains, will never actually blast off (he is not sure it will even be spaceworthy), but will serve solely as a morale-building exercise, and as soon as it looks like the people are beginning to take heart, he intends to divert their labor and materiel towards rebuilding the country's terrestrial infrastructure, which is in a long-standing state of decrepitude.
The rest of the book follows a rotating cast of characters through the various stages of the Ship's construction, which takes place at a suitably inspiring, though hard-to-reach, locale: a derelict staging area and launch site called the Yards that was last used by one of the ancient spacefaring civilizations, some of whose abandoned watchtowers (equipped with automated laser cannons) still stand along its perimeter.
Getting to the Yards is difficult and dangerous, requiring the workers and their military escort to cross a large expanse of territory that belongs to no nation because it's full of wild and aggressive mutants, who attack any stranger they see. The mutants are a fantastical array of human-animal hybrids and other posthuman monsters; they include fliers with big bat wings, lizard-men with scales and claws, people with compound eyes and chitinous body plating, people with more than two arms, and hooded and cloaked warlocks who can conjure fireballs out of thin air and shoot them like projectiles at the intruding riverboats.
A great battle is fought between the would-be Ship builders and these mutants, the Battle of the Bloody Ford, which we witness through the eyes of a young civil engineer named Philip Rome. Rome is terrified out of his wits by the horrible appearance of the mutants, and by the devastation they wreak with their fireballs, and he's certain his expedition is going to be overwhelmed and that he, and his entire escort, is going to die when a mysterious figure appears to rescue them and lead them to victory. He disappears as soon as the battle is over, and later when stories are told of this battle people decide the mysterious person must have been the ghost of Miolnor IV, the commander responsible for the last human victory over the mutants, which left the mutants' homeland in its desolate state (it had been a lush jungle).
Anyway, people take this fortuitous apparition as an auspicious omen of the Ship project's success, and they begin to take heart, just like Toriman predicted. More and more people flock to the Yards, and a big, bustling, prosperous city is built to house them. And year after year, generation after generation, the Ship takes shape.
All is not exactly well with the project, though; instead of unifying everyone, the Ship project has given rise to a hierarchy: a laboring caste (to which most of the people belong) and a managerial, technocrat caste (who make all the decisions about labor and resource allocation). What's more, not all of the Technos are on the same page with each other about what the real purpose of the Ship is! There is tension between the Technos who want to keep their resources and efforts focused on their own city-state at the Yards (if not on the Ship itself) and the Admiralty bureaucrats back home who want some return on their investment in the form of some repair and rebuilding of their own aging infrastructure (which was what they understood the ultimate purpose of the Ship to be -- a catalyst to reanimate the people's will to build, which once awakened would be turned back homeward). A cold war arises between these factions, complete with espionage, sabotage and the occasional assassination.
At the same time, a demagogue is arising among the People, urging them not to trust the Technos and to seize the Ship for themselves. I'm going to stop summarizing the plot now to avoid spoilers, but this conflict is very important and the ultimate fate of the Ship is wrapped up in it.
I was a child the first time I read this book, so I was excited to revisit it again after all these years.
I found I had quite a few questions that didn't occur to me the first time I read it -- mostly worldbuilding questions, like how to reconcile the opulence of Toriman's castle with what we are later told about general conditions of scarcity, and about the shoddy construction and poor maintenance of the built environment, or where the mutants come from and why their numbers keep growing, or why, in a world with such a long history that spacefaring civilizations existed in what the characters think of as the ancient past, there are still nation-states at all, much less nation-states governed by aristocracy or monarchy!
I was also hunting furiously for any indication that The World might be a future Earth: looking for clues in place names, geography, or any potentially identifying details about the ancient civilization that built the Yards. I didn't find any, but that doesn't mean it's not Earth -- with the kind of timescales Geston is working with, and the cataclysmic nature of some of the past events he alludes to, it's entirely believable that none of the geography, place names or national borders would be recognizable. (Unfortunately, this also makes it all the more jarring when some aspect of 19th- or 20th-century Western culture -- like the nation-state, or the military and civil-service bureaucracies, or horse-drawn carriages driven by servants wearing livery, or ... you get the idea -- does surface in this ostensibly alien far-future setting.)
That discrepancy between how alien this setting should be and how familiar it is never stopped troubling me. I won't go so far as to say it ruined the book for me, but it did mean I wasn't transported in wonder by it this time, as I remember being when I read it the first time, long ago.
I also kept wanting to know more about the mutants. Not just logistical questions like how are they supporting such a huge population in what's described as a blasted waste of an environment, or where they come from, but also things like what they want, what the source of their animus towards the rest of the World's people is, and whether and how they all communicate with one another. I also wanted to know who the Dark Powers were, beyond that name -- who were they, what did they do that was so bad, what were the reasons for their war against their neighboring countries -- and I kept finding it odd that a book whose main plot focuses so much on ordinary human foibles would also include this kind of ultimate Big Bad, declared by authorial fiat to be evil incarnate, lurking in the background. I don't want to talk more about the Dark Powers because of spoilers, but in general it felt like they belonged in a different book and shouldn't be in this one.
There is one aspect of it I do like, that had stayed with me from my first reading of it and that likely will stay with me well into the future: it's this theme of the World itself being malevolent, and draining the imagination and resolve of the people who live in it. I find it compelling on both the literal and metaphorical levels; literally because I live in a sort of buffer zone between the semi-arid prairie biome of the Great Plains and the wetter, greener Eastern deciduous forest biome and I feel like I'm watching the border between those biomes move eastward, and the area around my house growing drier, so during the summer it really does feel like the land wants everything you plant to die; and metaphorically because I have depression and this is a good way to describe what the hopelessness characteristic of depression feels like to someone who has never felt it for themselves. ...more
This book includes not just Schismatrix, but also a handful of short stories set in the same universe.
Schismatrix itself I'm going to review separateThis book includes not just Schismatrix, but also a handful of short stories set in the same universe.
Schismatrix itself I'm going to review separately, because there's so much to talk about, so in this review I will focus on the short stories and what they add to the experience of reading Schismatrix.
There are five stories: "Swarm," "Spider Rose," "Cicada Queen," "Sunken Gardens" and "Twenty Evocations."
Swarm - a suspenseful tale in the classic tradition of "hunter becomes prey" stories; it follows two Shaper scientists, Simon Afriel and Galina Mirny, as they engage in some very dangerous field research. They are studying one of the nineteen other space-faring races besides humankind and its new trading partners, the Investors. The beings they are studying -- by means no less drastic than going to live in one of their colonies for two years -- are essentially gigantic social insects called the Swarm. Like ants or termites, the Swarm lives in a vast complex of underground tunnels that they have dug for themselves. Also like ants, they have many different castes, with body types specialized for each caste's function. There are large, imposing warriors with huge mandibles; there's a vast Queen who lays eggs endlessly and is the mother of every individual in the colony; there are legions of small, bustling workers; there are a few "sensors" whose function is to monitor air quality in the colony to make sure it stays livable -- they are little more than eyes, brain, antennae and lungs, and have to be carried by workers; and there are tunnelers, huge living bulldozers with spadelike legs and jaws adapted for crunching rocks. There are also an astonishing array of "symbiotes" -- creatures that are not of the Swarm, that had clearly once been something else, but which, through long cohabitation, have been absorbed into it.
None of these critters possesses anything like human intelligence or sentience; in an exchange that effectively sets the mood for the whole story, Simon Afriel tells an ensign on the Investor ship that carries him to the Swarm colony that this alone makes them worth studying. How does a species without higher consciousness take to the stars?
The Investor, characteristically of his species, cannot understand why Afriel is so anxious to know this. He tells Afriel that humans place too much value on mere information, information that cannot possibly profit them. Afriel tells the Investor that humans are a young species, only children to the ancient and long-lived Investors, so the Investor should not be surprised to see a childlike curiosity from them.
I don't want to reveal too much about what happens in this story, because it's such an incredible twist, but let's just say that this Investor ensign -- and also Mirny, who has been with the colony longer than Afriel has and who shows him the ropes when he arrives -- serve very poignantly as voices of reason, trying in vain to sway Afriel from his hubris. The ensign's words, especially, give you insight into how the Investors have lasted for so long as a species, and hints that perhaps their laziness and incuriosity are survival traits rather than vices.
Spider Rose - This is a very sad story. It's also the only one told from the perspective of a Mechanist rather than a Shaper (although there is one character who is both, but he begins as a Shaper so I'm not sure he counts). The protagonist, Lydia Martinez, has been widowed for thirty years (her husband, a wealthy businessman who traded with the Investors, had been murdered by Shaper assassins) and has taken to calling herself Spider Rose. Where the "Rose" comes from I don't know, but the "Spider" serves as a neat symbol of her approach to ensuring her own survival; she's a Mechanist, and an old one, so her body has been extensively modified with cybernetics. The surveillance system of her spaceship feeds seamlessly into her brain; its cameras are her eyes just as much as the ones in her head; and the vast nets she uses to fish for salvageable materials in the rings of Uranus feel like a web in whose center she waits. A spider can sense prey approaching by feeling the vibrations in its web; so for Spider Rose, nothing enters the perimeter of her tiny enclave without her knowledge.
This sounds nice and cozy, but it's not the whole story. Inside her spaceship, the only thing Spider Rose has for company -- besides some pet cockroaches -- is her grief, with which she is locked in an eternal stalemate. She can keep it at bay with mood-suppressing drugs, but it's always there, waiting. So in a sense Spider Rose has an internal version of the web she's built in space ... a fragile wall around herself consisting mainly of her own vigilance.
The plot of the story concerns a huge jewel she's found in the Ring. Its immense size and the unique circumstances of its formation ensure that no Investor will be able to resist it, so she haggles shamelessly with one, trying, it seems, to buy herself a way out of her emotional hell. The Investor starts out by making her generous offers of money, technology, information ... but she refuses them all. Eventually the Investor realizes what she's looking for, and offers her a cute animal that he calls his ship's mascot. She is taken with the animal and accepts the offer, for a trial period of a little under two years.
The animal does make her happy, but the story ends tragically. (view spoiler)[Her Shaper enemies find her, and destroy her web, leaving her blind and helpless in space. (hide spoiler)] I'm not sure if it happened because she let down her guard a little, because she finally has a little joy in her life -- something to take her mind off the grim, monotonous business of survival -- or if it would have happened regardless, but just the possibility that it might have been this fleeting happiness that doomed her makes this story almost unbearable.
(It's not a bad story -- it's a very, very good one -- but if your emotional landscape is anything like mine it will make you cry.)
Cicada Queen - One of the more interesting stories in terms of worldbuilding, and also the one that overlaps the most with the events of Schismatrix. Both texts benefit hugely from being in the same volume, so that the reader can page back and forth for additional context.
This story takes place in Czarina-Kluster, the floating city-state built around the engineless hulk of an Investor ship that imprisons the disgraced Investor Queen whom Lindsay blackmails in Schismatrix, and picks up pretty much where the novel leaves off; Wellspring, the enigmatic terraforming advocate whom Lindsay coached in the art of cultivating a personal mystique, has successfully risen to prominence in Czarina-Kluster's government, and is busily directing the terraforming of Mars.
The plot concerns a new arrival to Czarina-Kluster, a Shaper named Hans Landau (which is bizarrely the name of the Nazi character in Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" -- a fact that, lacking the gift of prophecy, Bruce Sterling could not have known when he wrote the story but which is nonetheless very distracting to the modern reader! Even though I succeeded in stripping the name of its sinister connotations, I continued to imagine the character looking and sounding exactly like Christoph Waltz) who is a gifted genetic engineer and scholar of lichens. He has invented a lichen that can grow inside stone, which he has used to create a unique gem as a gift for Czarina-Kluster's Queen. (Lavish gifts are the rent she extracts from people who want to settle in Czarina-Kluster -- they call it "the Queen's Percentage"). Landau has the singular bad luck to make his debut just as the political structure of Czarina-Kluster is imploding, with the Queen growing increasingly bored and frustrated with her exile and wishing to leave, venting her rage by ordering whichever of her advisers is currently annoying her to kill himself.
The plot also concerns a space voyage intended to tow a vast ball of ice from the rings of Saturn to Mars, where it will be steered onto a collision course with the planet in hopes of creating a sea. Landau seizes upon this as an opportunity to leave the fraught environment of Czarina-Kluster, to pursue his research on Mars as part of the terraforming project.
The voyage to Mars is ... eventful, to say the least.
Sunken Gardens - A follow-up to "Cicada Queen," taking place on Mars two hundred years after the fall of Czarina-Kluster and Hans Landau's migration to Mars. Landau, having undergone extensive cybernetic alteration to enable himself to survive in space, is still alive (err, for certain values of "alive), ruling Mars as its "Lobster King".
He does not directly appear in this story, though; the plot of this story concerns people living on Mars as the unwilling hostages of Terraform-Kluster, a satellite orbiting Mars where Landau and his clique live and direct the ongoing terraforming project happening on the surface of Mars.
We only meet one member of Terraform-Kluster in the story; Arkadya Sorienti, who appeared briefly in "Cicada Queen" and now serves as the Lobster King's envoy to the surface. Her job is to judge the competition that takes up the bulk of this story: a sort of ecological Hunger Games in which five participants battle for control of one of the Sunken Gardens -- craters on Mars where a rich atmosphere has pooled and water has settled, enabling the growth of vegetation. The contestants each come from a different faction that has been subjugated by Terraform-Kluster and marooned on Mars, forced to give their labor to the terraforming project started by Wellspring and Landau. Each contestant is given their own sector of the Garden to seed with whatever life forms they want -- they use robot drones to do this, and also to make whatever modifications to the environment they see fit, like cutting down trees, spraying herbicides, setting fires etc. The only rule limits their interference with the Garden ecosystem to a period of twelve hours. After that, they can only watch and wait, to see whose life forms survive and whose do not. The winner will ascend to Terraform-Kluster with Arkadya Sorienti, and take his or her place among the ruling faction.
The protagonist of this story is a young woman named Mirasol ("look at the sun" -- appropriate advice for a terraformer), who is a member of a splinter group of Superbright Shapers called Patternists, after the nature of their neurological ReShaping. They all have hypertrophied right brain hemispheres, which enable them to see patterns everywhere.
Mirasol's competitors are just as outre and remote from recognizable humanity as she is -- the weirdest one is a nameless woman whose legs terminate in a second set of hands, and whose knees bend like elbows. Two of them are Mechanists -- one so unaccustomed to planetary gravity that he requires a cybernetic exoskeleton to walk, and another who is heavily armed and armored, and clearly does not trust his fellow human-offshoots. There is also a sixth competitor who never appears, and whose sector is divided among the rest. It is to be inferred that he died, and possibly that Arkadya killed him for violating some rule of the contest.
This story serves as kind of a counterweight to the ecstatic hopefulness of the terraforming ideology presented in Schismatrix and "Cicada Queen." The people doing the actual work of terraforming are slaves, and the Sunken Gardens are more like arenas than gardens, where each nascent life form that appears is dwarfed by piles and piles of dead ones, and the horizon of that life form's future may only last until the next competition is held in that particular Sunken Garden.
Twenty Evocations - Paradoxically the most and the least accessible story in this collection. It's very, very short; more a prose poem than a story, with twenty very cryptic passages a paragraph or two in length that tell the story of Nikolai Leng, a Shaper whose life path echoes those of the two main characters of Schismatrix in a lot of ways. Like Lindsay, he defects from the Shaper Ring Council, marries advantageously (but also really loves his wife), carves out a sphere of influence outside the Ring Council, meets the Investors, founds a satellite Kluster and crosses paths with an assassin. Like Constantine, he loses the woman he loves early in their relationship and tries to fill the hole in his heart by having her cloned. Unlike either of them, though, he gives the impression of being buffeted along by events, just trying to keep his head above water, rather than trying to seize the reins of history like Lindsay and Constantine do.
Probably my favorite thing about this story is its judicious employment of word salad. Every so often, the final paragraph of one of the numbered sections will just be a string of phrases echoed from previous paragraphs, but placed in a new, surreal order that gives them new meaning. It can be very hard to see what this meaning is supposed to be, though. It gives us glimpses into Leng's state of mind at various important moments in his life, but his mind is chaotic. The reader has to do a lot of work to piece together a coherent story, a consistent characterization for Leng, and a sense of his emotional journey through the twenty vignettes. The reader has to do a lot of work to piece it all together, but Sterling has made sure there is enough raw material there to work with.
Sometimes it feels like it's only just barely enough, though. Even when I did put all the pieces into place, I never felt as much for Nikolai Leng, or got as deeply absorbed in his story, as I did for Abelard Lindsay, Simon Afriel, Spider Rose, Hans Landau and Mirasol. There wasn't as much to grapple with, thematically and in terms of worldbuilding, as there was in "Swarm," "Cicada Queen" and "Sunken Gardens," and there was nowhere near the emotional depth of "Spider Rose." Especially when you've already read the whole of Schismatrix, "Twenty Evocation" feels a lot like a dry run at telling that story....more
I'd been wanting to read this book for a while, partly because it was so well reviewed and partly because its author is from KCMO and I hoped to poreI'd been wanting to read this book for a while, partly because it was so well reviewed and partly because its author is from KCMO and I hoped to pore through the book hunting for little hometown details like Easter eggs.
I didn't really get to do that, since the book is not set in KCMO but in Carthage, Missouri, where I've never been. It did have kind of a homey feel, though, in the way the characters spoke and other things too nebulous for me to pin down.
In any case, I quickly became so absorbed in the story itself that I largely forgot my metatextual Easter egg hunt.
I had already seen the movie, so I knew everything that was going to happen, but that didn't matter. Gillian Flynn is such a master of suspense that you are excited and worried for the characters even when you know what's coming.
I'm trying to keep this review spoiler-free, so I'm going to try not to talk about the plot.
(I know I've just said that my own enjoyment of the book was not dampened by my having had the entire plot spoiled for me, but I'm still going to try to keep the experience pristine for the benefit of any readers of this review who haven't already read it, or seen the movie, themselves.)
Plot, characterization and mood are this novel's greatest strengths. The story is told in short chapters, alternating between the two main characters -- the protagonist, Nick Dunne, and the title character, Amy Elliott Dunne -- in point of view.
Nick narrates in the moment, describing what happens as he comes home from a visit to the bar he co-owns with his twin sister to find his house in disarray and his wife missing.
Amy's narration is retrospective, given in the form of diary entries starting when she met Nick almost six years prior to the events of the novel. She gives us a long, tantalizing look at the relationship she had with Nick, which is ... "troubled" is putting it kindly.
Nick and Amy each have their own, distinctive voices -- you could probably correctly identify the speaker of each chapter even if all the names and chapter titles were blacked out. Nick is kind of a scatterbrain, and his narration is very reactive; lots of things take him by surprise. He also thinks a lot more about other people than Amy does; he cares very much what people think of him, and when the police are asking him questions about his wife's disappearance, trying to figure out if he had anything to do with it, his awareness of genre conventions wars with his inherent willingness to trust people, to cooperate, to play ball. He knows what a good cop act is, and he knows when one or another of the detectives is using it on him, but underneath that awareness he really, really wants to think they're on his side and trying to help him.
Amy is not a scatterbrain, nor is she very easily taken by surprise. You can tell she's used to being very much in control of her life, and in her relationships. She asserts things authoritatively, and when she makes a prediction she gives it the weight of prophecy. What's more, her chapters are very writerly -- much more so than Nick's, despite the fact that both characters are writers by profession. (Actually, if anything, it was Nick who had the more serious writing career -- he had written articles about pop culture for a magazine, while Amy had written those personality and relationship quizzes you sometimes see in women's magazines.) But it is Amy whose writing is clearly working for her, laying groundwork, subtly leading the reader by the nose. Her diary reads curiously like a soliloquy, a lengthy, formal speech that a dramatic character gives directly to the audience -- a dramatic convention more than a naturalistic representation of how people talk to themselves.
There are several very good reasons for this, but I can only tell you one of them (spoilers be lurking in the others): Amy has grown up in the shadow of her parents' phenomenally popular series of children's books about a heroine transparently based on her -- "Amazing Amy." Amazing Amy is a heavily idealized version of Amy; even as a child, Amy knew what it meant when her fictional counterpart diverged from her actual self. Amazing Amy was who her parents wanted her to be, who she learned at an early age to pretend to be.
The pages of her diary are full of ironic references to Amazing Amy.
Pretending to be someone you're not is a very important theme of this book -- the most famous passage from it, that you've probably seen quoted even if you haven't read the book, is the "Cool Girl" monologue. I will quote it in full here:
That night at the Brooklyn party, I was playing the girl who was in style, the girl a man like Nick wants: the Cool Girl. Men always say that as the defining compliment, don't they? She's a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she's hosting the world's biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don't mind, I'm the Cool Girl.
Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they're fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men -- friends, coworkers, strangers -- giddy over these awful pretender women, and I'd want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who'd like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. I'd want to grab the poor guy by his lapels or messenger bag and say: The bitch doesn't really love chili dogs that much -- no one loves chili dogs that much! And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They're not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they're pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. Oh, and if you're not a Cool Girl, I beg you not to believe that your man doesn't want the Cool Girl. It may be a slightly different version -- maybe he's a vegetarian, so his Cool Girl loves seitan and is great with dogs; or maybe he's a hipster artist, so his Cool Girl is a tattooed, bespectacled nerd who loves comics. There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing that he likes and doesn't ever complain. (How do you know you're not Cool Girl? Because he says things like: "I like strong women." If he says that to you, he will at some point fuck someone else. Because "I like strong women" is code for "I hate strong women.")
I waited patiently -- years -- for the pendulum to swing the other way, for men to start reading Jane Austen, learn how to knit, pretend to love cosmos, organize scrapbook parties, and make out with each other while we leer. And then we'd say, Yeah, he's a Cool Guy.
But it never happened. Instead, women across the nation colluded in our degradation! Pretty soon Cool Girl became the standard girl. Men believed she existed -- she wasn't just a dreamgirl one in a million. Every girl was supposed to be this girl, and if you weren't, then there was something wrong with you.
I feel like this monologue deserved to be enshrined next to other righteously angry, bitter monologues by fictional women catching their first whiffs of sexism or the sexual double standard. Val in The Women's Room, ranting about how every man is really a rapist at heart, Joanna in The Female Man cynically narrating the ritualized dance of male dominance and female submission as manifested in small talk at a cocktail party ... given time I could probably come up with a whole reading list, piece together a whole consciousness-raising group session made up of these monologues. Most of the characters who speak these lines would probably get along great with each other, but not Amy Elliott Dunne. She'd have nothing but contempt for the other women speaking, she'd see them as failed women with whom she could not possibly have anything in common. (She's like Cersei Lannister in that way, though I doubt she and Cersei would get along either. Each would probably think the other a bitch.)
Well, that was quite a tangent.
To get back on track: it's not only in Amy's chapters that themes of sexual politics come up; they are also frequently alluded to by Nick, often in the person of Nick's virulently woman-hating father, whom Nick hates. He hates him and at his darkest moments he worries that he might have the potential to become him. He is acutely aware of his own disproportionate anger whenever a woman challenges him or thwarts him, though he (almost) always manages to keep it contained. He knows he has this character flaw, he works hard not to act on it, but he cannot eradicate it. His father made too deep an impression on him for that.
The characterization in this book, as you can see, is incredibly deft and subtle. These characters feel very real, and we are granted such access to their innermost thoughts, fears and desires as we are seldom -- if ever -- given by any friend or lover.
Flynn spends the most time developing Nick and Amy, but there are other characters who caught my attention, too. Nick's twin sister Go would be at the top of that list; she's an incredibly compelling and sympathetic character whom we pretty much only see through Nick's eyes. (Amy has never had much use for her. Early on she dismisses her with the line "She's very ... Missouri.")
Go was just as deeply affected by her and Nick's father's misogyny as Nick was, and I would have loved to see more of that dynamic. I understand why Flynn doesn't give it to us -- to give the level of detail I'd want, she would've had to write from Go's perspective, which would have broken up the nifty he-said-she-said structure of the novel -- but I still found myself wanting more of her.
Case in point: when Nick is telling us how their father affected him and Go, he says two things: One, where Nick became excessively eager to please, Go became closed-off and defiant; and two, "Go will probably never get married." A simple sentence, but one I wanted very much to know the story behind it....more