Gonzo Girl

sharp-objects

‘Domestic Noir’ is nothing new, just a rebranding of an old genre – one with which the author of Gone Girl (2012) has long been familiar: Gillian Flynn’s bestselling if less stellar debut, Sharp Objects (2006), is a stylish crime thriller too.

Psychologically fragile and hiding a shameful secret, Camille Preaker (the main female characters sport icky or ironic names, like mom Adora and half-sister Amity), is assigned under protest to cover a story about a serial killer of girls (i.e. female children, not women) in her former hometown.

Not the most original concept. So what compelled me to read on? I’m tired of genre tropes and trappings, and though its dialogue’s snappy, Flynn’s first novel isn’t as complex as her twisted breakout Gone Girl. Still, I crave the sort of subversiveness that energises both works, a transgressive tendency some feminists have condemned. Flynn’s not afraid to make women look bad. And Camille’s rich mom’s a prime suspect (at least for Detective Richard Willis, Sharp Objects’ #1 romantic interest). So to signify her wickedness, Flynn gives her a pig farm. For readers too naïve re pork and bacon production to judge Adora, Camille reports:

Most sows are inseminated, brood after brood, till their bodies give way and they go to slaughter. […] Pigs are extremely smart, sociable creatures, and this forced assembly-line intimacy makes the nursing sows want to die. Which, as soon as they dry up, they do.

Even the idea of this practice I find repulsive. But the sight of it actually does something to you, makes you less human. Like watching a rape and saying nothing (p. 159).

And Camille’s 13-year-old half-sister likes to watch: ‘But that violent streak—the tantrum, the smacking of her friend, and now this ugliness. A penchant for doing and seeing nasty things (p. 161).’

Cruelty to animals goes with inhumanity, at least from an intersectional perspective. And ditto, in the small-town milieu Flynn skewers, so there’s no shortage of suspects:

Back in high school, he saved the hooves of all the deer he killed, always had the latest pair in his pocket, and would pull them out and tap drumbeats with them on whatever hard surface was available. I always felt like it was the dead deer’s Morse code, a delayed mayday from tomorrow’s venison (p. 170).

Her empathy for deer doesn’t stop Camille eating steak with Richard. Yet eating meat doesn’t stop her critiquing it: ‘All those milk-fed, hog-fed, beef-fed early years. All those extra hormones we put in our livestock. We’ll be seeing toddlers with tits before long (p. 181).’ The latter could also be read as a comment on her half-sister’s precocity.

Camille’s as critical as she’s pretty. And for all her apparent fragility, she rejects paternalism, however well meant or PC on the surface. Over dinner, Richard probes for a local history of violence, and she recalls how, at a party, some boys had sex with a drunken 13-year-old. She doesn’t say that girl was herself but when Richard calls it rape, she says: “You’re sexist. I’m so sick of liberal lefty men practicing sexual discrimination under the guise of protecting women against sexual discrimination (p. 176).”

A sometimes frustratingly passive character (Flynn’s no slave to genre rules), Camille nonetheless provokes eventual resolution through her continued if ambivalent presence. In contrast to a recent domestic noir sensation, The Girl on the Train (in which active if interchangeable characters travel where the plot takes them, with routine stops at standard stations), character drives Sharp Objects’ narrative. Camille might be romantically challenged, but as a character she’s fleshed out, down to the placement of (spoiler alert) the words carved into her skin: she self-harms.

And through the course of the story, this habit reflects unflatteringly on not just her family and one of her lovers but also the culture at large. Here, as in Gone Girl, ideas appear to interest Flynn more than genre tics, and the metaphor of inscribing skin (a stock trope when killers cut their victims), adds a layer more typical of literary fiction.

Flynn’s looseness re genre conventions extends to her debut’s denouement. With the plot’s unravelling, or obligatory tying up, more or less summarised, an action revealing Camille’s state of mind assumes greater importance. Denied a happy ending, she’s left with a dawning awareness of how real care or parenting might feel.

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Talking Tense

About WritingWhy do so few fiction-writing handbooks even mention tense, let alone treat it in depth? One exception is Samuel R Delany’s About Writing (2005). An expert on technique, he talks tense to an interviewer. ‘The simple present has only a single, distanced tone’ in his opinion. But ditto, past tense used by those asleep to its scope. And why not use both? Back in the mid-19th century, we find the popular Dickens employing present tense at strategic points. And by the late 20th century, with conventions changing exponentially, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996) is so inventive, who cares about tense switches? Yet, compare its first and last sentences:

I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies.

And when he came back to, he was flat on his back on the beach in the freezing sand, and it was raining out of a low sky, and the tide was way out.

I forget when I first read a novel written in present tense, or its title. Yet I know the experience excited me. It still can. If some of my favourite fictions stick to past tense, they push other envelopes. And some of my favourites use present at least part of the time. According to Delany, it’s ‘purely artificial’. With fiction, though, what isn’t? In theory, nothing but past tense would work for, say, memoir. Yet the present narration (with past flashbacks) of Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000) is one of its least radical features. (Unlike hordes that have followed suit, often with a feeling of: If I could relive this now, here’s how I’d do it.)

For novelists whose plot reveals itself as they type, the story (before any edits) may be unfolding in the present – as for readers who identify with characters. Present tense mimics the immediacy of film or TV. One reason TV viewing tends to feel so much more passive than reading is that, unless you resort to pause or rewind, the medium drags you forward, thwarting reflection. And the sense conveyed by present tense that the action’s happening as you read generates suspense: what happens next?

I’ve noticed that readers who hate present tense, and many do, tend to be older – as if their habituation to past tense was entrenched before present begins to infiltrate literature. As if it’s an irritant to their sensibilities. (Perhaps not unlike pre-distressed denim to mine? In a culture where each fad is geared to wear out by the time the next comes around, the irony of new clothes that look ripe for use as paint rags seems lost on most buyers. Is our decadence part of our blind spot?)

Delany complains that ‘circa seventy percent of all literary fiction submissions are written in the present tense’, and ‘Today, the present tense has become the easy sign of the literary.’ Since then (1998), for many, it’s become automatic. But the web equalises all content time-wise (if not in other ways that count) – whatever you can define in search-engine-friendly terms is here now.

Delany again: ‘When, as an artist, you’re doing what most other artists are doing, chances run high you’re doing something wrong.’ Agreed – or why value originality? But some of what even groundbreaking artists do gets taken for granted. No doubt resistance reared its head when painters first ditched wood panels for canvas. Maybe present tense is turning into the new background?

Otherness

Under_the_SkinWhy is it that a human who can’t bear to watch an animal die, let alone be the agent of its death, should feel comfortable, and think nothing of, consuming animal flesh? Isn’t this a form of self-deception?

Michel Faber’s luminous first novel, Under the Skin (published in 2000, but I’ve only lately found it), messes with the reader’s head by juxtaposing such contradictions. He employs slyly deceptive means to achieve maximum impact, lulling the reader into feeling sympathy for his heroine Isserley. We can relate to the strangeness she finds around her as a foreigner, driving up and down the Scottish Highlands. Who hasn’t felt like an alien on visiting some faraway country or even a culturally unfamiliar if not-so-distant suburb? So, when at length we’re shown the fate of the hitchhikers Isserley’s been picking up, men to whose thoughts we’ve however briefly been privy, her inhuman attitude toward them – revealed by the glare of a torch at night – comes as a kick in the guts.

And here comes a spoiler (it’s 13 years since this fiercely original thriller came out, yet it remains topical, screaming to be thought and talked about): we’ve been set up to identify with an extraterrestrial alien who, it emerges in due course, views humans as food; in other words, someone just like us, who’s exploiting another species cold-bloodedly.

I’ve struggled to analyse why I found the concept of hunting then gunning down these escaped, naked, castrated, massively fattened ‘vodsels’ so shocking. And did I mention their tongues have been cut out? The monstrous plight of these men – so obscenely obese, they can’t climb or run (a condition now rife, no force-feeding needed, in the West) – made me shudder. Despite their anonymity from Isserley’s perspective, I remembered the hitchers with their personal histories. And even had these fugitives been cows, geese or pigs (none of whose flesh I eat), I would have felt excruciating empathy for them. But I think that, for all its realism, the power of this pivotal scene derives from Isserley’s eerie lack of empathy, conveyed via defamiliarisation; to her the tortured, mutilated humans are utterly other.

When compared to Under the Skin – a sustained, often lyrical, feat of imagination – much worthy writing on the theme of animal ethics and corporate atrocities begins to look stodgily rhetorical or academic at best. How does Faber enable the reader’s suspension of disbelief? He maintains a delicate balance between edgy suspense and character development; by the time the plot’s sci-fi underpinning begins to show through, the reader feels as invested in Isserley as if she were human.