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There’s something wrong with Nick Dunne. This is the beginning of Gillian Flynn’s bestseller “Gone Girl.” One single paragraph of reading and we’re already biased against the main character of the 2012 reader hit. It’s almost impossible not to. What kind of man recalls his wife’s head shape as his first memory of her? “Like a child, I picture opening her skull, unspooling her brain and sifting through it, trying to catch and pin down her thoughts.” This scene, with a clear aftertaste of gore movie, remains in our subconscious for over four hundred pages. Because Gillian Flynn wants it so.
With “Gone Girl,” Flynn exhibits her mastery of influencing the reader against a character. The beginning of the book has the power of a revelation. Nick seems to wear his heart on his sleeve when he starts a wandering soliloquy on how his life went from heaven to hell in no time. He seems so honest that at some point, you have the illusion of witnessing an attempt of confession. Your intuition tells you that something is rotten in the state of Mississippi. And Nick Dunne stinks more than anyone else around there. But why are we already rushing to condemn him? Cultural anthropology and sociology hold the key to explaining that, as well as metaphysical author Albert Camus, who made one of the finest attempts to decode human behavior and self-consciousness in “The Stranger” (L’étranger, 1942).
“Gone Girl” is more than just a compelling thriller. It’s a timeless sociological portrait of the importance of public judgment and how human beings struggle to fit in society. So it is “The Stranger”. In spite of the generational and philosophical gap between the two books, they can collectively be considered as a portrait of the concept of individualism in Western contemporary societies.
Camus, one of the figureheads of existentialism and absurdism, made the portrait of a young man, Monsieur Meursault, who has to face two critical episodes in his life: the disappearance of his mother and a trial for murder. A storyline echoing the predicament of Nick Dunne, whose wife goes missing, leaving Nick as the obvious perpetrator. On the surface both men match the stereotype of an unexceptional man: listless, passive, and barely remarkable in a world ruled by high social standards. They have a job or a career, a few personal relationships, a daily schedule, a routine. It might not be great, but they have a life.
One personal trait stands out: Meursault and Nick are not good at dealing with emotions. It doesn’t mean they are not sensitive or caring, they simply lack emotional intelligence. They don’t follow the expected pattern and know that their failure to emphasize will get them in trouble. In a social space where the public image is crucial, this is considered a major disability, but Nick Dunne has baggage, and so has Meursault. The Mississippi guy grew up in a shattered family, witnessing his father’s violence against his mother. He is a traumatized man, permanently hunted by the parental pattern of behavior. He might be the smart, witty, responsible guy every girl wishes for, but in his head he is a scared kid looking for approval. On a different level, Meursault also has to deal with a dysfunctional family history. He stopped visiting his mother when he realized they had nothing to say to each other. Then he buried her in his memories like Nick with his dad.
Both Albert Camus and Gillian Flynn depict the crash between the individual and the society. It seems inherently human to create and maintain a social structure around us. Evolution perfected the way we relate to each other and civilization represents a pattern which rules social behavior and manners. We want to fit and we need to in order to gain social acceptance. That is what the rules are made for. But what happens when society and social judgement becomes an almighty power and threatens individual freedom? We risk becoming strangers, always living on the edge.
Image credit: Gillian Flynn via Facebook