Literature holds some passages that as a result of over-exposure are immortal but mundane, in the same sense that the Mona Lisa is both of these things: If we peer very, very intently, we can discern the original glimmer of beauty or truth that destined it for agelessness, but otherwise, it’s just a thing on the wall.
John Keats’ most famous lines of poetry—” ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know’”, and the poem in which the lines are found, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, address this very notion but ironically have, themselves, long ago faded into the wallpaper. Nonetheless, the lines came back to me for the first time since Freshman English, and with a renewed force, as I struggled to understand why I rather liked an oddly written new memoir called She and I: A Fugue and why I so loathed another book, somewhat better-written and vastly better-selling, that I coincidentally happened to be reading at the same time.
Let us begin with the object of my abhorrence. I’m a fan of crime fiction and mysteries, which I tend to read in parallel with the books—lately, mostly memoirs—that I review. I’ve worked my way through most of Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, A.C. Doyle, and Dashiell Hammett, and have recently become a fan of Richard Price, Ruth Rendell, Michael Connelly, Lawrence Block, and Peter Hoeg, among others. All of course are very different from one another, but none, whether they lean more toward the “crime” side or the “mystery” side of the spectrum, can be accused of shying away from the turbid depths of the human spirit. So when I opened a debut mystery novel called Sharp Objects, by Gillian Flynn, the chief TV critic at Entertainment Weekly, I wasn’t expecting a walk on the mild side.
Nor was I surprised that the protagonist was a deeply disturbed human being who is “dogged by her own demons”, as the publicity material puts it, and carves words like “wicked” and “babydoll” and “icebox” into the hidden parts of her flesh with a blade. After all, the days when the hero of a crime or mystery novel was merely a puttering eccentric like Miss Marple or Poirot or Nero Wolfe are far in the past, and it has become virtually de rigueur, and probably not all that inaccurate, for contemporary investigators to be former drug addicts, or imperfectly reformed alcoholics or, in one way or another, deeply miserable human beings who have to struggle to make it through the day. (I have to admit, however, that the “icebox” was an anachronistic head-scratcher; why doesn’t she slash “Victrola” or “velocipede” into her inner thighs while she’s at it?)
But Flynn takes this relatively recent stereotype and plows it into the muck. It isn’t so much that her “heroine”, a Chicago newspaper reporter named Camille Preaker who returns to her home town of Wind Gap, Missouri to investigate some vicious (needless to say) child murders, is a cutter; that subculture has invaded even our junior high schools these days. No, the issue is that Preaker has figuratively slashed her eyes and her soul as well as her flesh, causing her—and thus, the unfortunate reader—to see all of the human beings she encounters as if they’ve been painted by those masters of disgust, Francis Bacon and Ivan Albright, and then drizzled with rancid grease for good measure.
And that’s all of the characters, not just the ones who murder little girls.
Here are a few of Preaker’s portraits of the non-murdering residents of the small town in Missouri where she was raised:
“I turned to see one of my mother’s friends, Jackie O’Neele (nee O’Keefe) who’d clearly just had a facelift. Here eyes were still puffy and her face was moist and red and stretched, as if she was an angry baby squeezing out of the womb.”
“Angie Papermaker (nee Knightley) looked like she was still battling the bulimia that’d whittled her down in high school—her neck was as thin and ropy as an old woman’s.”
“Jackie purred. She had a melon of a head, covered with overbleached hair, and a leering smile.”
“She smiled leeringly again and clicked her round brown eyes open and shut. She reminded me of a ventriloquist dummy come alive. With hard skin and broken capillaries.”
“I was hoping Betsy Nash would disappear. Literally. She was so insubstantial, I could imagine her slowly evaporating, leaving only a sticky spot at the edge of the sofa.”
“The piggy middle child, who now waddled dazedly into the room, was destined for needy sex and snack-cake bingeing.”
“The boy next to me, introduced only as Nolan, nodded and wiped sweat off his upper lip. Skinny arms with scabs and a face full of acne. Meth. Missouri is the second-most addicted state in the Union.” (One of a dozen or so slams at Missouri in this book, by the way; can a state sue for libel?)
Worse even than these physical descriptions is the selfish, cowardly, and apathetic way in which the characters (at least as they are seen through Preaker’s blood-rimmed eyes) react to the murders of the little girls, who suffered, among other horrors, the forcible extraction of all of their teeth. Even those girls, after all their suffering, don’t get a break, as if we readers are expected to shrug, too, at their demise; one of the victims had “killed a neighbor’s pet bird with a stick. She’d sharpened it herself with one of her daddy’s hunting knifes.” The other victim? One of the characters says, “Hell, her family moved here two years ago because she stabbed one of her classmates in the eye with a pair of scissors.”
This is, trust me, only a small sampling of what awaits the reader of this book; I gave up on page 91, so overwhelmed was I by the contempt for the characters and the milieu, and so fearful of what horrors lay ahead, as if an exhibition of Francis Bacon’s paintings were to have, in a hidden room in the back, actual flayed and eviscerated lumps of living human flesh on display, rather than merely their two-dimensional representations.
Let me anticipate two objections. Stephen King, for one, writes of far-worse horrors. (And, indeed, he’s one of this book’s enthusiastic blurbers.) But King is a writer of fantasy, not of putatively realistic fiction and, more important, is possessed of genuine humanity and insight into the human condition.
The second possibility is simply that Gillian Flynn has conceived of a hateful character and is employing dramatic irony to depict that character’s sickness. This is undoubtedly true, but also close to being irrelevant, because the point is not that Gillian Flynn is herself a hateful person who sees only ugliness. In fact, Flynn’s author’s portrait on the back cover depicts a very attractive and pleasant-looking woman, and in her author’s acknowledgments she offers “...much love and appreciation to my massive Missouri family—who I’m happy to say were absolutely no inspiration for the characters in this book.” (I suppose this was a nice thing to say, but it reminds me a bit of an Air Force general sending a private warning to a few favored residents of a city before firebombing it.)
So who was, in fact, the “inspiration”, if that is the right word, for this book? My guess? No one who exists or has ever existed on this planet, an intuition that was reinforced by a glimpse into Flynn’s new book, Dark Places, when after gingerly flipping through its pages (I felt like I needed a pair of latex gloves to do so), I almost immediately encountered the same pervasive contempt for humanity.
This second book, which concerns a woman who is the lone survivor of a family massacre, features a different protagonist, so that takes care of the argument that Flynn is merely giving us a glimpse of the world, in Sharp Objects, that one deeply disturbed character might see. Rather, the issue would appear to be that Flynn has a predilection for engaging not with the reality of the world as it is—where most people are complex admixtures of beauty and ugliness—but rather with a melodramatic and decadent version of a crime-novel cliché. Put another way, a novelist is not her characters, but when enough characters are of a certain type, they do begin to define the novelist.
So, part one of Keats’ equation tells me this: When an artist, for reasons of commerce or convention, or because of a lack of inclination or skill, is unable to engage with the truth, and whether she prettifies reality like some mass-market romance novelist or, as in this case, dumps Missouri mud and blood all over it, the result is ugliness all the same.