Gillian Flynn writes ugly. That is, she crams her novels with so much grime and disgust that her prose turns pustulant, oozing out nastiness in satisfying but sickening spurts. Characters have teeth “soaked in brown tobacco saliva.” Their backs are full of zits “so big they looked like wounds.” Young girls murder pet dogs, women wake covered in crusty drool, little girls are described as “piggy … destined for needy sex and snack-cake bingeing,” and actual pigs are slaughtered on the page, their “bloody nipples pointing out like fingers.”
Of course, writers of mysteries and thrillers dwell in the land of the despicable, where bodies are turned to mincemeat and vengeance spreads like it’s contagious. But most are still genteel, in their own way. They reserve the unseemly for their murder scenes and their villains’ habits — occasionally a character has a repulsive tic, like scratching his eczema — but they want to you to feel enthralled, not nauseated. Gillian Flynn, on the other hand, encourages readers to feel disgusted, particularly by her female characters. Her women are externally beautiful, but they revel in their interior filth, and willfully stir up the emotional sludge of those they are meant to love.
When Gone Girl leaped off bookstore shelves in 2012, it filled a need that many readers didn’t know they had. With its setting in a midwestern suburban housing development gone bust, it tapped into anxiety about the floundering post-recession economy. With its main characters’ downwardly mobile careers, it sang a tune that the middle and lower socioeconomic classes already knew. With its story of a marriage gone off the rails, it titillated “happy” couples and disgruntled exes alike. It took subject matter well-traversed — a spouse gone missing — and heightened the stakes. And it presented one of the most duplicitous and vengeful, yet still alluring female protagonists in recent memory: Amy Dunne was a cruel, unhinged sociopath, who nonetheless smelled like “berries and powdered sugar.”
Sharp Objects, Flynn’s Edgar Prize–nominated first novel, and Dark Places, her second work about a woman who is recruited to help a “murder club” investigate the tragic deaths of her own family, were fluffed up with new covers and rereleased after Gone Girl upended the market. (Sites like Kirkus loved both, but the New York Times never reviewed Sharp Objects, and Dark Places only earned a quick mention.) They are, as one might expect from earlier novels, slightly more traditional in their narrative arcs: Both involve flashbacks, but are fairly linear. But with Sharp Objects in particular — which will make its small-screen debut Sunday on HBO, with a dream cast including Amy Adams and Patricia Clarkson — it’s the women who Flynn writes ugly, creating one of the most hideously complex group of women in literature, and far outdoing the psychopathic, single-minded Amy Dunne of Gone Girl. Gillian Flynn was upstaging Gone Girl before Gone Girl.
Camille Preaker is a late 20-something reporter for the Chicago Daily Post, the city’s fourth-largest paper and an institution so unvaunted that it’s housed in the suburbs. In the opening chapter of Sharp Objects, Camille’s editor sends her back to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on a missing 10-year-old named Natalie Keene who vanished a few weeks earlier. Compounding the town’s anxiety about Natalie’s disappearance is the unsolved murder of 9-year-old Ann Nash, who was found strangled the past summer, floating in a creek, with every single tooth pulled from her head. Soon enough, Natalie turns up dead too, her body stuffed in a small alley on Main Street, her mouth also devoid of teeth. There are no leads, no witnesses, and a thousand rumors circulating. In Wind Gap, gossip is the most potent form of currency.
For Camille, returning to Wind Gap is a dangerous dip back into the past. Her sickly sister Marian died in adolescence, and her mother Adora — the hypochondriac, exacting, impeccably groomed ruler of the town — has always kept Camille at a distance, physically and emotionally. “She has never told me she loved me,” Camille explains in narration, “and I never assumed she did.” Marian was Adora’s beloved, and she’s now been replaced with Camille’s 13-year-old half-sister, Amma, whom Adora dresses in doll-like flowered gowns and hair ribbons and whose every headache and mood swing is fawned over. Based in her family’s meticulous Victorian manse in Wind Gap, Camille works her way closer and closer to the truth about who murdered Ann and Natalie, even as she’s haunted by a childhood that led her to carve words into her own skin, covering nearly her entire body with raised scars, angry reminders of her self-harm.
Camille is, gloriously, one of those “unlikable” women that readers love to complain about, even though they’re often the most compelling characters on the page. She drinks heavily, as if it sustains her. This isn’t an Alicia Florrick–type hobby, swirling ruby-red wine in a glass the size of her head on a nightly basis. It’s desperate 10 a.m. swigs of vodka from a paper-covered bottle; liquor, she says, is “lubrication — a layer of protection from all the sharp thoughts in your head.” She has no friends to speak of, with the exception of her gruff but loving editor. There is no softness to her, nor any pep. Her memories are bile-coated, her manners nonexistent, and her general demeanor is spiky and unapproachable. At the end of the first chapter, as Camille slips into bed, she remembers a neighbor’s hunting shed she wandered into as a child:
Ribbons of moist, pink flesh dangled from strings, waiting to be dried for jerky. The dirt floor was rusted with blood. The walls were covered with photographs of naked women. Some of the girls were spreading themselves wide, others were being held down and penetrated. One women was tied up, her eyes glazed, breasts stretched and veined like grapes, as a man took her from behind. … At home that night, I slipped a finger under my panties and masturbated for the first time, panting and sick.
Gore abhors and attracts Camille in equal measure. “I adored tending to myself,” she thinks to herself about her cutting, “wiping a shallow red pool of my blood away with a damp washcloth to magically reveal, just above my navel: queasy.”
And yet Camille is, somehow, the most grounded woman in her family. “Every tragedy that happens in the world happens to my mother,” she explains, “and this more than anything about her turns my stomach.” The deaths of Natalie and Ann, two little girls whom Camille doesn’t even believe her mother knew very well, set Adora so on edge that she tells Camille to lie to her about her daily work reporting on the case. “I just can’t have that kind of talk about me,” she says like a wilting flower, “I’ll pretend you’re here for summer break.” She’s a woman who aims to be seen as suffering beautifully, clicking around her grand house in perfectly cut dresses and high heels, leaving piles of pulled-out eyelashes behind everywhere she goes. This type of willfully oblivious narcissism means that Adora vigorously neglects the emotional well-being of her children, only focusing on how they are perceived as extensions of herself. When she sees Camille’s scarred body through a fitting room doorway, she only remarks, “I hope you just loved it. I hope you can stand yourself.” There isn’t an ounce of sympathy in her soul for someone who would mutilate herself.
For Adora, the human body is in a constant state of revolt against its owner; it’s something to be managed with tonics and purgatives and hot soaks. When she pricks her palm on some garden roses, her hands are “bandaged … extravagantly,” and she assures a friend that she’ll see the doctor to tend to it. She manages Camille and Amma’s bad dreams, hangovers, and sudden fevers with spoonfuls of medicine from a secret stash. Bodies exist for Adora to tame and control. Camille remembers spying on her mother while she held a friend’s baby: “She opened her mouth just slightly, took a tiny bit of flesh between her teeth, and gave it a little bite.”
Meanwhile, teenage Amma has already mastered the art of duplicity. At home, she gamely dons the little girl’s dresses and plays on the porch with her dollhouse — a perfect replica of the Crellin family home — to assume the role of the diligent little lady for her parents. She’s the most childish version of herself with them, smashing a mahogany dollhouse dinner table because the pattern on the legs is wrong. “The whole thing is ruined!” she screams, in a “full-blown tantrum” more befitting a toddler than a teenager. In a fit of jealousy, she proclaims to her mother “I wish I’d be murdered. … Then I’d never have to worry again. When you die, you become perfect. I’d be like Princess Diana. Everyone loves her now.” She either means it, which indicates she’s profoundly disturbed, or she knows such a statement will garner attention, which also indicates she’s profoundly disturbed.
But with her friends, Amma proudly displays the breasts “of a grown woman.” She swallows three OxyContins in a car with her friends (and sister), washing it down with a gulp of vodka. Amma pulls Ecstasy from her bra, passing it around the room from mouth to mouth, eventually wrapping her arms around Camille, “pushing the pill down hard on [her] tongue.” Between bouts of pouting, she tentatively lets Camille in on the dark inner workings of her mind, saying that after Adora “takes care” of her, she likes to have sex. Late one night in bed, she whispers, “What if you hurt because it feels so good? Like you have a tingling, like someone left a switch on in your body. And nothing can turn the switch off except hurting?” Camille doesn’t respond. It’s unclear if Amma is talking about hurting herself or other people.
Together, the three women put on a beguiling performance of how femininity can be a curtain for the rage inside of women. Despite Adora’s status as queen bee of Wind Gap and arbiter of all social edicts, she blinds herself to Amma’s wild misdeeds, focusing her vexation on Camille’s dogged reporting and scar-covered body. Her lavish home, with an ornate ivory bedroom floor so precious to Adora that her children aren’t permitted to walk on it, is a mask for the pig slaughtering operation that keeps the family pulling in $1.2 million a year. And it’s no coincidence that Amma is an anagram for “Mama.” The mother and child are cut from the same cloth; Amma has a hideous little soul housed in a beautiful, nubile body, which she clothes in whatever costume will best suit her audience.
Camille, meanwhile, has physically covered herself in words that she admits are mostly “feminine and negative”: words like petticoat, cunt, tragic, clit. The words are, perhaps, a subconscious attempt to keep her body to herself; Camille admits she hasn’t had sex for ten years out of fear of exposing her skin. In hot and sticky Missouri, she wears long-sleeve T-shirts and ankle-length skirts to cover up. The cutting, she admits, started the same summer she discovered that she “became quite suddenly, unmistakably beautiful.” It was the year she was 13, the same age as Amma. You can’t help but read the significance of one sister bouncing around in intentionally provocative tiny shorts and tank tops at the same age that the other began cutting, carving the word wicked into her pubic bone.
Camille, Adora, and Amma all recognize they are engaged in a performance with the world around them: Indeed, that’s the most palpable mark of how utterly real these women are. More devious and yes, wicked, than most, perhaps. But also self-aware and cognizant that the world demands women play certain roles for certain people, and that the easiest way to get what you want is to first give other people what they expect. As Amma tells Camille, “Sometimes if you let people do things to you, you’re really doing it to them.” Their darkness is something these women can keep for themselves, like an inmate might keep a cockroach as a pet in her cell, tending to it and doting on it because it’s the only thing that doesn’t need to be shared.
“I will never understand where your penchant for ugliness comes from,” Adora tut-tuts at Camille’s career choice. “Seems like you have enough of that in life without deliberately seeking it out.” It’s a query lobbed at the reader as well. Why seek out this darkness? Why revel in finally seeing female villains so nasty and loathsome? Everyone wants to see themselves reflected in art, even our nastiest, most secret little bits. This novel lets us examine all the sharp thoughts in our own heads, but with a layer of protection.