When “Gone Girl” was published to sensational acclaim — and extraordinary sales — in 2012, some critics hailed the novel as Gillian Flynn’s breakthrough. Yet for all its glories — those startling Act II gearshifts, that merciless vivisection of a marriage in toxic shock — its author had already, in her 2006 debut “Sharp Objects,” commented with verve and nerve on a controversial figure: the female protagonist who is neither simpering virgin nor femme fatale. As viperous as “Gone Girl,” this potent Midwestern Gothic — which on Sunday will debut as an HBO miniseries — showcases how women, both subtly and savagely, treat (and mistreat) one another. Better still, though, it dismantles the notion — reinforced by countless narratives on the page, on screen, in real life — they must be either spice or nice.
Flynn has long disputed “this idea that women are innately good, innately nurturing” and bemoaned “the spunky heroines, “soul-searching fashionistas” and “dismissably bad” tramps and vamps populating so much contemporary fiction. Her own novels, by contrast, illuminate — indeed they celebrate — a woman’s right to be complicated, flawed, profane, unsympathetic; even, as she put it in a 2013 interview, “pragmatically evil, bad, and selfish.”
Consider the opening lines of her second novel, “Dark Places”: “I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ,” confesses Libby Day. “I was never a good little girl.” There is a Gillian Flynn character in 17 words: irrepressibly and irredeemably herself, for better or (more likely) for worse and wholly unapologetic either way. This is why Amy Dunne of “Gone Girl” walloped the world like an asteroid. And it is why “Sharp Objects” remains so vital, more than a decade after its publication, especially in an age aflame with debates about both women’s experiences and civility.
Camille Preaker, our protagonist, is more winsome than Libby Day, but only incidentally (and only incrementally). A lackluster reporter at “the fourth-largest paper in Chicago,” she returns to her hometown of Wind Gap, Mo., to investigate the homicides of two young girls — a homecoming that pits her against the town sheriff, a Kansas City detective and a community as poisonous and knotty as a snake pit.
One of the novel’s wilier tricks is to spotlight Camille’s beauty, which ripened “suddenly, unmistakably” soon after her 13th birthday. (“You could have been a model, you know,” an admirer tells her years later.) Loveliness, in fiction, typically graces a pair of archetypes: the angel and the temptress. Yet Camille is neither, although she allows she might be “a soft touch.” She is also a self-cutter, her body crosshatched with scars; she is fresh from a stint at the psych ward; she is sarcastic and unstable. In other words, she is intriguing. Observant, too, as befits a reporter. That acuity serves her well as she navigates the riptides of Wind Gap.
Prowling those waters is her ice-queen mother, Adora, who with her long blond hair and pale blue eyes was like “a girl’s very best doll, the kind you don’t play with.” There is also Amma, Adora’s teenage daughter and Camille’s half sister, who admits that when away from home, “I’m other things.” Amma is a changeling, one minute a choir girl, the next a come-hither siren; both kitten and sex kitten. In the latter guise, she heads a squad of fellow mean girls (two of them named Kelsey, naturally), while Adora presides over the women of Wind Gap.
These are familiar archetypes — the prodigal daughter, the chilly matriarch, the “woman-child with a gorgeous body . . . asserting her power over lesser creatures,” the chorus line of neighbors competing in a grief sweepstakes. In “Sharp Objects,” however, Flynn acid-strips them of sentiment. Her women neither revel in nor aspire to what one of them describes, facetiously, as “girl power.” Mothers will not forbear to remind their children that they do not love them. They discard make-believe personalities as snakes shed skin. Above all, no one seeks to be likable.
Here is where Flynn’s detractors pounce. Doesn’t she undermine her sex by unleashing female characters so variously selfish, psychotic, shape-shifting and — perish the thought — uncivil? Characters who, ruminating on the “Old Testament spitefulness of the phrase got what she deserved,” suggest “Sometimes women do”? Shouldn’t Flynn rose-tint them, soften them, girl-power them?
In a word, no — that is a bum rap, in noir-speak. Flynn’s novels are feminist precisely because they aim a megawatt beam, bright as prison lights, into the dark corners of women’s minds and lives. (Compare her approach with that of novelists who claim to confront misogyny even as they fetishize violence against female characters.) They reject coddling: “To say we need to be looked after, I find offensive,” Camille gripes. Time and again in her fiction — and especially in “Sharp Objects” — Flynn forces us to review (and reject) our biases about women in literature, an entire sex routinely taxonomized, infantilized and reduced to cliche. The female of the species, Flynn shows us, can be deadlier than the male.
Not that they would care, mind you. Nor would they care if we like them (which, frequently, we do not). But damned if they are not psychologically credible. And damned, too, if “Sharp Objects” does not expose and explode our own prejudices about how women should — or even can — think, behave, dress, live. This is Flynn’s supreme gift to her readers. And soon, to her viewers.
A.J. Finn is the author of the book “The Woman in the Window.”