Sometimes if you let people do things to you, you’re really doing it to them.
Sharp Objects reads a lot like a trial run for Gone Girl. I mean this in the best possible way; Gone Girl is, I remain firmly convinced, a work of genius, and very few writers produce work like that without experimenting a little bit along the way. Reading Flynn’s debut novel, you can see how her interests have developed, how her exploration of uncomfortable (to say the least) subject matter has evolved and matured, and how she’s learned some writerly tricks. Gone Girl is like a shirt woven in one piece, top to bottom; in Sharp Objects, you can see the seams. But hell, it’s absorbing, it’s terrifying, and even with its seams showing, it’s very, very well-written. Even if Flynn had never written her third novel, this one would have secured her a reputation. It won the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award from the Crime Writers’ Association, so other people agree with me on this.
Camille Preaker, our protagonist, is a hard-bitten newspaper journalist from Chicago whose editor sends her back to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri, to cover a story that might be their last hope to turn their ailing paper around: two little girls have been abducted. One was found strangled with all of her teeth pulled out; the other is still missing. Camille, like all hard-bitten reporters and/or detectives and/or small-town refugees, has an unpleasant past, and returning to Wind Gap brings it all back: the death of her younger sister, her inability to ever win her mother’s love, the rampant alcoholism, sexual abuse and mental illness that seethes in tiny communities when they refuse to admit to imperfection. Meanwhile, the second little girl turns up dead—also strangled and with all her teeth pulled out—and Camille’s thirteen-year-old half-sister, Amma, seems to have the whole town under her (disturbingly sexualized) sway. Can Camille, with Kansas City detective Richard Willis, find a murderer at the heart of small-town life, or will her demons ruin her first?
Go on, guess.
The identity of the murderer isn’t really the point in Sharp Objects, though; I’d guessed it (and the twist, I’m proud to say) about seventy-five pages in. I don’t think Flynn is that interested in the tension of the chase, although she executes that tension well enough. The main characteristic of the book is its absolutely obsessive interest in power, and especially the varieties of power that are available to women—and girls—in a deeply misogynistic environment. Gang rape is not uncommon at Wind Gap high school parties, but no one recognizes it as such; middle school girls frequently offer less popular classmates to groups of older boys. Amma, whose alarmingly adult body is one of her defining features, speaks the header quote; at thirteen, she’s already fully assimilated the power inherent in submission. Unlike most of the other girls in Wind Gap, though, she’s not content simply to submit. Amma’s instinct to dominate and to damage is presented as an inexplicable evil; “What if you hurt,” she asks Camille,
because it feels so good? Like you have a tingling, like someone left a switch on in your body. And nothing can turn that switch off except hurting [someone else]. What does that mean?”
All of the women who hurt in Sharp Objects hurt other women. It never occurs to any of them that the cruel, contradictory, impossible demands they make of each other are assimilated simulacra of male priorities, male wants. They are so embedded in the system that stunts them that they can only target individuals who are as deeply helpless as they are; you couldn’t ask for a more perfect fictional representation of the Panopticon phemenon. It’s this, more than anything else, which really disturbed me while reading: you have to ask yourself whether the book, as well as its characters and setting, is misogynistic. Camille becomes furious at Richard Willis when he calls the gang rapes by name: “And sometimes,” she tells him,
drunk women aren’t raped; they just make stupid choices—and to say we deserve special treatment when we’re drunk because we’re women, to say we need to be looked after, I find offensive.”
Later, in an internal monologue, she muses,
I was never really on my side in any argument. I liked the Old Testament spitefulness of the phrase got what she deserved. Some women do.
The first comment goes against everything I have spent my adolescence and early adulthood learning: that you cannot consent while you are drunk, that you cannot consent if underage. Camille’s understanding of feminism, too, is fundamentally flawed: not having sex with drunken middle-schoolers is not giving them “special treatment”. It’s behaving with the understanding that they’re human children, instead of insensate vaginas.
Fortunately, I came to the conclusion that Flynn as an author, and Sharp Objects as a text, do not share Camille’s or Wind Gap’s convictions about female behaviour and what women can “expect”—or at least, they don’t want to. The ending of the book has Camille asking herself how much of her behaviour is due to a true sense of compassion, and how much of it is a legacy from her deeply disturbed mother, Adora. (I won’t elaborate for fear of spoilers, but if you read it, you’ll see what I mean.) “Lately”, she concludes, “I’ve been leaning towards kindness.” The reader wants, truly wants, to lean that way, too. It’s both Flynn’s strength and her weakness to have given us a portrait of darkness so convincing that that final sentence rings a little hollow.