I never learn my lesson the way normal people do, so I put my hand on the lit burner again and sent him a personal essay, which he again shredded to pieces. This was a man who phoned me at home to ask me to contribute after reading a letter I'd sent to another literary magazine. I wondered if he misinterpreted my words as some kind of hanky code for hardcore masochism. At any rate, sufficiently blistered at that point, I stopped contacting him. Rejection is a part of trying to be published, and the editor has final say without question. But if you're going to be abusive we need to negotiate a safe word. All I'm saying.
This came to mind recently when one of my regular jobs offered me a memoir by a diagnosed sociopath for review. I knew very little about the subject when I received the book, and one of the difficulties I had was that, upon finishing, I still found myself largely in the dark. Is it a combination of over-developed self-esteem with a lack of emotional connection? Does that explain why someone would be cruel or violent just because they feel smart enough to get away with it? Why are so many of them lawyers?
I was comfortable recommending the book because readers will enjoy getting close to an author who claims to embody this dangerous mystery. And I felt a tremor of concern that, having mentioned some of the book's shortcomings, the author might track me down and "ruin" me in some form or other. (Then I got into a Seinfeldian debate with myself about the ego required to think I'm worth ruining in the first place. Things were said that can't be unsaid by either of me. It was ugly.) This week I read another book that put the matter into perspective.
If you haven't yet read Gillian Flynn's third novel, GONE GIRL, you're in a dwindling minority. I bragged to anyone who would listen that I was 476th in line on the public library's waiting list. When it came I'd spent a week having terrible problems with my vision, my left eye weepy and blurred while my right eye sat there stoically acting like the two of them didn't share real estate in my face. I had promised to take time off from reviewing if this got any worse, but since it's how I pay rent that became an impossibility. And because I read so much for work, just reading an adult (as in, non-YA) novel that has been thoughtfully written and edited is such a pleasure anymore...well, I had to go for it. And if you want to get up close and personal with a sociopath, GONE GIRL is the way to go.
I want to spoil every single plot twist in the story just because they are so amazing, but don't worry, I'm nice. And this isn't so much about the novel; it's about how a "real" sociopath could talk about her experiences in some detail, but had to keep a degree of remove to protect her identity. That author had to hedge for legal reasons, which made much of the book dry and removed when it should have been juiciest. Flynn was under no such restraint, and her creation, Amy, is an absolute jewel, a fierce and deadly ball of charms. Honestly, were she alive to read it, Patricia Highsmith would have creamed her neatly pressed trousers over Amy. I know I did.
And that's the point (I know you were wondering. Stop looking at your watch!): That jackass literary editor was onto something.
When I sent in the review of this memoir, I mentioned that if the author and I shared an elevator in a reasonably tall building, there was no doubt in my mind that if she wanted to she could leave with my phone number, keys, milk money and very possibly my underpants as well. Maybe she needs something to cover her car with, I don't know. She described herself as seductive and compelling, and I took her at her word. But on the page, she was sterile and standoffish. Whereas with Amy, the fictional character at the center of GONE GIRL, it was basically the opposite. The more you learn about her as the story progresses, well, let's just say it should reduce her appeal as a potential mate. But I found myself mentally inventing excuses, strategizing to help her, maybe send her my milk money just in case. I was completely fogged in, and then I realized: THAT'S a sociopath! Damn. Fiction enabled me to get so close to the character I would have willingly eaten from her hand, even knowing she probably poisoned my kibble for sport. I can't envision a nonfiction account that could have the same impact, and heaven knows this was worlds more fun.
I still stand by the quality of the piece that was so rudely rejected years ago, but I also have a new respect for both fiction and that hoary chunk of advice: Show, don't tell. Also, Amy: I know you're fictional, but if you ever need a place to crash, you know, call me.