The marvelous Gillian Flynn, following up on her masterpiece Gone Girl, continues her seriocomic dramatization of early twenty-first century America–its popular culture reflective of the New World odyssey carrying forth in a faltering line from Hawthorne and Whitman through the naturalists to Faulkner, Didion and Updike–in an exquisite little story you could call a ghost story for these times. Accordingly, there isn’t really a traditional ghost in her dazzling sixty-two pages of The Grownup, here published as a tiny hardcover by Crown Publishers which can be rushed to you as a sudden apparition by Amazon Prime and which, when you open your mailbox, whispers Boo! But Flynn is a new voice. Hers is a contemporary stand-in “ghost” for olden spirits in such “Classic Stories of the Supernatural” as The Woman in White and The Haunting of Hill House. Flynn’s stand-in “ghost,” brilliant and creative fifteen-year-old Miles, suits the times as a most corporeal sociopath (and a distant, depraved cousin of Huck Finn, Holden Caulfield and Lolita) with an irresistible allure as a secular Holy Devil Entrepreneur and Artist who will perpetrate and stage-manage a lethal haunting and thereby show you the risky, exciting and often trending-to-murderous underside of the Grand Con-Job known as pop culture–New Wave Belief and Self-Actualization and Fortune-Telling and the rest of the hopeful nonsense as rampant in these times as ever, indeed probably moreso in the billionfold social media. Miles beckons you to come along on his profound, skillful and dangerous cultural adventures which are revelatory not of the supernatural but of the true naturalistic basis of pop culture.
As The Grownup opens, Flynn’s unnamed narrator, droll in seeing herself living in a marketplace of marks, appears as an underprivileged woman who has become a near legendary successful Vanity Fair Con Artist (after all, Ivied universities are beyond her financial reach if clearly not her intelligence), a brilliant woman who has transcended her mean circumstances as a most canny and successful “sex worker” who in her specialty is suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome. (Ah, Ms Flynn, you are indeed a raunchy contemporary humorist!)
But now Flynn’s protagonist is expanding her Cons, and here Flynn has no mercy and certainly few current rivals in her sharp and disgusted satire, as seen in this wisdom of one of those Cons learned by her narrator and focused on female clients:
“The fortune-teller clients were almost all women…. (These) clients were mostly upper-middle class and lower-upper class…. Appearances are everything. These are not people who want to slum it. These are people whose primary purpose is to live in the city but feel like they’re in the suburbs. Our front office looked like a Pottery Barn ad. I dressed accordingly, which is basically Funky Artist as approved of and packaged by Anthropologie. Peasant blouses, that’s the key.
“The women…were desperate, and they didn’t have good enough insurance for a therapist. Or they didn’t know they were desperate enough to need a therapist. It was hard to feel sorry for them. I tried because you don’t want your mystic, the keeper of your future, to roll her eyes at you. But I mean, come on. Big house in the city, husbands who didn’t beat them and helped with the kids, sometimes with careers but always with book clubs. And still they felt sad. That’s what they always ended up saying: ‘But I’m just sad.’ Feeling sad means having too much time on your hands, usually. Really. I’m not a licensed therapist but usually it means too much time.
So I say things like, ‘A great passion is about to enter your life.’ Then you pick something you can make them do. You figure out what will make them feel good about themselves. Mentor a child, volunteer at the library, neuter some dogs, go green.”
Our nameless heroine has accordingly begun to move up to a higher level of Con, “domestic aura cleaning.” Herewith Flynn’s wondrous ability to make distinctions as seen in this confession by her heroine (and a character you recognize as a metaphor for the literary Flynn herself):
“I’d been trying to move into the domestic aura-cleaning business. Basically, when someone moves into a new house, they call you. You wander round the house burning sage and sprinkling salt and murmuring a lot. Fresh start, wipe away any lingering bad energy from previous owners. Now that people were moving back into the heart of the city, into all the old historic houses, it seemed like a boom industry waiting to happen. A hundred-year-old house, that’s a lot of leftover vibes.
“‘Susan, have you considered that the house is affecting your son’s behavior?’
“Susan leaned in, her eyes wide. ‘Yes! Yes, I do. Is that crazy? That’s why I came back. Because…there was blood on my wall.’”
That’s Susan Burke, new upper-class client of Flynn’s Aura-Cleaning Con-Artist narrator. We’ll return to the bloody stain momentarily.
Burke, a formidable corporate-downsizing consultant unknowingly married to one of Flynn’s narrator’s male clients (also not in the know about his wife’s hiring of Flynn’s narrator) who is regularly paying for the narrator’s sexual specialty, has moved into a classic Victorian mansion (“Carterhook Manor”) which she has gutted and, on the inside, remodeled in a hyper modernistic style. (Attention, metaphor lovers!)
Here is the rub in this “ghost” story: Susan has a fifteen-year-old biological son and a stepson of the same age, Miles, the latter living with the family in the eerie renovated mansion. “He scuttles. Like a beetle.” His frightening luminous eyes are like those of a spider. He is straight out of Darwinian perspectives. He lurks about. He appears here and there in exactly the manner of older such haunters of castles and mansions. He is, in short, deadly, a creature Flynn means us to see as a sociopath, her take on the traditional ghost genre and her analysis of dangerous pop culture. But he is a superb Criminal Con-Artist. A natural. An ingenious creator of hoax who has shown signs of being lethal. Miles himself has created the haunting of the mansion. He has rendered the blood stain and many other “signs” of a ghostly haunting. Suddenly he has created a Grand Con that is greater than “aura-cleaning” and moreover, says Flynn, ultimately fundamental to the superficial cons of the pop culture. Those eagerly watched celebrity shows in which the Fallen Star becomes the Crazed Killer.
Prophetically, Flynn’s narrator eventually runs off with Miles and goes On The Road. Miles has had to run away after his “haunting” of the mansion, his tricks having put the Burke family in jeopardy. Flynn’s nameless heroine continues her odyssey beyond being a “sex worker” and a New Wave Con-Artist. She has taken a leap. (And again, certainly this storyline metaphorically invokes Flynn.) As she says at The End:
“The kid was kind of likeable. Also a possible sociopath, but very likeable. I had a good feeling about him. I was going with a smart kid …. I was finally going to leave town for the first time in my life, and I had a whole new “mommy” angle to work. I decided not to worry: I may never know the truth about the happenings at Carterhook Manor (how’s that for a great line?). But I was either screwed or not screwed, so I chose to believe I wasn’t. I had convinced so many people of so many things over my life, but this would be my greatest feat: convincing myself what I was doing was reasonable.
“I got in bed and watched the door of the adjoining room (Miles’s). Checked the lock. Turned off the light. Stared at the ceiling.
“Pulled the dresser in front of the door.
“Nothing to worry about at all.”