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“One Long Frightening Climax”: Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Lacan’s The Other Side of Psychoanalysis



L’objectif de cette étude, intitulée « Un long orgasme effrayant: Gone Girl et L’Envers de la psychanalyse », est de démontrer comment le Séminaire XVII de Lacan, L’Envers de la psychanalyse (1969-70), peut servir d’outil d’interprétation dans l’analyse de Gone Girl de Gillian Flynn [publié en traduction française sous le titre Les Apparences] (2012), dans la mesure où le roman dépeint la subjectivité, le discours et le désir (ainsi que son absence) d’une façon qui reflète les prédictions de Lacan concernant la société de consommation. Le roman fournit également un exemple de l’acte psychanalytique comme préalable nécessaire à « l’envers de la psychanalyse» exalté. Ainsi que Lacan l’élabore tout au long du Séminaire XVII, et comme le personnage d’Amy Dunne l’illustre dans Gone Girl, la perte de la satisfaction et l’excès de plaisir émergent au même moment : celui de l’intervention du signifiant. L’acte psychanalytique signifiant d’Amy – la disparition obscène du personnage, qui s’absente d’un champ mal articulé, sans lois ni interdits pour faire consister le plaisir – crée un manque donnant accès à la jouissance, laquelle n’est rendue possible que par les bornes, les limites, et les conditions que se fixe le couple.

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There can be no act outside a field which is already so completely articulated that the law is located within it. There are no other acts than those that refer to the effects of this signifying articulation and include its entire problematic— (Lacan, Seminar XVII 125).

1Already set for a US movie release on October 3, 2014, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (2012) continues to experience staggering commercial success when book sales are frighteningly low. Presumably the novel’s appeal comes from Flynn’s cunning narrative technique that shocks her readers into the uncomfortable enjoyment of a dark and violent story employing multiple levels of manipulation. While Gone Girl’s mainstream appeal should be studied on its own terms, I would like to argue that the novel can be read productively in correlation with Lacan’s Seminar XVII because the novel depicts subjectivity, discourse, and desire (and its absence) in ways that reflect Lacan’s projections for consumerist society, and it also provides an example of a signifying act as a necessary precursor to the exalted “other side of psychoanalysis.” This other side is typically accessed through an act of transformation by which a subject “accomplishes its own revolution” and inaugurates both desire and access to jouissance (Lacan, Seminar XVII 99). As Lacan develops through the entirety of Seminar XVII and the character Amy Dunne portrays through her own revolution in Gone Girl, desire and access to jouissance emerge through the intervention of the signifier. Amy’s signifying act – her self-removal from a poorly-articulated field with no laws and no prohibition on enjoyment – hollows out a lack that provides access to a jouissance that is only made possible due to self-imposed boundaries, limits, and conditions. From the perspective of the later Lacan, what is truly striking about Gone Girl is not the fact that a wife enacts calculated and fabricated desperate measures to punish her cheating husband, but that these calculated and fabricated desperate measures infuse desire into a relationship that reignites itself on the presumed death of a wife at the hands of her cheating husband.

Boy Loses Girl: The Myth of the Ideal I

2As readers learn in the first “Boy Loses Girl” section of Gone Girl, Nick Dunne and Amy Elliot Dunne are closing in on forty; they have been married for five years, live in a newly constructed mansion, are childless, and, surprisingly, have no desire for each other. More importantly when the novel opens, “Amy was gone,” and not just psychologically or emotionally distant, but physically missing on the morning of their five-year anniversary (24). In short alternating sections, the novel then goes back and forth between Nick’s perspective after he realizes his wife is missing and Amy’s diary entries beginning from when she and Nick met in 2005. As the novel alternates, readers go forward and backward in time, learning of the Dunnes’ chance meeting and relationship progression, as well as their current state which includes Nick’s cheating, Amy’s disappearance, and Nick’s presumed guilt. Reading like the twenty-first-century cliché of a Generation X dual-income childless marriage, these alternating points of view depict Lacan’s projections for late capitalist society in Seminar XVII. Both their individual subjectivities and their now “utterly cold” (7) marriage reflect and reinforce our present-day consumer society or the “I-cracy” Lacan spoke about nearly fifty years ago.

3Put simply, Nick and Amy are subjects with no master signifier and as such have not experienced the castration of symbolic discourse. Mirroring the external consumerist society that surrounds them, this couple exudes excess, at least when they are both working and living in New York City. On their one-year anniversary, Amy’s diary predicts, “We’ll eat lobster with butter and have sex on the floor while a woman on one of our old jazz records sings to us in her far-side-of-the-tunnel voice” (40). Early on in their relationship, there are no prohibitions, laws, limits, or incongruities in their lives or their relationship with one another. Thanks to the Amazing Amy children’s book series that Amy’s parents, two child psychologists and professed soul mates, write about their daughter, there is plenty of money; Nick and Amy's environment of luxury includes an extravagant newly repainted Brooklyn brownstone, high-calorie gourmet food, and incidentals such as peppermint soap and monogrammed stationery.

4Though Amy professes to “battle the spoiled-rich-girl-vibe,” (39) it is clear that the presence of need and want spurred by absence is foreign to her. Even Nick, whose Missouri roots and “‘definition of not close’” broken family are quickly shed for the excess that Amy brings to their relationship, acclimates and expands with the false fullness brought on through easy access to money, food, sex, and stuff (51). Nick and Amy appear to have it all, but the recap of their lives in New York feels stilted and flat, pleasureless and hum-drum, for as Lacan theorizes, when you have everything, you do not have the lack that inaugurates desire and paves the way to the pleasure of jouissance. Their material possessions and unrestrained desires appear to have stymied them individually and as a couple; they experience again and again merely the “semblance of surplus jouissance,” (Lacan, Seminar XVII 81) not the failure of discourse that initiates the barred subject and installs objet a, as well as the pathway beyond the limits of desire to the other side.

5In this way, Nick and Amy represent the “myth of the ideal I,” (Lacan, Seminar XVII 63) and believe that they are all ego, that language communicates absolute truth, and that all of their mutual desires are met. They believe that they are what they see on the outside; they are the sum total of their possessions; their writing (magazine articles on “TV and movies and books” (4) for Nick and pop-psychology multiple-choice quizzes for Amy) requires no reading between the lines. In other words, their “I-cracy” both is fed by and feeds the consumer culture that it reinforces. With no prohibition on enjoyment, the ego, the “I,” pretends – and indeed believes – itself is identical to itself. For Nick and Amy, this single-dimensional “I” provides them with the illusion that there is no unconscious and that there is no more beyond what they can think, buy, or eat. There is no “wound of privation” or “presence of a lack” (Lacan, Seminar XVII 73; 76); there is just imagined fullness, completion, and coincidence. Transcendence does not exist for the Dunnes because the finite world and its trappings are all accessible and attainable and even replaceable. They really do believe that they have it all. In a Lacanian framework, privation, lack, and not-all exist, but they remain so that desire and enjoyment may also be felt and that the other side of psychoanalysis may be experienced. As Lacan develops through Seminar XVII, lack and surplus coexist; jouissance enters the field as an absence that is something added and not merely missing. The intervention of the signifier hollows out a lack that opens the space to surplus enjoyment.

6Thus, the relationship between jouissance and the signifier is constitutional and as such, the signifier opens the path to attain jouissance at the same time as it marks that attainment as impossible. The absence of this function is very clearly observable in Nick and Amy’s relationship; nothing is impossible and signification operates mimetically, and so, most importantly, there is no jouissance. As Lacan states, “The signifier becomes articulated, therefore, by representing a subject to another signifier. This is our starting point for giving meaning to this inaugural repetition that is repetition directed at jouissance” (Lacan, Seminar XVII 48). As we learn in Seminar XVII, the master signifier is a prerequisite for desire’s movement; without this master signifier, the fundamental fantasy does not initiate, and neither does the desire predicated upon it. Paul Verhaeghe describes the master signifier in this way: “The subject identifies with a unary trait that comes from the Other in order to build a singular identity over its lack of being” (32). Marking the subject’s unique singularity or lack of being, the master signifier bears its remainder on the body, in language use, in one’s relationship to the Other, and in the element of disorder it brings to the Symbolic. The master signifier and its effect of representing the subject to another signifier establish “this knowledge [as] a means of jouissance. And . . . when it is at work, what it produces is entropy” (Lacan, Seminar XVII, 50). The entropy, or the degree of disorder or uncertainty in a system, comes from the master signifier, the “point of loss” (50). Nick and Amy’s universe clearly lacks the entropy or disorder brought on by the point of loss the master signifier brings; likewise, individual singularity is missing.

7Loss is what allows desire’s jouissance to take shape, so without that loss, Nick and Amy are shapeless and plastic themselves, like the products before them in endless variation and accessibility. They have become the empty and vacuous products always within reach: replaceable, mass market reproductions with no singularity, “something created on an assembly line” (365) that must consume more and better products over and over because there is never complete satisfaction. Despite the omnipresent promises of fulfillment, “the products of culture and industry that provide us with (an always) temporary and partial satisfaction” must always be repetitively exchanged for a newer and better model and only transiently hold the place of satisfaction (Verhaeghe 34). Mirroring the empty products they consume, the people who attend Amy’s Missing Person Press conference, have become “placeholder humans, bodies that had been dollied in and propped up . . . Caffeine-dazed and ragdoll arms” (63-64). Coiffed to reflect society’s expectations, people like Nick and Amy and their friends and family have become products themselves. As written in Amy’s diary, “I don’t feel like a person at all: I am something to be loaded and unloaded, like a sofa or a cuckoo clock” (102).

8The superegoic cultural imperative to “Enjoy!” has turned Nick and Amy into the same type of products we are constantly encouraged to throw away and replace, so they are similarly dissatisfied with the stagnant, lifeless, and bored commodities they and their relationship have become. They are certainly enjoying in the way they have been encouraged to enjoy through the late capitalist imperative that makes enjoyment itself a duty, but have been barred access to a surplus enjoyment that is only available through the effect of the master signifier on the signifying chain of discourse. As Joan Copjec defines the “superegoic injunction” in Imagine There’s No Woman: Ethics and Sublimation, “everyone must be the same and have the same” to level all the differences that capitalism constantly reminds us exist (167). This drive to be the same, consume the same products, and enjoy in the same way persists because the enjoyment is offered without limits. Compulsory all-access pleasure is “enjoyment without enjoyment” in the words of Alenka Zupančič, “that is without that which is constitutive of enjoyment” (172). Because it exists outside of the master signifier and its effects, this “entropy-free enjoyment” is “enjoyment as pure value” (173). As the Dunnes show in Gone Girl, enjoyment based on an otherness that capitalism transforms into a reproducible, equal, and identical pleasure only exists as value and thus fails to deliver pleasure because for enjoyment to exist as the pleasure of surplus jouissance, it must come from an otherness that cannot be metabolized, accessed, and quantified equally among all subjects.

9As Flynn shows through her own critique of capitalism, despite this pervasive belief in completion and fulfillment and perfection, Nick and Amy are empty and dissatisfied and then little by little, lack carves itself into their relationship and into their subjectivities. Unsurprisingly, they are quite literally at a loss as to how to deal with what had previously been unthinkable: Nick loses his job, Amy loses her job, and Amy’s parents reclaim her trust fund as their own. So Nick and Amy haul out of NYC and move to Missouri where the lack just expands, first in terms of their new dwelling and its location among other homes “that have never known inhabitants, or homes that have known owners and seen them ejected” (22). Empty in its newness and baring its absence unapologetically, Nick and Amy’s rented “McMansion” is reviled and despicable. Likewise, Riverway Mall, the palatial icon of spending since 1985, fell to the recession of 2008; now “it is two million square feet of echo” (72). So lack inserts itself into the relationship between Nick and Amy first in their lost jobs and funds and then in the architectural spaces demarcating their new lives in Carthage, Missouri, alongside the Mississippi River. The mall, the representative of the consumer culture’s central mission to spend, and the house, the individual family’s altar to such spending, are emptied out and hollow, when once they were full and swollen.

10Nick is surprisingly philosophical about this inversion and its relation to his mental state, musing on the “derivative” nature of society and its emphasis on “secondhand experience” (72). He even laments the absence of his own singularity and admits that “the bankruptcy matches [his] psyche perfectly” (72). Amy too notes, “My value has decreased” (204). Indeed, their material and professional losses, their visual representations of lack, and their superficial affect inspire more inculcations of absence. Nick and Amy have become desperate to do what they can to “feel real” again (73; 102). For Nick, that is his stereotypical affair with a younger woman, and for Amy, it is something much worse in its overturning of what Paul Verhaeghe calls “today’s tragedy”: “the state where both prohibition and lack are refused by ascribing it to what has become an invisible master signifier, its invisibility being one of the effects of the latest form of capitalism” (46). In her removal from society and installation of the much needed master signifier, Amy’s signifying act inserts both loss of satisfaction and surplus enjoyment into their relationship and eventually electrifies them both.

Boy Meets Girl: Everything Hinges on Failure

11In the second “Boy Meets Girl” section of Gone Girl, readers learn that Amy plans to kill herself to frame Nick and thus constructs an elaborate plot furthered through treasure-hunt-style notes ensuring that her husband will eventually know that the entire plot is her construction. Her absence – her goneness – then is not a physical absence caused by being overpowered by Nick or some intruder, but a conscious decision by Amy to remove herself from the prevailing system in such a way as to make it seem as though she has been violently eliminated by her husband or someone else. “It had to stop,” (225) Amy explains, and so her signifying act unravels the Dunnes’ symbolic web when she removes herself from it.

12This twist of plot follows the definition of a psychoanalytic act because her disappearance and its features of manipulation achieve what had previously been missing from the Dunnes’ relationship: she puts herself in the place of lack, she castrates Nick in the eyes of society, and she objectifies herself by abandoning the “I-cracy” of their conscious subjectivities. For these reasons, Amy’s act may be deemed “obscene” because it pushes her to the “other side” of their carefully constructed symbolic universe (Lacan, Translator’s note, Seminar XVII 9). Her act is “a pure sign” functioning as the master signifier that had heretofore been missing from the Dunnes’ Symbolic, and her self-extraction exposes the fact that their idealistic capitalistic Symbolic rests upon the exclusion of the Real (Lacan, Seminar XVII 209). Suggesting her coalescence with the Lacanian dimension in addition to her authenticity and singularity, Amy notes, “There was a Real Amy in there, and she was so much better, more interesting and complicated and challenging” (225).

13In this way, Amy hystericizes herself, and as Ellie Ragland explains,

passing to the act concerns the subject as object, as objet a. Indeed, in passing to the act the subject is obliterated, falls off the stage, out of the picture. She falls out of her fiction, away from her acting out on the stage of the Other. (78)

14By desubjectifying herself, shedding her character, so to speak, both for the others with whom she has relationships and the Other who has constructed her in its consumerist demands, Amy attempts to inculcate loss into the symbolic field, so that the objet a, along with its attendant surplus jouissance may take shape. Patricia Gherovici also places the act in the Real when she writes, “The passage to the act, however, implies a flight from the Other into the dimension of the Real; it is an exit from the symbolic network, bringing along a dissolution of the social bond” (118-19). Obliterating the symbolic network and the single-dimensional bonds that hold it in place disintegrates both the network and Amy and transforms her into the objet a: the “leftover of signification” that had previously been missing from the Dunnes’ symbolic universe (119). By abandoning the prevailing commandment of the superego, Amy temporarily hystericizes herself through her experience of dissatisfaction, but this hystericization allows her to expose the inauthenticity of society while she objectifies herself as lack and so “her self-exile from society is a withdrawal to the heights of moral disdain from which she feels justified in proclaiming the inferiority of all she surveys” (Copjec 127). Though this “Real Amy” eschews the limitless enjoyment of her current Symbolic, she also installs the lack that will create the limit that will open the path to surplus jouissance.

15As the epigraph clarifies, Amy’s signifying act is transformative because she is enmeshed in a poorly-articulated field with no laws and no prohibition on enjoyment; her act, so far outside that shapeless field, produces effects that retroactively install their causes. Amy, we learn, becomes the Lacanian “enigma,” or “half-said,” once she is “gone” (Lacan, Seminar XVII 36). Her absence – her incarnation of the objet a – causes the desire that had been missing. Now, what can’t be said as master signifier directs desire’s movement because there is a subjective division whose non-coincidence propels its alignment. This movement is characterized by a frenzied anxiety initially caused by lack of lack that morphs into desire for plugging up that newly emerged lack caused by Amy’s calculated removal. Whereas Nick’s previous relationship with Amy was “cold” when it came to desire, their new relation is fueled by the dangerous proximity of a lack that demands a covering at the same time as it actively blocks that coalescence, for it is the absence that structures the desire and the constitution of a new field of relation. Amy now symbolizes presence in absence because “she was gone, and yet she was more present than anyone else” (214). Feeling alternations of hate and love, Nick both wants to find her and doesn’t want to find her; he is both attracted and repelled; he is both desirous and repudiating. “‘Amy’s framing me for murder,’ he thinks, ‘A huge burpy air bubble formed at the back of my throat – I was going to sob or laugh. I laughed’” (227).

16In Seminar XVII, Lacan explains that this ambivalent response represents the presence of anxiety, or lack of lack as the Dunnes previously experienced, alongside the emergence of a lack that is quickly plugging up with fullness. Nick appears to depict this contradiction exactly, and his divided emotions seem to be brought on by being situated in relation to a position analogous to the one defined by Lacan:

a position where there is someone [here, Nick]. . . who wishes to come and hold the same position that you occupy [or in this case, that Amy occupies], or that you do not occupy, or that you barely occupy, who wishes to come know how you occupy it, and how you do not occupy it, and why you occupy it, and why you do not occupy it. (Seminar XVII 163)

17The “it” here, of course, is Amy’s new placement into objet a and the lack that comprises “it.” When he previously found his wife transparent, flat, and dull, upon intuiting her plans to kill herself and frame him for her murder, Nick praises,

She is fucking brilliant. Her brain is so busy, it never works on just one level. She’s like this endless archaeological dig: You think you’ve reached the final layer, and then you bring down your pick one more time, and you break through to a whole new mine shaft beneath. With a maze of tunnels and bottomless pits. (253-54)

18So far outside their originating field of limitless opportunities, Amy has created a new unspeakable limit by killing herself to frame him. Literally, her plan includes the sacrifice of life to install a new chain of signification. And in this project, she is successful, for Nick now aligns her with the archeology metaphor of psychoanalysis and how its multiple levels of depth inspire interminable probing and searching for knowledge. By shedding her subjectivity and its prevailing fiction, Amy has transformed herself into a puzzle to solve by bringing entropy into the system.

19Her signifying act, which is actually an extended process of scheming leading up to her physical absence, is indistinguishable from her subjectivity and penetrates every corner of her previous symbolic network. Significantly, these alterations include bodily transformation, the narrative construction of “Diary Amy,” and the hystericization of discourse, which altogether allow knowledge to function as a means to jouissance by making lack present. Amy first alters her appearance, so that she may flee her home in Missouri and watch the scenes of her plan unfold undetected before she kills herself. Before her psychoanalytic act, Amy is the perfect picture of late capitalist body maintenance. Blond, thin, and manicured, Amy portrayed the ideal ego on the outside that her consciousness rigidly adhered to on the inside. Amy’s act, however, demands the dissolution and inversion of that superficial perfection, for the master signifier marks not only discursive practices but the body on which they are incarnated, so when Amy morphs herself into the objet a as object of jouissance, her body must visibly announce that transmogrification as well. As Lacan remarks, marking the body, “of which it is at its level and no other that the equivalence between the gesture of making a mark and the body, object of jouissance, can be reached” (Seminar XVII 49).

20Though this bodily inscription occurs psychically and forever inscribes part of the body in the Real along with objet a, both Lacan, who relates this marking of the body to flagellation in this section, and Amy, who physically transforms her appearance, approach the Real of this psychic process through physical alterations observable on and through the skin. Akin to the self-mutilation often used to describe the signifier’s mark on the body, Amy’s “wiggle and a jiggle” weight gain, “sheared off” hair, and cutting by “slicing [her]self past the paper-cut layer, down to the muscle” for the incriminating kitchen blood deface the “pale, thin Amy” and replace her with a new appearance that betrays the signifier’s mark on the body as the object of jouissance (250; 236; 250). In her words, “My body was a beautiful, perfect economy, every feature calibrated, everything in balance,” but now, “I am the opposite of Amy,” the marked body of one who has penetrated the other side, the underside of symbolic perfection (250). Offering herself as enigma, Amy’s new, abject body articulates that elusive knowledge symptomatically on her skin rather than through verbalization.

21As a companion to her bodily transformation to escape detection, Amy also constructs a discursive second self, called Diary Amy. When Gone Girl opens, readers assume that they are reading Amy’s diary as a hallmark battered woman’s journal that will reveal the ongoing and repetitive domestic abuse that will clinch the husband’s guilt. In the “Boy Meets Girl” section, however, readers learn that Amy has in fact fabricated the entire journal in the voice of “Diary Amy,” which is just one detail of her plot to frame Nick for her eventual suicide. Like her intentional and literal bodily transformation, this construction of a “Diary Amy” symbolizes the gap in language that represents the loss of jouissance on the body. When the master signifier is operable, language always bears the trace of that initial absence and its inadequacy continues along an interminable chain that slides from one signifier to the next without asserting any absolute meaning. The Real that Amy enters through her psychoanalytic act marks the impossibility of the Symbolic that depends on it. As Lacan explains, “It is clear that their full articulation as impossible is precisely what gives us the risk, the barely glimpsed opportunity, that their real, if I can put it like this, breaks out” (Seminar XVII 173). “Diary Amy” with her multiple levels of meaning both disclosed and secret represents the Symbolic’s impossibility and its hinging on the Real and its reservoir of jouissance.

22“Diary Amy” “who is a work of fiction” (220) represents the multiple failures of discursive practice that the Symbolic operates within because of its lack of coincidence due to the Real. “Diary Amy” writes to convince the public that Nick is capable of killing her, and she also writes to Nick to let “[him] know [he’s] being fucked” (227) after she first convinces him to fall back in love with her, and Flynn writes to readers who must shift from the assumed truth of the first version to the actual truth of the second version. Yet still, none of these levels of meaning can completely convey Amy or her psychoanalytic act in total for that truth inseparable from language can never be articulated; it can signify anything but itself. This discursive manipulation highlights the psychoanalytic notion that “everything hinges on failure,” though we consciously disallow that acknowledgement to protect the illusion of the ego (Lacan, Seminar XVII 83). Like Nick, as well as Amy’s multiple fictional and actual readers, we too are manipulated in language. We believe in its ability to convey truth, despite the fact that the one truth that constitutes us may never be spoken. Constantly manipulable as well as impossible, language writes us as it marks our bodies. Furthermore, the “absolute authenticity” (316) promised through the language of late-stage capitalism is incomplete and impossible and only conveys any meaning in relation to other incomplete and impossible meanings. Speaking directly to the readers as the opposite or Real Amy, Amy now puts her I in quotes as in “‘I’ am fairly interested” (286). Pointing to both the construction of her “I” as well as her distance from a nonconstructed “I,” this discursive feature aptly portrays the subjectivity and language use of Lacanian psychoanalysis. There is an “I” that uses language, but that “I” can never fully represent itself through language because it has been marked by a master signifier that places some of the subject in the impossible Real.

23Through her absence made present through her bodily transformation and manipulation of language, Amy hystericizes herself as the lack for Nick to attain to reach jouissance. Nick wants more knowledge of Amy and her plan as he ascertains her framing of him, at the same time as she does not want to give up her knowledge. “As psychoanalysis teaches, one has to limit the Other’s knowledge to make room for jouissance, or: jouissance flourishes only there where it is not validated by the Other” (Copjec 167). And it is here that the Dunnes are able to ignite mutual desire based on the fantasy of completion. Lacan says,

it is that the only way in which to evoke the truth is by indicating that it is only accessible through a half-saying, that it cannot be said completely, for the reason that beyond this half there is nothing to say. That is all that can be said. (Seminar XVII 51)

24Because this act exposes an “I” not identical to itself, a truth that is unknowable, and a castrated master in Nick, it produces the entropy caused by the signifier’s division of the subject. Amy’s act places them in the Real and retroactively creates the “symbolic impossibility” on which it is constituted, thereby creating the knowledge by barring it in an act that both produces and hides it (173). By installing the master signifier, Amy embeds failure into the Dunnes’ system or “story” as they both like to call it, so “the master signifier pushes the subject under the bar, suppresses it, conceals it, and builds its master on that concealment” (Zupančič 164). Now, the simulacrum of their previous incarnation is obvious and their new “obscene,” yet authentic, reality propels Amy and Nick forward with desire, rather than arresting them into “hollowness” (Flynn 333).

25Through this hystericization, Nick and Amy have finally met the precondition for the exalted other side of psychoanalysis because they allow the jouissance of the master signifier to direct their desire’s movement. On the side of Nick, we see this desire emerge when he decides to play along with Amy’s charade. Rather than exposing the truth of Amy’s disappearance, he decides to “take control of the story” (299) through his own hystericization of discourse, so she will know he knows, and forces the next move on her. And so readers see her watching an interview where Nick, the framed but innocent husband, flashes a smile and says, “I married the coolest girl I ever met,” while internally he thinks, “Youfuckingbitch . . . Come home so I can kill you” (300). Like the scare quotes around Amy’s “I,” Nick’s use of italics illustrates that he too acknowledges the inadequacy of language through its ability to convey multiple levels of (un)intended meaning. The disjunction between what he says and what he thinks punctuates this point. Now that Nick is imbricated in the act as well, Amy’s hatred turns into desire. After Nick continues the interview and says, “‘I’m not the best at showing emotion, I know that. But I love her. I need her to be okay. She has to be okay. I have so much to make up to her,’” Amy thinks, “He laughs, the chagrined laugh that even now I find appealing” (303). Now there exists the mutual desire set in motion by the fundamental fantasy of the divided subject in relation to its objet a. Nick rightly anticipates Amy’s desire and aims to fill it, as Amy successfully ignites Nick’s desire to excavate her archeological depths. And so when Nick decides that it is time “to learn my lesson and love her the way she deserved and be a good, obedient, chastised, dickless little boy,” Amy responds by thinking “my husband loves me” (299; 304) and initiates a revised plot to return to Nick and their new desire for one another instead of killing herself.

26Operating through an elaborate discursive manipulation played out through the media as Nick begs Amy to return home while she launches into a new phase of her original plan where she decides to not commit suicide, each installs the other as objet a and simultaneously becomes the cause of the other’s desire. Significantly, each operates through the discourse of the linguistic acrobatics of a treasure hunt meant to ensnare Nick into desire for Amy while it criminalizes his presence at each location of the clues: “God, the girl knows me cold. She knows exactly what I want to hear . . . And how fun for her to know that she could fuck with my head like that still . . . Christ, I was practically falling in love with her again” (256). The “secret inside jokes” and “inside baseball” of the discursive treasure hunt and Nick’s verbalized pleas for Amy’s return operate as their “old secret code,” where each anticipates the other’s desire and attempts to fill it (256; 270; 351). Whereas they previously found themselves autonomous and their relationship unnecessary, Amy’s act proves to them that they need an Other whose lack impinges on their own subjectivity. In this way, Amy and Nick believe that each occupies the other’s objet a: “the hole from which the master signifier arises” (Lacan, Seminar XVII 173).

27In the Dunnes’ previous symbolic universe lack was not permitted, so any possible emergence was covered over with the excess of late capitalism’s plenty. As Lacan explains of the constitutive lack that the Dunnes are finally inhabiting, “This is the hollow, the gap that no doubt a number of objects initially come and fill – objects that, in some way, are adapted in advance, designed to be used at stoppers” (Seminar XVII 50). Stripped of their prepackaged, replaceable fillers, Nick and Amy come to inhabit that constitutive lack and view each other not as one in a series of potential plugs but as “the a, as such, is strictly speaking what follows from the fact that, at its origin, knowledge is reduced to an articulation of signifiers. This knowledge is a means of jouissance” (50). For this reason, Nick and Amy view the other as the object-cause-of-desire, as the objet a that grants subjective consistency through its absence and whose drive for attainment promises the surplus jouissance of the other side. In contrast to the Nick and Amy of the consumer mindset, this new relation made possible through Amy’s psychoanalytic act proves the notion that surplus jouissance and desire beyond the limit are only possible through the “making present of a lack” (76).

28When these conditions are met simultaneously in one’s other and vice versa, the fantasy of completion in the other makes each feel that coalescence is possible and that an original whole may be attained. Like two halves who have the potential to be joined, Amy and Nick have become magnetized through a desire fueled by belief in the objet a and its predication on the carving out of lack. While Amy thinks, “Nick and I fit together . . . my thorns fit perfectly into [his wounds],” Nick likewise thinks, “All this time I’d thought we were strangers, and it turned out we knew each other intuitively, in our bones, in our blood” (353; 385). Now that each is being moved by desire due to Amy’s act and its installation of the master signifier, passage to the other side is possible. “I may have been dozing the past few years, but I was fucking wide awake now. I was electric again,” says Nick (357).

Boy Gets Girl Back (Or Vice Versa): The Hole from which the Master Signifier Arises

29In the final “Boy Gets Girl Back (Or Vice Versa)” section, readers learn that Amy decides not to kill herself as she had previously planned, but rather returns to Nick (who knows she framed him). Amy’s return includes more “obscene” elements that include the miscarriage of a false pregnancy, self-imposed vaginal cutting with a wine bottle to imitate rape, and the calculated murder of the man who took her in when she decided not to kill herself and who she now names as her captor and rapist (388). Like her original suicide/murder plan, Amy’s strange and violent actions on herself and others are disgusting and appalling and bear witness to the dissolution of her previous symbolic matrix. Finally on the porch of their McMansion, Amy repeatedly rings the doorbell and calls Nick’s name, appearing like the abject Real incarnated:

Amy Elliot Dunne stood barefoot on [their] doorstep in a thin pink dress that clung to her as if it were wet. Her ankles were ringed in dark violet. From one limp wrist dangled a piece of twine. Her hair was short and frayed at the ends, as if it had been carelessly chopped by dull scissors. Her face was bruised, her lips swollen. She was sobbing. (371)

30Emblematic of one’s relationship to the objet a one wants to both annihilate and incorporate, Nick thinks, “I wanted to kill her,” as he audibly shrieks, “‘Amy! My God! My God! My darling,” yet whispers, “‘You fucking bitch’” (371). And thus, Nick pulls his wife inside as he lovingly cradles her face. This divided moment symbolically represents the new relationship of the Dunnes and their mutual unspoken decision to continue their relationship under new parameters: Nick participates in this false reality because he fears Amy will kill him if he doesn’t, and Amy participates in this false reality because she fears that Nick will expose the various elements of her plots if she lapses back into her original scheme to frame him.

31This new “obscene” relation becomes possible because of Amy’s act and how its resulting desire retroactively installs the cause that had been absent from their relationship’s previous incarnation. This unspoken agreement actually furthers the mutual desire exposed in the previous section. Each continues to install the other as objet a and is fueled by the desire for absolute knowledge of the enigmatic other, and in true Lacanian form each becomes mesmerized by both the other’s enigma, as well as the other’s coalescence with the subject-supposed-to-know. Lacan’s notion of the subject-supposed-to-know is particularly valuable here, as he uses this descriptive term to explain that we fall in love with someone who we feel knows something about our unconscious. “I love the person I assume to have knowledge,” he says (Lacan, Seminar XX 67). That each appears to have intimate knowledge of the other’s desires only deepens their mutual attraction. When Amy comments on how the devotion professed during a press conference enticed her back, Nick admits, “That was just me saying what you wanted to hear” (385). But then he acknowledges that Amy achieved a similar result with her knowledge of him, “To know exactly what I wanted to hear in those notes, to woo me back to her, even to predict my wrong moves . . . the woman knew me cold. Better than anyone in the world, she knew me” (385). Feeling attracted not despite the convoluted sadomasochistic behaviors of Amy and their mutual discursive manipulations, but because of them, Nick aptly thinks, “It was kind of romantic. Catastrophically romantic” (385). Indeed, and the catastrophe – or at least proximity of catastrophe – must continue or Nick and Amy run the risk of slipping back into their desireless relation.

32And so to continue feeling the dangerous desire of this new arrangement, their relationship becomes full of mutually-imposed limits, conditions, and boundaries, erected to protect their tenuous agreement and conceal their virulent anger, yet these prohibitions provide access to the surplus jouissance that was missing before. Strangely, especially for readers unschooled in Lacanian psychoanalysis, these conditions allow them to repetitively experience “one long frightening climax” (Flynn 413). Previously Nick and Amy had no master signifier and no symbolic castration and thus no lack or desire, but Amy’s act castrates them both and carves out a lack that propels the movement of desire and the repetitive enjoyment of jouissance. Their master signifier – the unsayable – is their joint collusion in a frightening plot that temporarily removes them from a lawless field and reinserts them in a fully-articulated field of conditions and boundaries. Their disciplined adherence to such boundaries creates a limit and the promise of a beyond that grants the surplus jouissance attained through access to the objet a.

  • 1 Zupančič’s reference to Lacan is from Seminar XVII 154.

33By not articulating the unsayable, Nick and Amy protect their relationship from falling into the inadequacy of signification; were they to signify it directly, their collusion would fall into the same disjunction between signifier and signified that prevents access to jouissance as it demands for its filling. Speaking it always makes it impossible to attain and it is clear that Nick and Amy are in fact attaining pleasure; they are on the other side precisely because they are not articulating their Other jouissance. It is important to note, however, that Nick and Amy are not in an ethereal beyond, but instead have made that beyond internal to their new system where its access is neither transgressive nor impossible but attainable and repetitive. The Dunnes’ ability to reach jouissance through this internal transcendence reflects Alenka Zupančič’s description that “[t]here is an immediate link between signifier and jouissance: it is by means of the repetition of a certain signifier that we have access to jouissance, and not by means of going beyond the signifier and the Symbolic, by transgressing the laws and the boundaries of the signifier; Zupančič further notes that “Lacan makes a point of stressing several times that ‘we are not dealing with a transgression’” (158).1 The master signifier is what makes it possible to experience transcendence within the Symbolic.

34And it is here that the pathway to the exalted other side of psychoanalysis opens itself. Rather than advocating the reinforcement of the ego, Lacan maintains that the psychoanalytic act allows for going beyond the limits of desire, for it is in that beyond “where the surplus jouissance, the other’s jouissance, was that I, as proffering the psychoanalytic act, must come” (Seminar XVII 53). Whereas the Dunnes’ previous incarnation included all ego strengthening and no beyond due to limits and thus no desire, this new arrangement equally strong on both sides thus the vice/versa of the section title, produces the other side of desire found in the beyond through access to surplus jouissance. The most important feature of this other side, however, is not just that a beyond of desire exists but that this beyond is actually installed by the subjects themselves.

35The true other side is less about being dominated by a desire imposed by an Other outside of the subject and more about the realization that desire is achieved through the subject’s own construction, and here Amy and Nick are certainly exemplary and have obviously reached “the other side of psychoanalysis”: the conscious awareness that one erects one’s own master signifier. In passages that directly admit to their joint collusion without saying the words, Amy and Nick, respectively, assert the constructedness of this desire and their mutual acceptance of its ability to provide them new access to the jouissance that was missing before. “‘Play nice, Nick,’” Amy requests (391). And Nick also admits, “We’re a sick, fucking toxic Mobius strip, Amy . . . We complete each other in the nastiest, ugliest possible way” (393). So each knows what is happening between them and why it is happening but chooses to stay within their new parameters and experience the desire and resulting jouissance made possible through their mutually-imposed limits; this occurs when “[Nick] is learning to love [Amy] unconditionally, under all [her] conditions” (414). That they tacitly agree to these limits indicates that they are aware that their own conscious erection of their joint master signifier makes their extended climax possible. For Lacan, there is no higher form of psychic functioning. Nick and Amy are no longer stymied in the pleasureless position of being subjects of the signifier, but they have passed that threshold to become subjects of jouissance. Previously they acted without knowledge in step to a desire driving them to inadequate pleasure, but now they act in accordance to a drive that permits access to a jouissance they know they have installed themselves. The subject of the signifier always falls short because of an unknown knowledge, whereas the subject of jouissance determines the knowledge that functions as truth that will deliver pleasure in the beyond of language. Subjects of jouissance determine their knowledge as Nick and Amy have, while subjects of knowledge are determined by the Other. Amy’s act as master signifier “creates a discourse” (Lacan, Seminar XVII 189).

36In this way, Flynn concludes the novel similarly to how it opens: with a fake reality, but the Dunnes’ new fake reality predicated on Amy’s signifying act, is quite different from their old fake reality. Their original fake reality, supported by the unlimited access to excess brought on by capitalism’s plenty, was “one hundred percent canned yet totally genuine” (312). And their new fake reality “feels almost like love sometimes, because we are so perfectly putting ourselves through the paces” (404). In the first instance, reality is obviously false yet it adamantly professes authenticity; while in the second instance, reality is obviously false but carefully constructed to maintain its appearance of authenticity. In the first instance, reality is falsely constructed from the outside and forced to be accepted as truth, whereas in the second instance, the false reality is constructed from within and consciously maintained to create the conditions to portray a fabricated truth. Now their relationship is an intersubjective dynamic: “The question was frighteningly soulful and literal: Who would I be without Amy to react to?” wonders Nick (396). As the Dunnes illustrate, subjectivity necessitates an interpsychic dependence on an Other that our present-day society eschews in favor of the false notion of endless self-creation, just as Lacan predicted fifty years ago.

37Having existed without limits and without desire for so long, Nick and Amy are content to impose the required conditions of a disgusting jointly-imposed master signifier that makes them feel “wide awake” once again, like “a switch has turned on” (357; 398). In other words, they prefer their false reality to the one imposed upon them by society, and this is what is compelling about Gone Girl. It is not Amy’s behaviors or that the Dunnes reunite; it is that capitalism’s potential to wreak havoc on subjectivity forces individuals to pursue calculated and fabricated desperate measures to install the necessary limits for desire to flourish. Are we entering an age where desire is only possible for the “nice enough” through the likes of framed murder, self-mutilation, and seven years’ false journal entries? If so, we all are in danger, for as Flynn aptly suggests, “The Midwest is full of these [vacant] types of people: the nice enough. Nice enough but with a soul made of plastic – easy to mold, easy to wipe down” (258). In the words of Amy, “If love has no boundaries, no limits, no conditions, why should anyone try to do the right thing ever?” (414). Sipping our lattes, sleeping in our McMansions, shopping at the big box stores, inhabiting avatars on the Internet, we had all better be wary. “Where is [the master signifier]?” Lacan questions, “How can it be named? How can it be located? – other than through its murderous effects, of course. Denounce imperialism? But how can this little mechanism be stopped?” (Lacan, Seminar XVII 178). When there is no “other side” in sight, the “murderous” lengths we have to go to create one by “stopping the mechanism” of capitalism is extreme. Plus, once we get there, “We just need to sustain it” (Flynn 415).

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Clemens, Justin and Russell Grigg, eds. SIC 6: Jacques Lacan and the Other Side of Psychoanalysis. Eds. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006. Print.

Copjec, Joan. Imagine There’s No Woman: Ethics and Sublimation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002. Print.

Flynn, Gillian. Gone Girl. New York: Crown Publishers, 2012. Print.

Gherovici, Patricia. Please Select Your Gender: From the Invention of Hysteria to the Democratizing of Transgenderism. New York: Routledge, 2010. Print.

Lacan, Jacques. Book XVII: The Other Side of Psychoanalysis (1969-1970). Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. Russell Grigg. New York: Norton, 2007. Print.

---. Book XX: On Feminine Sexuality, The Limits of Love and Knowledge (1972-1973). Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. Bruce Fink. New York: Norton, 1998. Print.

Ragland, Ellie. “The Hysteric’s Truth.” Clemens and Grigg. 69-87. Print.

Verhaeghe, Paul. “Enjoyment and Impossibility: Lacan’s Revision of the Oedipus Complex.” Clemens and Grigg. 29-49. Print.

Zupančič, Alenka. “When Surplus Enjoyment Meets Surplus Value.” Clemens and Grigg. 155-78. Print.

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1 Zupančič’s reference to Lacan is from Seminar XVII 154.

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Erica D. GALIOTO, « “One Long Frightening Climax”: Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Lacan’s The Other Side of Psychoanalysis », E-rea [En ligne], 12.1 | 2014, mis en ligne le 04 décembre 2014, consulté le 28 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.4057

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Shippensburg University, Pennsylvania

Erica D. Galioto is an Associate Professor of English at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, USA, where she teaches courses in American literature and psychoanalysis, English education, and writing. Her research focuses on a concept she calls “real-world therapy”: everyday experiences in fiction and life that occasion therapeutic effects outside a clinical setting. Recently appearing in Skin, Culture, and Psychoanalysis (Palgrave 2013), her article, “Split Skin: Adolescent Cutters and the Other,” adds a psychoanalytic dimension to the growing body of work that recognizes cutting as a form of self-therapy. Other recent projects include “‘Shame, thas a shame’: The Anti-Sentiment of Sapphire’s Push and The Kid” in The Sentimental Mode: Essays in Literature, Film and Television (McFarland 2014) and “‘Nothing Hangs Together,’ or Using American Pastoral to Teach Literary Theory” in Cercles 2014 Special Issue on Philip Roth ( She may be reached at

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