Missing Girls, Monsters, and the Emotional Stakes of Genre
Good as Gone author Amy Gentry digs into some common plot tropes to help us understand the real anxieties and questions pulsing below the surface
From Andromeda: My next book involves a missing girl—yes, that old trope! But if you asked me why I chose to tell that story and what it really means, I couldn’t have answered as wisely and succinctly as Amy Gentry, author of one of my favorite “missing girl” books, Good as Gone. Read on for additional thoughts about cli-fi, horror (yesss to both!) and more.
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And now…. AMY GENTRY!
The conventional wisdom on why women consume so many crime narratives, and one that I myself have repeated many times, is that we are the most common victims of everyday violence. We live in fear of being victimized in more extreme ways, wondering what we would do if the worst happened. True crime narratives, we imagine, function as rehearsals for catastrophe, a kind of repetition compulsion brought on by the trauma of ordinary life as a woman.
This sounds right to me, but it’s never quite felt right. To put it bluntly, I am not particularly worried about being the victim of a violent crime. I’ve been frightened in a dark alley; I have spiked my keys between my fingers; I’ve been catcalled and occasionally groped. But, due to my relatively privileged life, I don’t lie awake wondering if I’ll be the victim of human-trafficking, still less that I will be cut into pieces and put in a trunk. These are, for me, fleeting thoughts, and while I do not at all dismiss the idea that they are constant and valid preoccupations for many women, the fact is, they aren’t for me. And yet I still read those narratives, and sometimes, as in my first book Good as Gone, write those narratives.
Take the missing-girl plot, still going strong more than a decade after Gone Girl. Why, if we're rehearsing our own potential kidnappings, are so many missing-girl stories about the people left behind? Being the mother of a kidnapped girl, though traumatic, has inherently lower stakes than being kidnapped. Though many of these narratives toggle back and forth between POVs, it’s surprising how many are about the search, not the victim. In domestic suspense like Good as Gone, it may be the mother who searches; in detective fiction, it’s a professional investigator. But from CSI:SVU to the John Ford film The Searchers, we are generally more interested in the experience of the one left behind than the one taken.
I would suggest that while the external stakes of these books may seem to be about survival, at their core, they are more about grief—or, to be even more precise, rejection.
We all experience death at some point in our lives. But the crushing pain of bereavement is acknowledged within our culture, even if inadequately. What about the pain of rejection? Who hasn’t experienced a breakup that feels like the person has simply “gone missing” from our lives? What about losing a best friend to a boyfriend we hate, or a cross-country move? And why so many tales about children who disappear? Is it that our own children will, in the natural order of things, disappear some day, turning into adults we don’t recognize, with interests we don’t share, who no longer want to be with us? Where in our culture is the acknowledgment of this more ordinary grief?
Good as Gone is the story of a missing girl who returns to her mother as an adult—only to have her mother suspect she’s an imposter. Despite what the jacket copy says, the central question of the novel is not, “Is Julie really Julie?” The question is, What does it feel like when your daughter becomes unrecognizable to you? And, since I wrote the book using Julie’s POV as well—what does it feel like to be unrecognized, even rejected, by your own mother?
Break-ups, children leaving home, parents who don’t understand. These are such ordinary griefs that telling about them cannot convey the strength of our emotional responses to them. As readers, as writers, our feelings go in search of more extreme narratives. We long to show what telling cannot convey.
To take another genre to which many of us are drawn right now: cli-fi, a subgenre of speculative fiction set in the midst or aftermath of a global climate catastrophe, often in the near future. The external stakes of this genre are easy to explain. Who isn’t worried about the world the next generation will inhabit? But if the matter is so urgent as to require calls to action—and it is—why not describe the state of things as they are? Isn’t that apocalyptic enough? Wouldn’t it be more constructive to show the fight to save our planet? Why focus on what happens if we fail this test?
The fact is, most of us experience the climate change catastrophe in ways that are almost disturbingly benign. We read distressing articles about climate refugees; suffer through uncomfortably hot summers and increasingly common natural disasters; vow to consume less, take a few half-steps in that direction, and wind up feeling futile. These discomforts, when stated bluntly, are bearable and banal. What they do not capture is the corrosive dread, the quagmires of depression, the guilty anguish when we think of what our children may suffer when we are gone. The day-to-day reality just does not capture the crushing scale, the profound urgency, the abject terror. The question of cli-fi is not, How will we survive? The question is, Why would we want to? What meaning is left for us after we have murdered the world?
It's the same question Dostoevsky poses in Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov murders two old women, not for the puny financial gain, but to assert his superiority and dominance. But the world he lives in after committing the crime is unbearable to him. The question is not, Will Raskolnikov turn himself in? but, What is life worth to him now?
Genre-fiction scenarios can express truths we are not ready to confront in our own lives, which can unfold later, or keep unfolding, in the changing climate of our inner lives.
Sometime during the last three or four years, the conventions of the thriller genre began to feel confining. I began to drift toward horror, particularly horror by women. We are told the pandemic, a survival situation if ever there was one, caused the current horror boom; but for many women in horror especially, the shift began before the pandemic, and felt more organic. The stakes of the stories I wanted to tell were about my body, about pregnancy and childbirth and the feeling of not being allowed control of those things. There are survival implications to these issues, implications those of us who live in red states are especially aware of. But these questions cut so deeply that, for me, they can be experienced narratively only as metaphor. Monsters, hauntings, gruesome transformations and dismemberments, convey the emotional stakes of a traumatic birth or a Capitol protest, in a way straightforward narratives often fail to achieve.
During the pandemic, I decided to abandon the whole idea of genre, and simply write the stories I wanted to write. Yet the more liberated I feel from the bonds of genre, the more I allow myself to reread Henry James and Virginia Woolf and Proust and Muriel Spark—the writers who made me want to write in the first place—the more I realize that it’s all plot, it’s all metaphor, it’s all showing. Freed at last from the obligation of writing a thriller, I find monsters and missing girls popping out of the shadows, like the return of the repressed.
I welcome them home like the prodigal son, slaughter the fatted calf, and serve up another genre piece.
Amy Gentry is the author of the international bestseller Good as Gone, Last Woman Standing, Bad Habits, and Tori Amos's Boys for Pele, a book of music criticism in the 33 1/3 series. Her book reviews and essays have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Paris Review, Texas Monthly, Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon.com, and many other venues. She holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Chicago and lives in Austin, Texas, where she enjoys swimming in Barton Springs year-round, watching cult horror and woman-directed exploitation films, and writing whatever the hell she wants.
P.S. We found this 2021 interview with Amy, about her writing process at another Substack called Sit Down and Write. It references her latest novel, Bad Habits—another winner.
P.P.S. For additional genre-relevant thoughts on “the portrayal of sexual assault in fiction from the 18th-century novel Pamela to 2012's Gone Girl” check out this essay by Amy at Electric Lit.
Still scrolling? Thinking about why you read or write missing-girl stories, suspense in general, horror or cli-fi? Use that comment button and let us know.
Love this! Adding this book to my reading list!