By Laura P. Valtorta
When writing anything the writer must choose between slapping the reader with suspense, death, rape, and explosions, and delivering some meaning. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn shocks the reader into turning the pages; rock singer Patti Smith’s memoir The M Train is a pleasant book that conveys meaning. Paula Hawkins’ novel The Girl on the Train relies on the shock value of its story; The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin is a quieter book.
Any good book can help the reader escape from the world, even a whodunit with the pejorative “girl” in the title. What matters are the lessons and images left when the book is finished. After reading Gone Girl, which I raced through, unable to lay it down, I could only think that the author, Ms. Flynn, is one strange human being. The Orchardist – a much more difficult read -- has a lot to say about solitude in the Wild West and vicissitudes of the human heart. Ms. Coplin is the better writer.
Recently I’ve been watching many independent films. The best one of the lot has been 20th Century Women, directed by Mike Mills, starring Annette Bening and Billy Crudup. The weirdest is Elle, starring Isabelle Huppert. Elle does not disappoint. It’s extremely French – a suspenseful story about rape that includes sexual assault in many forms and from different perspectives. Elle is not a film that’s easy to watch, but the viewer also can’t look away.
When I watch 20th Century Women, I get a distinct message: generations brought up in the first and second halves of the 20th century differ from one another in fundamental ways. Elle only shows me that Isabelle Huppert is fascinating and twisted, and so is the director – Paul Verhoeven. Maybe Elle also teaches me that sex is fundamentally twisted, but I’ve known this forever. Between these two films, 20th Century Women is more valuable, because it teaches me lessons I didn’t already know or shows them to me in a different light.
Shocking details can sell books; good writing can teach lessons. How a writer incorporates catastrophic events such as rape, death, duplicity, war, and betrayal determines the book’s value. Those events are always present in our lives. The question is what meaning they create for an existentialist like me.