Cup of Nirvana Philosophical and Contemplative Explorations

You: A Review

You_Kepnes

 

“You’re going to be so sorry when you realize what you made me do . . . the good news is I have no regrets.” – Joe Goldberg

I was fortunate to read three great psychological thrillers in 2017. Caroline Kepnes’ debut novel You (Atria/Emily Bestler Books, 2014) tops the list.

You is an engrossing psychological thriller told from the perspective of a man who skillfully uses modern technology to evolve a romantic relationship with a woman who is his latest obsession. The story is a masterful and witty character-driven thriller rich in its grasp of human nature and portrayal of psychopathology.

 

Synopsis

Joe Goldberg manages a used bookstore in New York. He loves books and he loves the woman who just walked through the door.  Her name is Guinevere Beck, but she goes by Beck. She’s a twenty-something aspiring writer enrolled in a graduate writing program.  Joe is immediately attracted to  her, and after they engage in some literature-centered banter, they’ve bonded. He’s hooked, but his attraction is obsessive, and it quickly evolves into a meticulous and elaborate stalking scheme, which will turn deadly more than once.

The story is written from Joe’s perspective, in the form of an on-going internal monologue directed at Beck, addressed throughout as you. The reader follows Joe’s plotting and the unfolding of events from inside his head, all in the present tense.

Joe knows her name and that’s enough to get him started. With the aid of Internet sleuthing—“the Internet was designed with love,” he says—he locates Beck’s on-line blogs, Twitter and Facebook accounts, each rich with autobiographical details. He locates where she lives and begins watching her from across the street. Soon he’s sneaking into her apartment, rummaging through her things, getting more information about her, and taking a few mementos here and there too.

It’s not a coincidence when Joe pulls Beck from the subway tracks onto which she falls drunk late one night. He officially befriends her, yes, the guy from the bookstore. He sees her home with a cab ride. Later she’ll realize she’s lost her cell phone. She thinks she dropped it in the chaos of the night. No, Joe has stolen it.  He hacks her emails and social media sites. Now he has direct access to the intimate details of her life, including her whereabouts, likes and dislikes, relationship history, circle of friends, and the guy Benji she’s presently in-and-out with romantically.  This knowledge is power.

Joe is determined to raise their friendship to the next level. The end game is being Beck’s boyfriend, her primary, but this requires overcoming a variety of obstacles created by Beck’s inner circle of friends and her wavering affection for Benji. But Joe is resourceful. He’s as skilled at using information for his purposes as he is at acquiring it. He’s also determined. There are no limits to what he’ll do to get her.  Since he’s convinced Beck needs him as much as he needs her, he perceives his actions as good for her too.  So he neutralizes—and in some cases eliminates—the obstacles. He succeeds, and soon Beck falls for Joe. Boy gets girl.

Joe’s a smart guy. He knows he can lose what he has, and this fear is compelling, especially when another man appears to have entered Beck’s life. Obsessive love is possessive love. So Joe’s pathological manipulation evolves with greater ingenuity to cope with the shifting threats he perceives. Again, despite the risks, there are no limits to what he’ll do to hold onto Beck, to protect her and their relationship. Although the obstacles prove formidable and their relationship becomes turbulent, Joe remains committed. He manages to neutralize and eliminate the obstacles once again. As before, his obsession proves deadly. The boy who gets girl must also keep girl, whatever the cost.

The reader knows Joe’s scheming will not end well, but it’s hard to anticipate the details of just how badly it will end. In the end, there’s a body count and a single mug of piss Joe will regret.

The Psychological Dimensions of You

As the plethora of raving reviews of You demonstrate, there’s much to praise about the novel. Kepnes’ debut novel showcases her talents as an innovative, insightful, and inspiring writer. She sustains a well-paced and artfully crafted story with a strong, intriguing, and easily likable narrative voice. The story is an unsettling but thoroughly entertaining character study of what happens when a toxic narcissist falls in love. Other characters, though viewed from Joe’s perspective, are also well developed, especially Beck and her pretentious wealthy college friend Peach Sallinger.

Kepnes-164-201x300What’s most interesting about the character development in You is that Joe—obsessed man turned romantic predator turned killer—is a guy with lots of positive qualities. He’s charming, quirky, full of passion, and well read. He’s not all bad. Similarly, the other characters are not entirely good; in fact some of them are quite rotten. Kepnes’ characters are flawed people—pretentious, narcissistic, deceptive, and conniving. Some of them are in the grip of their own destructive psychopathologies. As a result, Kepnes dissolves the traditional clear-cut dichotomy between villain and victim, and replaces it with a more realistic view of human persons and the complexities of moral assessment. Also, in portraying Beck as a strong yet deeply flawed person, Kepnes breaks from the stalker cliché of the powerful male predator victimizing the innocent or virtuous powerless women.

The story’s character development points to what for me is the book’s strongest and most fascinating feature. You is a thriller that skillfully exhibits psychological depth and insight.

Kepnes has created a central character whose dangerous obsessions are intimately connected to the more widespread phenomenon of idealizing love and human relationships. Joe is a special case of this, the inflation of obsession and possessive love. He’s a malignant narcissist, controlled by the on-going need to secure validation of himself and his unrealistic romantic ideals. In Joe we see the fruit of passion eviscerated of empathy: an elaborate and evolving stalking scheme turned deadly. But this psychological dynamic is an inflation of tendencies most of us share.  This is both insightful and also unsettling to the self-aware reader.

Also, true to the narcissist’s cognitive situation, Joe’s mind is a disturbing mix of insight and delusion.

On the one hand, Joe understands what makes people tick. He understands how people’s beliefs, needs, and interests motivate them. Since the story is told exclusively from Joe’s point of view, the reader is privy to his feelings, thoughts, and perceptions, so we can see how his insights into the world and people facilitate his effective plotting. He sees through pretentious rich kids and millennials, and even a therapist who appears later in the story.

On the other hand, recurring delusions fueled by his emotional flux interrupt his otherwise lucid engagement with the world, and his fantasy life takes over. Sometimes he idealizes people and relationships; in other cases he demonizes them. Like the borderline personality type, Joe’s delusions are reinforced and perpetuated by a cycle of inner rumination fueled by his emotional flux. He is easily triggered and can flip on you at any moment.

Of course, it’s not just the robust psychology of the characters in the story I find compelling.  It’s also the level of psychological insight required for this kind of a story to put a deep hook in the reader.

Kepnes knows how to create a narrator who is a horrible person and yet likable. Lots of readers have said how likable—some even say lovable—Joe is.  They enjoyed being in the head of a guy who is a sexual predator who turns serial killer. I remember the WTF moment when I realized “oh shit, I really like this dude.”

Cultivating an intimate connection between the reader and this kind of narrator is difficult, but Kepnes pulls it off. Yes, this is partly fueled by Kepnes portraying Joe’s ostensible victims as narcissistic shit heels whom we love to hate, and some of whom we might even feel deserve  some ruthless punishment.  But it’s also because Joe is a bad guy in whom we find many good qualities too. We like the things he likes and we hate the things he loathes. We like Joe.  He’s funny and insightful, and perhaps we even admire his romantic ideals and his knack for calling out people’s bullshit and getting back at them.  We care what happens to him.  We cheer for him . . . almost all the way.  Yeah, there’s that one thing, the deal breaker in real life. He’s a serial murderer.  Consequently, the story is peppered with brilliant moments of moral ambiguity.

The likability of Joe is interesting from another vantage point. Our attraction to Joe suggests why we might be vulnerable to the traps of malignant narcissists in real life. Joe is smart, charming, validating, funny, and apparently empathetic and sacrificing. Everything we like about Joe is what we like about real people. But like Joe, many of these “perfect” people have a dangerous darker side. The real world abounds with Joes, just as attractive, just as dangerous. Joe could be anyone out there, even our closest friend or partner.  This makes You both compelling and chilling.

We might also find it unsettling to realize how much of Joe is in us. Perish the thought of it, right? Not quite. Why else would we so strongly relate to him and cheer for him?  Some may find this disturbing or terrifying, but it can also be liberating for much the same reason all good horror fiction is liberating. As Robert Bloch said, “Horror is the removal of masks.” You does this. It unmasks everyone, including the reader. It removes masks and reveals the darker territory of our own inner landscape, but it does so in a way that’s romantic, playful, and at times hilarious. You allows us to dance in the dark.

There’s more Joe Goldberg in Kepnes’ sequel novel, Hidden Bodies (You #2), and later this year Joe will come to the screen when the Lifetime network premiers a mini-series based on You.

Michael Sudduth

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