"I wanted the whole thing to feel bankrupt... I wanted it to really feel like a marriage that had been hollowed out in a city that had been hollowed out and a country that was increasingly hollowed out."
---Gillian Flynn, on Gone Girl, Huffington Post interview.
Gillian Flynn, journalist turned mystery writer, has made a name for herself with well-wrought thrillers. Compared with the average mystery, her work features deeper thematic and social concerns, memorable characters—and wildly far-fetched solutions. Gone Girl, her most successful novel to date, contains all of these characteristics. It has sold spectacularly well, provoked debate, and has become a major motion picture.
The tale features a slow, but engaging introduction. Nick and Amy Dunne were successful New York writers whose careers faltered with the growth of the Internet. They have returned to his economically depressed home town, where he runs a bar with his twin sister and teaches writing at the local college. Discomfort and scandal lurk beneath the surface of their Missouri home. Their marriage falters. Past histories and worries about money and family fester. He develops interests that he keeps from his wife. She feels lost and trapped. Nevertheless, she sets up her annual treasure hunt for their fifth anniversary—a quirky tradition where he follows clues based on their shared past to find his present.
Then she vanishes.
Nick soon finds himself the prime suspect in a possible murder. The evidence makes a strong case, and the self-absorbed Nick does not play well as the trial by mass media begins. This portion has been nicely rendered for an era where Tweets decide guilt in the popular imagination and Youtube Warriors base conspiracies on victims looking insufficiently traumatized before the camera. In this novel, the popular reaction follows the lead of Ellen Abbot, a superficial, sensationalistic TV personality clearly based on Nancy Grace. But is Nick guilty? Is Amy even dead? And will the treasure hunt clues lead to some darker truth?
The novel's first third raises a number of interesting concerns about gender and character. Nick and Amy each narrate, and their accounts do not jibe. One, or both of them, are lying about the events that led to her disappearance. Amy herself, the inspiration for a series of children's books written by her parents, proves an interesting reflection on identity, of how our mind reconstructs people, fictional and real.
These weightier elements appear in the context of a plot which—once Amy disappears— should engross any reader. Flynn's work matches the best pop page-turners without sacrificing the quality of writing. As in her earlier work, Dark Places, (which I prefer, and which is also soon to be a major motion picture), the solution does not prove the equal of the mystery.
The combination of overly-contrived solution and bleak, open ending (Gone Girl literally could have ended several pages earlier and worked at least as well) better suited a dark comedy. I almost wish it had been written overtly as one. The ending, apparently, has been changed for the film adaptation. As of this writing, the film has not yet been released; I suspect when it appears, those changes will satisfy those who want fictional justice done-- but further problematize an already problematic novel.
And at this point, nothing more can be written without introducing significant spoilers. Framed by extra space, then, I will continue. Major plot twists will be addressed; those who wish to read the novel or see the film without knowing these twists beforehand should read no further.
reads like a literary murder mystery, where a staunch feminist
wrote the first half and a radical MRA
the second. The Amy we see in the diary becomes engaging, if shockingly accepting of her own abuse. Nick becomes a kind of model for the blindness of social privilege and everyday misogyny
. He remains ignorant of his wife's private life (he's shocked to hear she has a close friendship with a neighbor), feels secure that his affair with a student remains private, and denies that he has abused Amy. Even when the full truth is known, and we recognize that he has been misrepresented, he's still not terribly likeable.
The truth is that, while Nick Dunne lies in his account, the Amy of the diary is entirely a construction of the real Amy, a psychopath intent on framing her husband. To that end, she leaves her detailed false account where police will eventually find it. She engineers the treasure hunt (the existence of which Nick conceals from the police investigating Amy's disappearance, because reasons) so that Nick will be led into situations that further incriminate him in her apparent death.
The revealed Amy still offers comments that reflect on real world gender issues. Her analysis and condemnation of Cool Girl, the media-created female who shares stereotypical male attitudes, will resonate with many readers. "You are not dating a woman," explains Amy, to a hypothetical man, "you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who'd like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them." Of course, the fact she initially posed as Cool Girl in order to win Nick's attention makes his floundering faith in their marriage understandable— especially as he has stumbled onto clues as to her true nature, even before her disappearance. The depth of the diary account, meanwhile, provides further fascinating commentary on the nature of fiction.
The twist, however, creates the novel's biggest problems, both in terms of believable plotting and problematic themes.
Amy Dunne the Psychopath does everything extremist Men's Rights Activists accuse women of doing. She lies about abuse. She lies about rape—at least three times. Years earlier, she lied about date rape in order to strike out at a previous relationship. She lies in her fake diary about spousal rape. She lies about an abduction and rape in order to explain her whereabouts when she realizes she must return to her old life. She even damages her body in order to create evidence of the assaults. She gets pregnant in order to trap Nick, and he fully expects she will one day lie about the sexual abuse of their child in order to keep him under control. I understand that Flynn wants to create flawed and even evil female characters. I understand that Amy is meant to be a manipulative psychopath, and not a representative of all women. Fine. Gone Girl still differs from her earlier works depicting flawed women, in part because the book comments so overtly on gender issues. Had a man penned this novel, I suspect the concerns about the depiction of women and women's issues would be more than an afterthought in the discourse about the novel and its success. In the hands of Hollywood (with Ben Affleck in the role of Nick), the tale risks becoming the twenty-first century's Fatal Attraction or Basic Instinct, and not in any good sense (I could be entirely wrong here—the movie has as of this writing only been screened by a film festival audience. It will be released October 3, 2014).
The plot flaw lies in how perfectly Amy's plans work. The method by which she incriminates Nick over the contents of a secret man cave (down to his fingerprints on items he has never seen) stretches credulity. Her technique for impregnating herself with his semen, while not impossible, apparently works, against lottery-win odds, the first time she attempts it. In her plotting overall, Amy simply predicts too much too accurately, while the police make too little attempt to investigate holes in her story. Amy also leaves us wondering why someone with a comic-book supervillain's genius would be floundering in a loveless marriage in the middle of Missouri.
In the end, we have a clever, well-written page-turner. For many readers, that will be enough. It falters under the weight of its own contrived solution—and the significance of its gender politics should keep debate going for some time.
NOTE: This novel would make an interesting comparison with Emma Donoghue's Room, a literary crime novel which uses its premise to address gender issues.