Saturday, June 9, 2012

Gillian Flynn's "Gone Girl" Is The 'Ringer' of Novels...

Like with Ringer (aw, does anyone even remember Ringer? R.I.P.?), I am torn about how to feel after reading Gillian Flynn's new novel, "Gone Girl." On one hand, I found myself utterly fascinated by the concept (dualing narrators, telling two sides to the tale of a wife's disappearance-- one the woman herself, through diary entries, the other, her husband's account of the days and investigation that unfold after the ominous "Day Of..."). In fact, I was so fascinated, I actually paid for the $12.99 eBook download, rather than requested a review copy, just so I could start on it instantaneously, considering it a reward for not crapping out in the middle of a previous (super boring) read like I wanted to. Yet, on the other hand, I felt so disappointed by the actual execution. Isn't the point of having two narrators that you read two sides to the same story and have to dig up the truth that lies in the third, true but still untold, story that lies between? Yet, "Gone Girl" doesn't truly flit back and forth between which narrator is most trustworthy. In fact, if you're a savvy story consumer, you can read between the lines immediately, picking up on clues that only those who were too caught up in the emotion of a missing loved one would be blind to miss.

I don't know if I should be as outraged as I am at how "Gone Girl" chose to tell its story. But I am. The twisty maze Flynn created is filled with all of the tropes of a WhoDunIt? for the modern, post-millenial audience. There are attempts at confusion, at over-complication, at comeuppance for characters you're clearly supposed to believe are "bad"-- but only at specific points in the story. But it's done with such a heavy hand, it just feels like an attempt to pull something over on it's audience-- to trick us-- to claim "Haha, I'm cleverer than you." It is fresh salt in the wound that is still Ringer for all of the same reasons.

(Generally when I review stories here, I don't like to give away plot points, but since this novel has been on shelves for awhile, it's hard to know just when a spoiler is still a spoiler. Regardless, I'm being purposefully vague here so as not to ruin anyone's reading experience. If you decide to pick up the book and want to have a more detailed, uncensored discussion, though, I would love to do it through email!)

Yet there is one major difference with "Gone Girl." Whereas Ringer showed you so much of Bridget's story in the beginning that it was clear the writers were directing the audience to respond more positively to her-- to root for her, sympathize with her, identify with her, love her-- "Gone Girl" introduces both of its main characters at their seeming most vulnerable moments: him (Nick) on the day his wife disappeared, and her (Amy) on the day she met and fell in love with Nick. This should allow you to warm to each character-- to feel for each character at different points down the line in the story. Sure, his chapter comes first, and you could read into the decision on why that placement, but for the most part, Flynn allows the reader to meet these two individuals "clean," thereby allowing the reader's own individual baggage to be what clouds judgement passed onto either or both characters.

Of course, that only works for so long before the author's hand forces you to see certain things about the characters that even someone with the best of intentions can't realistically justify away. And for me, that only worked for the first two chapters. As I mentioned, the savvy consumer notices the nuances (certainly not penned by accident!) that strip away the characters' public veneers, revealing the personality traits they tried to tuck away for so long. Nick openly admits to his readers when he is lying, while Amy's words, even in her own diary, are so sickenly Saccharine you (or at least I) can't help hope she's found alive-- so you can smack some sense into her. And later, when you learn the truth about her, begin to hope that she contracted tetanus from her knife and dies in a ditch somewhere (too harsh?). Despite what statistics or stereotypes say about the husband being the reason when wives go "missing," you (or at least I) can't help but feel bad for Nick. Even when he is saying the only woman he always loved is his sister, at least he is being honest. 

Amy becomes so mind-numbingly transparent (right around the diary entry in which she boasts being "the cool girl"-- the one wife in her friendship circle that genuinely doesn't care if her husband shows up for after-dinner drinks or not). Come on, Amy (which could just as easily be me saying Come on, Flynn), no one believes you, and if you believe you, you can at least have a legitimate attempt at an insanity defense! I wish I could sit down with Flynn and ask her if this was her intention-- or if she was seriously trying to play with the idea of perception. Are there women-- or readers in general-- out there who so desperately wanted to believe Amy's side of the story that they were able to ignore the obvious warning signs, just as so many women with husbands actually capable of murder ignore his temper, hoping ignorance is bliss?

I admit it: I give the benefit of the doubt to no one, so I assume it is the latter. I assume it was trouble executing a complex idea. Considering I never read Flynn's previous novels, I assume she is more of a big picture person: great at set-up, but faltering on pay-off.

"Gone Girl" attempts something admirable mid-way through in that it reveals the truth behind Amy's disappearance to its readers. But for me, it personally felt a little too late, and admittedly this revelation erases the theme of duplicity from the subsequent pages, though at least when it comes it's not just another red herring. Still when you as a reader come to a conclusion earlier in the tale, you can't help but have a sense of "Yes, but what else?" when the story itself, or the characters within it, finally catches up to you. Everything that unfolds within "Gone Girl' does so as you might expect it to; it is an utterly predictable story. A novel told in the style of a true crime tale. In that sense, it is The Killing of crime thrillers-- you may wait for a crazy, eleventh hour twist that TV and movies and other crime thriller books have told us to expect, but it will not come; it is not that type of tale. Around that half-way mark, it becomes a much different story: suddenly it is more openly one about the masks we wear in relationships. Suddenly it is a commentary on how when we first meet people-- and to a degree, sometimes even when we're known people awhile-- we put on a facade we think they want to see, or one we think they will respond to better than our true self. We're all actors these days; we just have to find our audience. That is a story worth telling; that is unique. But even that falls apart.

As much as I have to admire Flynn for not just giving us red herring after red herring, when surely that temptation was there-- the material just lends itself to over-the-top twists, after all-- as I read the second half of the story, I couldn't help but notice just how thin the actual story was under all of this implied or forced tension. It's a parallel to how thin the facts of the case against Nick may have been-- all circumstantial-- but without any real meat, why continue on? Mid-way through the story, you no longer wonder (if you ever did at all) if Nick is guilty, and what should keep you reading is your, perverse as it may be, lookie-loo desire to see someone-- anyone-- pay for the crime that actually was committed here.

Mid-way through, the story switches gears to ask its audience to define justice-- to fine how you can adequately punish the various bad behaviors of the characters. Nick is no saint; Nick has a temper. He lies; he fibs; he omits; he cheats; he's insecure. He calls his wife (only in his own mind, but still) words that have no place in this world. But in the overall scheme of things, isn't that just life? Is that just people, with their moods and their flaws and their differences? Amy-- Amy is a psychopath. Amy is unfathomable. Even when, less than one hundred pages to the end, the tables are turned and Nick is the one trying to manipulate Amy, anything and everything he says and does pales in to comparison to the atrocities she has already committed. She has created false tales of rape, molestation, stalking, poisoning, and potentially murder-- and not just against her husband, though he has certainly taken the brunt of it. "Gone Girl" treats Amy with kid gloves despite it all, though, keeping her at an odd's arm's length as if Flynn is saying "Aw shucks, look at the mess Amy is making now!" rather than taking her implied mental illness as seriously as the allegations against Nick. It just doesn't make sense-- it just doesn't feel balanced-- that half of the story could be so set in seriousness, while the rest is dripping with camp.

Normally, I would be all over a dark character like Amy. I'd want to explore her childhood, her past relationships, her schooling, anything, really, to see if her fragile, abused mind just set her on this terrible path. But Flynn offers no indication that there was any true trauma in her life-- just the ones she fabricated for attention and manipulation. She's just another entitled, bored rich kid. And whether in works of fiction or actually around the corner, I have no use for anyone-- women and/or men-- like that.

I feel like Flynn is trying to force her readers to consider their own ideas or degrees of misogyny within “Gone Girl,” but in fact, the novel does not do that for me. It does make me question her own beliefs or feelings, though-- not about all women, per se, but at least the ones in her life. And the idea that damaged people, even when detrimental to each other, should stay together. They say you write what you know, right? And it isn’t enough that Flynn has crafted such a cunning, calculating, crazy character in Amy but a really stupid one at that. Amy may have been clever enough to create the perfect crime-- she certainly has planning skills, I’ll give her that-- but she is absolutely unable to cope with anything contradictory to her own frame of mind. She thinks no one will see through her and therefore underestimates "runaway" Greta; she thinks no one can be as manipulative as she, and therefore underestimates ex-boyfriend Desi; and she thinks no one can be as smart or witty as she is, and therefore can’t see the game her own husband begins to play with her-- through the media no less! Amy is desperate and depressing, and she gets tripped up at such “easy” moments that it appears not a fault in her character but a fault in Flynn’s authorship of her character. It seems nothing more than a device in which to wrap up an unsavory story with a nice, neat (if equally depressing) literary bow.

There may be something poetic in the fact that Amy starts to fall for the same lines an actual battered wife might, right around the time Nick develops actually murderous feelings toward his wife. It might poetic when later, Nick considers falling for a similar pattern. It may be poetic that the tables turn at all-- even if just for an audience of one (the reader) and momentarily. It may even be poetic that it is the man, in this case, who is gets trapped in the abusive, if not fully fear-inducing, household then. But that's not really justice-- it's not even closure. Nothing after the audience learns the truth and begins to watch Nick play the system the way Amy played him feels earned, feels real, feels believable. It feels like just another story in a book we will soon forget. Because the truth is, when real women go missing so publicly, it is very rarely because they wanted to exhibit some control, and all "Gone Girl" does is remind you of the victims who never get a voice half the size of the one vile Amy abuses.

I guess you could say that "Gone Girl" is its own version of success simply because it got me thinking-- and blogging-- about its different themes and intricacies, but in the end I just think I wanted something the story seemed to promise but on which failed to deliver. When I think back about the elements of the tale of marriage depicted within the pages, the pieces that stand-out-- the pieces I enjoy-- are the minute details that really make this story its own distinct version of a tragic tale told in a million newspapers and on hundreds of episodes of Nancy Grace. The anniversary scavenger hunts, the children's books based on an actual child's life that end up making said child feel woefully inferior, the brief but still viable commentary on the state of journalism today. There are beautiful elements here, but it would have behooved Flynn to weave them together tighter, and without underestimating her audience. And it really would have helped if she didn't end with such a disgusting message about the escalating games scorned spouses will play.


Jessica J. Burchard said...

Thank you for this post on "Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn. I just finished reading it quickly, but found myself incredibly disheartened by the last 100 pages of the book.

While I enjoyed the build through the first 220 pages, the novel's progression seemed to slow, dip into unnecessary and painfully written subplots before dragging out a cynical and over-the-top conclusion.

One thing I wish you had touched on was how Nick's anger toward Amy is observed, especially in comparison to his father's issues with women.

As an aside, I want to add that I have read Flynn's first novel, "Sharp Objects," which focuses on another woman with mental issues who spends part of her story feeling physically/psychologically trapped in a large southern mansion. She young career-minded white, able-bodied white woman also has serious family issues (mother conflict) and feels inferior. Unlike Amy, this character takes out her unhappiness on her own body, but she too ends the novel as a participant in a somewhat conventional family structure.

Perhaps you and I could argue that Ms. Flynn has solid ideas for very readable books, but fails to properly execute them, and she may be in desperate need of a stronger editor or a ghostwriter.

Hyacinth Marius said...

This is one of the best books I've read. So many twists and turns. Nothing to be skipped. I actually read it while taking a walk - on my Kindle - so that I'd walk at lunch time instead of staying in and reading. Risky, since I walk in a parking lot. But I could not put it down. Sorry when it ended. I'll have to try the author again.
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Micaella Lopez said...

Clever, fast and truly haunting, Gone Girl is a thrilling ride. My first Gillian Flynn book and it certainly won't be my last. I know I'll still be thinking about this story days from now, and perhaps giving my husband a undeserved suspicious glance.

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