Review: Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

Gone_Girl_(Flynn_novel)>>Published: January 2012

>>Finally got around to it: May 2014

I went upstairs and satisfied my shower craving. I closed my eyes and let the spray dissolve the dirt from my dad’s house. When I opened them back up, the first thing I saw was Amy’s pink razor on the soap dish. It felt ominous, malevolent. My wife was crazy. I was married to a crazy woman. It’s every asshole’s mantra: I married a psycho bitch. But I got a small, nasty bite of gratification: I really did marry a genuine, bona fide psycho bitch. Nick, meet your wife: the world’s foremost mindfucker. I was not as big an asshole as I’d thought. An asshole, yes, but not on a grandiose scale. The cheating, that had been preemptive, a subconscious reaction to five years yoked to a madwoman: Of course I’d find myself attracted to an uncomplicated, good-natured hometown girl. It’s like when people with iron deficiencies crave red meat.

***

Nick and Amy Dunne deserve one another. Theirs is a marriage of mutually assured destruction, should either one of them step out of line or decide to pull the trigger on the fucking litany of secrets and lies they are each keeping bottled for the sake of their futures.

Two disclaimers, right off the top: first, the twists and turns this plot takes are essential to any actual discussion of narrative events—in other words, I’m going to spoil the ever-loving shit out of this thing, so best back away now if you’ve not read the book or are waiting spoiler-free for the upcoming film adaptation; second, this isn’t a review, not really anyway. If you want to know whether or not I recommend the title, yes, I do. The writing is strong if unexceptional in its imagery or subtlety, and Flynn’s plotting is masterful. That being said, if likable characters are key to whether or not you will enjoy a book, this might not be the title for you, because both main characters are detestable, though in quite different ways.

The story of Gone Girl is, like the marriage at its core, built on a foundation of lies and misdirection. On the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary, Amy Dunne goes missing. Husband Nick finds their home in shambles—clearly a struggle has taken place. Amy is nowhere to be found, and of course foul play is suspected.

The novel is at first split between a police procedural told from Nick’s perspective as he desperately tries to figure out what has happened to his wife (because, naturally, he’s a suspect in her disappearance), and diary entries written by Amy, charting the course of their relationship and its many ups and downs, leading right up until the point of her disappearance.

Except Amy never kept a legitimate diary. It wasn’t her style to do so—like it wasn’t her style to tell all her secrets to the neighbour she befriended though secretly despised.

And therein lies the twist: Amy was never missing, she ran away—disappeared of her own accord and with every intention of killing herself in order to ensure her husband gets the death penalty for the crimes for which he has been so expertly framed. She discovered, long before the start of the novel, her husband’s infidelity—the down on his luck writer-turned-professor bedding a girl-next-door type who admires and respects him—and decided to make him pay for his failings as a man.

It’s in the novel’s second part that we’re allowed more fully into Amy’s mind as her past is presented as anything but innocent—the privileged child of two successful psychologist authors who’d built their literary careers on a series of novels employing their ideal vision of the daughter that never was. Amy is presented at first as the perfect woman any guy’s guy would consider himself lucky to find, but her sociopathy runs deep, and it’s revealed that from an early age she has successfully played and manipulated everyone around her, to better craft the image of her own desires rather than the one perpetuated by the Amazing Amy series of books created by her parents.

More than anyone else, however, Amy was from day one playing Nick. She knew of his pride, his inability to come clean about his failings and his affair, and she knew as a result of his almost twitch reaction to lie that he’d screw himself with the police and their investigation. She knew exactly how to frame him by using his tics and insecurities against him. Nick, however, is no fool. His greatest strength is that he’s a quick study—once it becomes clear just how effortlessly Amy is screwing him over, he starts piecing together a more accurate vision of the woman he thought he married, starts putting together his own investigation into just how and why Amy did what she did.

So, basically, the novel is a psychological cat and mouse game between one of the most intensely fucked-up married couples you’ll ever meet, and the police, loved ones, and surrounding town are all used as leverage in their battle. In other words, the narrative asks, who do you place your chips with in such a situation: the spineless cheater, or the murderous sociopath?

It’s this question that made Gone Girl an initially difficult read for me. While the narrative eventually managed to sweep the ground out from under me with its increasingly absurd yet totally compelling twists, Nick is a cold fish of a character, one who you know to be full of himself—and full of shit—right from the word “go.” Though as readers you know him to be innocent of his wife’s disappearance, he is, to be frank, an unfaithful piece of shit with little to no remorse for his actions. In fact, as shown in the selected text at the start of this analysis, once he learns of Amy’s true nature he attempts to use her sociopathy to excuse himself of all guilt in his infidelity. Nick’s eventual evolution is satisfying—by the novel’s end, one does get the impression that he sees the depth of his failings, both as a man and as a husband, and regrets not just marrying a person like Amy in the first place, but also allowing himself to fall into step as that most stereotypical of cheating husbands: the man who neglected what was on his doorstep for the cute little forbidden fruit on the other side of the street. Getting to that end, however, means wading through a lot of universally detestable shit.

But whatever Nick’s failings, they’re nothing compared to the terror that is Amy. Yes, as an unfaithful bastard Nick deserves to be punished. What he doesn’t deserve, however, is to be framed for murder and sent to prison to await death by lethal injection. Nor do any of Amy’s “friends” deserve the machinations of a mind set to always victimize for the purposes of spinning drama—to tighten the narrative surrounding her and position herself always as the victim who, against all odds, came out on top and was stronger for it. Once it is revealed how far Amy is willing to go for what she sees as “justice,” Flynn’s narrative quickly pulls back to further illustrate the one simple fact that helps position the lying cheater Nick as the “hero” of the piece: Amy has no soul.

As soulless and awful as Amy is, however, as the novel winds to a close something else becomes clear—something unexpected and very uncomfortable:

The question was frighteningly soulful and literal: Who would I be without Amy to react to? Because she was right: As a man, I had been my most impressive when I loved her—and I was my next best self when I hated her. I had known Amy only seven years, but I couldn’t go back to life without her. Because she was right: I couldn’t return to an average life.

Mutually assured destruction: Nick keeps Amy in check so long as he has some tangible hold over her crimes, which would destroy their growing family (her final-act pregnancy being one of the better “fuck you’s” in the novel); Amy keeps Nick in check by playing on his need to lie in order to present his best imagined self to the world.

In many ways, reading Gone Girl is like spending an afternoon with your sexist, racist, hate-filled grandfather who somehow survived several wars—he has such amazing stories to tell, you just wish for a moment he could stop being so horrible. Fortunately, likability is not a prerequisite for enjoying fiction. Gone Girl’s characters are terrible people doing terrible things to one another, but in their actions is a cold, rather chilling reflection of how our culture reacts to and embraces such drama—how publicly picking a side in a domestic dispute carries with it for some people as much necessity as breathing or waking up every day.

Yeah, I recommend Gone Girl. I love the narrative, though I hate having spent time with such shitty people. And I think, if I cut right down to the bone, that it’s not because their actions are so extreme but rather that it’s all so plausible.

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Review: The Last Days of California, by Mary Miller

17987665>>Published: January 2014

>>Finally got around to it: May 2014

The boy we hadn’t met introduced himself as Charlie and got up to grab another chair while Erik passed around beers. They were so cold and everybody was so good-looking I felt like I was in a commercial. I pretended to take an interest in the father and son. The father was swimming laps while his kid sat on a step. I wondered if his mother was waiting in one of the rooms, but more than likely his parents were divorced and the man only had his son a few weeks every summer. To make things exactly even, they drove the same number of miles and exchanged him in the middle, which happened to be this shitty little West Texas town. It would explain why they were so disappointed in each other.

Elise took a Marlboro out of somebody’s pack and lit it with her bedazzled lighter before any of the boys could reach for their Zippos. I pressed my finger into a tiny flower on the table. It stuck and I thought about making a wish, but I’d been making a lot of wishes lately and they were the same generic wishes I always made. I was going to have to start being more specific. Gabe, I thought, blowing it off. I want Gabe.

“What are you guys doing here?” Charlie asked.

“We’re going to California where we’re going to witness the Second Coming of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. In Pacific Time,” Elise said. She told them we were the chosen ones, that they were going to suffer through terrible fires and earthquakes before the earth exploded into nothingness.

***

The end days have arrived and they are decidedly… chill. Disarmingly so, as a matter of fact. And how are the Metcalfs celebrating this auspicious and potentially catastrophic situation? By driving 2,500 miles from Montgomery, Alabama to California to be among those last individuals in the continental United States to witness the rapture (assuming, as their father is, that the rapture in fact sweeps across the globe time zone to time zone in an orderly fashion rather than wiping everything out at once in the blink of an eye).

The Last Days of California follows the family—father John, mother Barbara, older sister Elise, and younger sister and narrator Jess—as they move from one shitty motel to another, travelling through West Texas on their way to California, on the final four days of their journey. As they move from place to place, they stop and hand out religious tracts whenever possible—a seemingly futile attempt to save as many souls as they can before Jesus steps back into the spotlight and lays waste to all those unfortunate unworthies and non-believers alike.

While the entire family is invested in the journey, to varying degrees, it’s really the father’s “mission” and the rest are simply along for the ride. John is your typical über-conservative (i.e., Global Warming is a myth made up by the Left for political gain and other ludicrous gems) with a list of faults as long as his years: gambling problems, unable to hold onto a job, a bit of a racist streak toward Native Americans, an unwillingness to listen to his doctor, and a vacant relationship with his daughters who he doesn’t appear to understand at all. John’s relationship with his own extended family is non-existent, so he attempts to give his all to his wife and daughters, though he remains incapable of forming genuine bonds with any of them.

Barbara, meanwhile, embodies a stereotypical mid-twentieth century middle-American housewife in that her role is to keep the family from imploding. She is more a mostly-silent observer working double time to keep John from bankrupting their entire family—just in case this whole rapture thing proves false—while attempting to elicit some modicum of respect from the increasingly disaffected Elise.

Speaking of Elise, the seventeen-year-old is pregnant, but only Jess knows (though I feel it’s pretty clear by the end that Barbara is not as oblivious as her daughters might think). Elise is “the pretty one,” the cheerleader who despises football and maintains an on-going texting relationship with the would-be father of her yet unborn child. Fifteen-year-old Jess, on the other hand, is the slightly more childlike set of eyes through which we view this barely functioning family’s journey. Jess compares herself unfavourably to Elise in that she sees herself as more dishonest, prone to doing things their parents would disapprove of, but being better at hiding such things than Elise, who wears her rebellion for the most part on her sleeve. Jess is certainly more outwardly sympathetic toward their father than Elise, who sees through his bullshit and his litany of insecurities.

As the novel progresses, we witness first-hand as Jess is slowly stripped of her restraint, how she in very little time jettisons all lingering remnants of her childhood in favour of experiences that she may or may not ever have the opportunity to know, depending on whether or not the rapture comes to pass. In this sense, she takes on the role of the tacit doubter, split between loyalty to her parents—specifically her father and his quite singular vision—and the pull of Elise and the more carnal aspects of life she represents, unburdened as she is by concern for her parents or their approval (believing herself in their eyes a mistake, a disappointment).

It isn’t until Friday—the third day of their journey—that the depths of their family’s secrets are truly brought to light: Elise confronts Barbara about their father losing his job, questioning how they will ever pay for this journey if the rapture turns out to be nothing but a baseless scare; Barbara makes clear the importance of their family’s perceived reputation, whatever the cost of their deceitful behaviour; and Jess reveals to Elise the possible abuse she experienced at the hands of their pastor. And by the time the book’s title is uttered in context, it’s clear that both girls have abandoned all pretences of faith and, without outwardly saying so, have moved out from beneath their parents’ shadows. By the novel’s end, they are all of them transformed via their stubborn, near-destructive tendencies, having seen clearly the limitations of faith.

Mary Miller’s novel is an effective, disarming coming-of-age narrative—more so than many I’ve had the pleasure of reading in recent years. It achieves this by being, more often than not, blunt and wonderfully un-dramatic. Save for a car accident the family witnesses early on, there is little to no “action” in The Last Days of California. Miller uses low-key, understated language to underscore the severity of the family’s choices rather than striking through them violently or with unnecessary gravitas; the drama portrayed is more a blade unexpectedly and effortlessly slipping between two ribs as if the victim was sheathed in cheesecloth in place of skin.

Similarly, the details of their future in the wake of the (naturally) false Second Coming are left thankfully vague: did Elise really miscarry or is something else the matter with her? Did John actually win big at the casino or will they be left horribly in debt by this whole ordeal? The family’s quick rebound following the non-event that was the rapture is handled expertly—the novel’s final moments feel deliberately misleading, as if a happy and bright blanket has been tossed over them, quickly engulfing all their fears and concerns, only it’s not a blanket at all but a death shroud and they are all too oblivious to its true and destructive nature toward their family as a singular and intact unit.

Miller’s writing is strong and economical, and services the tone of Jess’s observations quite well. The novel is loaded with often-brilliant single-line bullets of observation. For example:

I loved that—“I have many people in this city.” The Bible could be so beautiful sometimes, if you could forget it was the Bible.

Aesthetically, Miller’s novel feels trapped between epochs: the moment to moment journey is reminiscent of a 1980s road trip where the whole family crams into a station wagon and ventures off to parts unknown a la National Lampoon’s Vacation, but peppered throughout with enough modern references and conveniences—Urban Dictionary, smart phones, and text-based relationship neurosis—to remind us of its modern setting. As such, handing out paper tracts in a digital age appears unapologetically anachronistic—as clear a commentary as any on the family’s uncomfortable straddling of time periods, which itself is clearly criticizing their apparent struggle to move forward with their lives, revealing to one another their otherwise dishonest selves.

I greatly enjoyed The Last Days of California. Miller’s novel is slight on revelations, contrary to what one might expect given the end-of-times umbrella that starts them on their journey in the first place. But it’s through this restraint that we’re given a surprising amount of depth as Jess quietly, sometimes dangerously gives witness to the unstated death of her own faith.

Review: The Troop, by Nick Cutter

troop>>Published: February 2014

>>Finally got around to it: May 2014

It wasn’t much more than a skeleton lashed by ropes of waterlogged muscle, its flesh falling off its bones in gray, lace-edged rags. It lumbered forward, mumbling dully to itself. Tim’s terror pinned him in place.

The thing shambled through a shaft of moonlight that danced along the tall grass; the light transformed the nightmare into what it truly was: a man so horrifyingly thin it was a miracle he was still alive.

Tim stepped from cover without thinking, driven by the instinctive urge to offer aid. “Hello? You all right?”

The man turned his brightly burning gaze on him. It was a gaze of mindless terror and desperate longing, but what really spooked Tim was its laserlike focus: this man clearly wanted something. Needed it.

The stranger shuffled closer, pawing down the buttons of his shirt, running a quaking hand through his greasy pelt of hair. Tim suddenly understood: the man was making token efforts to render himself presentable.

“Do you have anything… to eat?”

***

This Nick Cutter fellow, whoever he is*, has a lot of issues—chief among them, a distressingly detailed visual imagination. To say I simply cringed while reading The Troop would be an understatement; to say I audibly asked, while lying in bed alone in my apartment, what the fuck could possibly be wrong with this author… that’s a little more accurate. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Troop is a horror novel in the finest sense: it offers a simple premise—five teenage boys and their scoutmaster out for a weekend together on an isolated island on Canada’s east coast, beset upon by a man who also happens to be an escaped biological weapon—and sticks a knife in it, twisting it every which way until as many emotional fibres as possible are severed, brutally, disgustingly so.

Led to Falstaff Island, PEI, by their scoutmaster Tim, the five boys—Kent, Ephraim, Max, Shelley, and Newt (who feels strikingly familiar to Piggy from Golding’s Lord of the Flies… which is about as much a compliment as I can give to that detestable novel)—are alone and without technology. No phones, no video games, nothing but the great outdoors. This would all be well and good if not for the unexpected arrival to the island of “the hungry man.”

Dubbed Patient Zero and Typhoid Tom in between chapter interludes that shed light on the outside world and the ramifications of the events of Falstaff Island, the hungry man—once upon a time known as Thomas Henry Padgett—is being eaten away, pound by pound, from the inside out. Simultaneously bursting at the seams and starving, wasting away to nothing, the hungry man comes upon the scouts and their campsite during their first night in the wilderness. It’s clear he’s on the run, but from what and why I won’t spoil, as I found the details of his predicament and the associated narrative surrounding Dr. Clive Edgerton—Joseph Mengele 2.0—almost as entertaining as the boys’ tale of survival itself.

It’s not much of a spoiler to say that Typhoid Tom doesn’t last too long, though the details of his appearance are some of the author’s finest and most fucked-up work:

The stranger didn’t wholly resemble a man anymore. More like something a dull-witted child might have drawn with a crayon. His body was lines. His arms were scribbles. His fingers were calligraphic spiders. The skin draped his rib cage with terrible intimacy, pinching around each rib to show the striation of muscle. His sternum was a knot, his pelvis a gruesome hinged wishbone. The skin of his face had the patina of old copper and was sucked so tight to his skull that Max could see the glaring rings of bone around his eye sockets. His ears protruded like jug handles, so thin that they curled inward, like charring paper.

The above? Likely my favourite descriptive passage in the book, but by no means the end of Cutter’s rather inventive comparisons.

As events progress and the situation on the island becomes increasingly grim, so too do the interludes, rising in intensity as the novel tantalizingly dangles the final outcome of events just out of reach; these interludes offer ideas as to who survives without ever coming right out and saying it, leaving such revelations to happen linearly as the boys’ narrative on the island continues. And as the shit hits the fan—as the hungry man’s condition is revealed as being contagious—the boys are all forced to grow up very fast, accepting dramatically changed do-or-die circumstances with absolutely no help from the outside world. In fact, the outside world has taken steps to quarantine Falstaff Island; though they don’t know it at the time, the boys are, from the moment of Typhoid Tom’s arrival, placed in the centre of a last-man-standing elimination challenge.

What comes from all this is the true meat of the book: the evolution and subsequent splintering of the five boys. When they themselves witness the spreading of the hungry man’s “disease,” the novel takes on a slight air of the film The Thing—trust and fear are made the dominant guiding forces for all their actions. And through trust, maturity and the ability to think through a crisis are developed; through fear, desperation and the inevitable dissolution of trust.

There’s so much more I’d like to discuss (like how stupid I feel for not pre-emptively reading the sociopathy in one individual’s clearly bullshit attempts at camaraderie), but this is one of those situations where the suspense is so well crafted that to remove any of that tension would be to strip a fair amount of life from the book.

This isn’t a cheap-scare slasher narrative, nor is it an especially ephemeral or thought-provoking tale of supernatural horror; The Troop is instead a tension-filled character piece with slight—very slight—science fiction undertones. It’s the best sort of marriage between light and bloody popcorn-style entertainment with genuinely well-written and interesting characters. The kids themselves are all strongly developed and believable in their actions—even when they are, point of fact, losing their shit.

Despite all this talk about tension and disease and death, however, it was a small moment between two of the boys and a turtle that gave me reason to pause. It was a disarming, strangely beautiful moment, evocative, I can only imagine, of what any non-sociopathic child of any age would feel when faced with having to weigh their desperation against their conscience. Highly recommended.

 

*Fairly certain his true identity is well known, but for the sake of this review I’ll respect the pseudonym.