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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