Friday, October 5, 2012

Gone Girl

I have a tricky relationship with crime and detective fiction. On the ond hand, I love a good mystery. It is, in a way, the ultimate escapist fiction because a good mystery can pull you entirely away from real life while you're reading it, and then keep you thinking about it long after you've put the book away. Intelligent detectives/sleuths, good writing, a little humour – yes, I enjoy that very much. Then, though, there's the more extreme end of the genre, where the reader bounces back and forth between the detective and the killer (it's almost always murder). Generally, the level of detail is extreme, the plot is that much more suspenseful, and the outcome that much more bloody. Not to say those books are bad – I've just lost the stomach for them. This was the general duality of crime thrillers I understood to exist, and then I picked up Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl for a book club and everything went pear-shaped.

Gone Girl was not on my radar at all (despite it being a New York Times bestseller), but as a book club pick I was duty bound to pick it up. It begins on July 5, the day of Amy and Nick Dunne's fifth wedding anniversary. All is not well in the Dunne household, that much is clear, but it seems as though some kind of uneasy truce has been reached for the anniversary, and when Nick wakes up, Amy is in the kitchen making crepes. We are in Nick's head, in his first-person, when he goes downstairs for breakfast, which is how we know that the vision of his wife inspires dread. Later, when Nick is at work – he and his twin sister Go (short for Margo) own a bar called The Bar – he gets a call from an alcoholic neighbour saying his front door is wide open. Not thinking much of it, Nick drives home to check up on things and finds that the door inside is indeed open, that the living room furniture has been overturned, and that his wife is nowhere to be found. He calls the police.

The novel is written in three parts, and in the first section, the story is told in chapters that alternate between Nick's first-person, present-day experience, and entries from Amy's diary. Through Amy's diary we hear about how they first met, the early days of their relationship, how it felt to have her life fictionalized and cleaned up in her parents bestselling series Amazing Amy. We also learn that both Amy and Nick used to be journalists in New York – Nick wrote for a magazine and Amy wrote personality quizzes for women's magazines – before the recession hit and they both lost their jobs. Then Nick's parents both got sick – his mother had cancer and his father got Alzheimer's – and Nick decided they should move back to Missouri to take care of his mom, something his sister had already done. Amy didn't like it, but she went along with it, and then once they were back their marriage just got worse: he was surly and unavailable, seeming to hate her, and she felt isolated and out of place. It's a sad story.

And then, Part Two starts, and everything you thought you knew or understood or intuited about Nick and Amy turns out to be a lie. Well, maybe you got a couple of things right, but most of it is a lie. I won't tell you what happens, but I will say that when I read it, I actually said, out loud, to the book: "What the fuck." And I am not a sweary person. The novel goes from clear-cut to totally messed up in one page, and somehow Flynn keeps the story together so tightly you cannot stop reading.

That's the thing about this novel: it's really, really well written. There are no shortcuts, there are no accidents – for example, when the police find Amy's diary, you know just how damning it is, because it's how you got to know her: you read it first. And the cops aren't morons. It's true that they probably don't have a ton of experience handling murder, or psychopaths, but nonetheless, their investigation is pretty clean. But of course, you only hear about it from the outside, because as the story flips back and forth between the perspectives of Nick and Amy (a structure that continues throughout the novel), their isn't space to inject the police. They would, in effect, break up the power struggle over whose narrative of the marriage is accurate, which would break the spell of the novel. Similarly, the portrayal of the media, and the discussions Nick has with his lawyer about how to play the media, are fascinating. It places Gone Girl into an utterly contemporary setting, where fingerprints are both physical and digital, and have the public believe in you is as important as having the police on your side. 

I won't lie, I found Gone Girl to be an infuriating novel. The kind of malice it represents is frustrating and painful to read, and the realistically cynical portrayal of the U.S. justice system is distressing. But for all that, it is gripping. Even now, weeks after finishing, I can't stop thinking about it, wondering what could have been done to gain a different outcome. The trouble is, Flynn just doesn't leave any holes, which is proof that excellent writing can make for annoyingly compelling reading.

Gone Girl
by Gillian Flynn
First published in 2012 (cover image shown from Crown Publishing edition)


  1. Oh, you're a sweary person all right.

  2. This book is a roller coaster ride that does not let you off, even when you've had enough.

    See for yourself.

  3. If there is such a thing! I love Gillian Flynn's books. She's a wonderful writer with a vast knowledge and ready wit. Can't wait to see the film.


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