October 20, 2014

Book Review: "Gone Girl," by Gillian Flynn

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Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl
By Gillian Flynn
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

It's telling, I think, that when I was posting real-time comments about Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl to my friends at Facebook while I was reading it last week, I ended up remarking while still in the first half that the plot itself isn't really that clever, just basically a fictionalized version of the Scott Peterson affair from the early 2000s (in which an angelic suburban mom was found hacked up into pieces one day, and the more the media glare was laser-sighted on her husband, the more it was revealed what a scheming, soul-dead, sociopathic frat boy he really is). Because of course without revealing any spoilers today, it's impossible to see this book's surprise rise into "international phenomenon" status, including resulting smash Hollywood adaptation by the Oscar-winning David Fincher, without at least realizing that some awfully clever thing must happen somewhere in this pitch-black contemporary crime novel; and an awfully clever thing does eventually happen, and it's exactly as brilliantly evil as its reputation has it, and that's ultimately what's raised the book from "unusually well-done domestic thriller" territory into the DaVinci-Code-like level of popularity and influence it now has.

But as long as we're there in the first half and are still thinking that it's just a Scott Peterson story, we understand it as the best Scott Peterson-type story ever written, so much so that it wouldn't surprise us to find out that it had become such a huge runaway bestseller simply for its excellent character development, simply for its well-rounded look at all the principals involved and how each have both their good and bad sides which both come out in specific situations. And that in a nutshell is the genius of Flynn as a writer, and why her midlist low-profile crime thriller has blown up in a way that almost no other midlist low-profile crime thriller ever has; because she is a sophisticated, highly literary writer first and foremost, but unlike "literary novelists" who dabble in genre work, she is also obviously an unabashed fan of all the tropes that come with "ripped from the headlines" supermarket potboilers, giving us a book that highly satisfies the latter audience while also surprisingly impressing the former.

That's really the key to this book working, apart from any "gotchas" in the novel's admittedly very inventive storyline; it's because Flynn really sucks us into this world at first, and makes us if not entirely sympathetic to our narrator under suspicion, the charming yet put-upon Nick Dunne, at least understanding of the way his history, his family and his genetics makes him behave, inventing a crippling lack of self-confidence and an obsessive need to please others to explain his cold manner of fake-polite demeanor while in public, even while in the wake of a missing wife and under the scrutiny of a nation's worth of cameras. And there is the brilliant use of symbolism, too, a literary quality that's dropped in popularity since its heyday of late-1800s Europe, but deployed to such effective measure here: like the abandoned mall on the edge of town, for one good example, that used to employ the vast majority of the northern Missouri small city where Nick grew up (and where he and his wife now live, post-New-York and post-Great-Recession, yet another effective symbol), but that has become a menacing and mysterious haunted house since its closure and subsequent lack of demolition, becoming a dark and dangerous shantytown for meth-addicted unemployed workers that may or may not have played a major role in our hero Amy's disappearance. There are a dozen other examples like these that I could mention, traditional building blocks of "literary fiction" that Flynn gets so right here, and that gets us so emotionally invested in this story long before the big twists begin to happen -- from Amy's background as the true-life inspiration for a hit series of Young Adult books by her overprotective parents, featuring a Pollyannish version of her that can literally do no wrong, to the overblown scavenger hunts that Amy creates for each of their wedding anniversaries, which says so much about her and her obsessive need for grand projects taken too seriously, and says so much about him and his cool refusal to at least play along.

But like I said, though, Gone Girl does indeed have a major twist about halfway through -- and without saying anything about what it is, in general you can say that if the first half is a literary take on the Scott Peterson story, then the second half is a literary take on Lisa Nowak, the NASA astronaut who went bat-crap crazy in 2007 and tried to kill her husband's lover, by driving halfway across the country in the middle of the night with a trunk full of horror-show implements, and wearing adult diapers so she could just defecate in her pants and not have to stop the car. And that's a brilliant twist to add to a Scott Peterson-type story, because it calls into doubt everything we've read before -- suddenly we're not so immediately sure anymore just how much of a cad Nick actually is, and how much of his "guilt" is actually the result of a media frenzy spearheaded by a barely disguised Nancy Grace, which of course is one of the main points Flynn wants to make here. Ultimately the surprises in Gone Girl's second half act as much more than simple shocks designed to keep the reader engaged (although, brother, believe me when I say that they act as that as well); they're meant to comment on our modern society of digital finger-pointing, meant to comment on marriage and the impossibility of truly knowing someone 100 percent, meant to comment on gender and mental illness and the sociological effects of a prolonged period of national financial trouble.

Ultimately, though, perhaps the best way to define Gone Girl is simply as a highly effective contemporary noir, despite the lack of all the cliches from the classic '30s and '40s definition of the term; because when all is said and done, what this book is really about is two pretty horrible people, who held it together just long enough to fall in love, then reverted back to their horrible selves so thoroughly that eventually they both became devoted to the idea of destroying the other, an impulse just kept in check until the day they both finally lost their jobs and were forced to move to a town neither of them wanted to be in. Regardless of any more general issues of gender politics that Flynn might be addressing here (and to be clear, an entire Master's thesis could be written on the subsumed issues of gender politics seen in this novel), ultimately she's telling the story of two unusual and unique cases, two people whose irredeemable natures, cowardly spirits, and propensities for doing the exact wrong thing at the exact wrong time make them almost textbook examples of great noir characters, and what makes noir a separate genre away from simply tales about crime or the "war between the sexes." When viewed in this light, Gone Girl is about as perfect as crime noirs get, which is why today's it's becoming our sixth review of 2014 to receive a perfect score of 10. It comes highly recommended to one and all, one of those proverbial "books to read this year if you only read one book this year."

Out of 10: 10

Read even more about Gone Girl: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 10:08 AM, October 20, 2014. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |