Gone Girl

gone-girl

*** Obviously, spoilers. ***

Finally figured out what all the fuss was about.

I’m glad I (almost) went in cold with this book, despite the frenzy of media hype that surrounded it when the film first came out. Gone Girl is the kind of book that relies on that mystique, that first-read sense of shock engendered by its devilishness.

It’s an uncommonly clever piece of fiction. A woman disappears from her home, leaving signs of a struggle. The husband serves as the narrator of the aftermath, but we find his story troubling and full of questions and loopholes. Interspersed with his narrative are extracts from the wife’s diary, describing the course of their marriage over the past seven years, leading up to the disappearance. But his story, and hers, are riddled with disquieting discrepancies.

In a way, this book was a more satisfying version of The Islanders, which I read days before this one. This is in part because unlike the murder mystery in that book, Gone Girl has a meticulously plotted chronology and a narrative that coheres harmoniously with its grim subject matter. But more importantly, where The Islanders only briefly explores the notion of unreliable narration, Gone Girl embraces it, and uses it for maximum effect on many levels.

The intertwining parallel narratives give two subtly different sides of the story. Amy’s diary entries paint the classic picture of a marriage gone to shambles, of a husband slowly descending into patterns of madness and abuse that presage a murder. But the Nick that we follow doesn’t quite seem to fit that mold, and his version of events paints a picture of a cold and often contemptuous wife.

One of these narratives must be fake, but we are nudged to doubt Nick’s, because the evidence seems arrayed against him, and it fits the narrative that the husband is always the perpetrator of the crime. The novel wryly comments on this trope: an illustration of the propensity of people to automatically believe the most intuitively correct narrative. Even the reader starts to doubt Nick, even as he feebly doth protest his innocence.

The book does cheat a bit, because in it we have a window into Nick’s interior monologues, but Nick never actually insists to us, the reader, that he is innocent. He never really bothers to argue his case in stark black and white terms. It is an authorial choice designed to muddy the waters, but it does detract slightly from the perfect setup of the novel. It might be instructive to watch the film to see if it handles this aspect better – because the medium, by its nature, doesn’t lend itself to revealing interior monologue, only exterior action.

But then, in the second half of the book, Flynn executes a brilliant twist, one that while not entirely unexpected, is still shocking in its pure audacity. The diary entries, we learn, are fabrications. We learn the truth, and suddenly the pieces fit together: the subtle clues and trails left in the wake of the first half, start to make sense. Reveals of this magnitude are hard to pull off in a way that seems believable and relatable, but Flynn just about manages to pull it off.

Here, we have a book that outright lies to the reader, that strings them along, makes them fall prey to a fabricated clue in a whodunit and manipulates their prejudices to make them believe an open-and-shut verdict of the husband’s culpability; doing so despite the ambiguity of the situation and the disturbing inconsistencies in the twinned narrative strands. It is an audacious and mostly successful plot twist, one that doesn’t come too often in a landscape riddled them.

The second half is more straightforward, but satisfies a different thrill – that terrific suspense of a game of cat and mouse, of a woman on the run and a man desperately trying to stay afloat as the weight of evidence and public opinion turns against him. We are on the edge of our seats, wondering who will win. It’s possible to root for either Nick or Amy, because even though Nick is wronged, his hands aren’t quite spotless – he is, after all, an adulterer who may or may not deserve some degree of comeuppance, even if the punishment is magnitudes more brutal than the crime.

But Amy is transfigured in our sight – an intelligent, meticulous sociopath, a Mean Girl gone legit crazy, her wrath almost Biblical in its thoroughness. She’s a weird sort of poster girl for gender equality: the author showing us that women can make great fictive psychopathic masterminds.

Flynn writes with a high degree of psychological awareness, pitch-perfect in creating the characters’ narrative voices, injecting believable neuroses into their characters that inform their behaviors, but do not serve as one-note descriptors of their psyches. She does this better for Nick, who, despite his odd narrative reticence, comes across as a very real character. Diary-Amy is more conventional, but she is, after all, a fictional creation of the real Amy, designed to inspire sympathy.

Real Amy, on the other hand, is a different creature, self-aggrandizing, boastful of her intelligence, motivated by a Old Testament sense of righteous morality. She sees herself dispensing divine justice to people she thinks have wronged her. But her motivations, especially at the end, when she decides to return to Nick, are the murkiest. She desires him to remain the abstracted ideal husband that he tried to live up to be just after their marriage, but Nick, devastated by the loss of his job, is unable to keep up with that perfect image that he has constructed to woo Amy, to be her match.

Her price for exonerating Nick is that he become that perfect husband again, for her to be able to playact the perfect wife, without which she is essentially faceless, anchorless, identity-less, a sociopath without an emotional model from which to mirror and to foil.

It seems, then, like Gone Girl is also a sobering commentary about human relationships: that keeping up the act of seeming better people than we really are, is the perpetual price we have to pay to survive in a world where appearances matter more than reality.

I give this book: 4.5 out of 5 bottom-heavy ottomans

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