Recently I read a writing handbook in which the author gave one edict: DO NOT BORE THE READER. It sounds so simple, but as any writer knows it can be oh-so-hard. Overly precious writing can be boring as can a voice that seems labored, and of course we all know that long descriptions can be downright deadly. I thought about this advice as I read Gone Girl, a psychological thriller by gifted writer, Gillian Flynn.
The plot of Gone Girl is fairly simple: Amy, a psychopath (really, she is) goes missing and all the blame (after the shortest of pauses) is placed on her husband Nick. Gillian plays with our sick curiosity here, and our voracious appetite for gore. And why do we find it titillating that those closest to home can do us the most harm? Amy’s gloriously good parents get involved, as does Nick’s subversive (at least this is hinted at) twin sister, Go. The book is a winding trail of “deceit” and “thrills.” And if this sounds like a cliché, well Gillian is playing with the mystery novel form here. And although I want to give away some of the cooler plot points, I won’t. It just wouldn’t be fair.
But I will say that there are so many twists and turns in Gone Girl that you feel as if your head is spinning (but in a thrilling, roller-coaster kind of way, where your hair gets wind-blown and you feel your stomach lurch). And there is also the deceit of the unreliable narrator in Gone Girl—actually there are two unreliable narrators, for both Amy and Nick who alternate as storytellers flip their stories and pull the rug from under the reader.
I thought one of the cleverest parts of the book involved the diary, Amy’s tart and poignant account of her life with her husband. The confessional tone of her diary reveals Nick as a narcissistic, inept poser who is also capable of murder, but again my lips are sealed.
Flynn writes in a boisterous rush (actually I read somewhere that she writes in the bathtub, but so be it, her words come across in a riptide of energy). She packs a remarkable amount of social commentary into “genre fiction.” Or is this really genre fiction at all?
It is genre fiction in the sense that Bret Easton Ellis’s fiction is genre fiction. I remember being horrified by Eliis’s book American Psycho about a Wall Street rapist/killer. The gleaming slickness of the writing made the warped outcomes all the more terrifying. I understood that Ellis was playing with satire and his protagonist (anti-hero) was a composite of what we are supposed to hate about greed and materialism. And yet I felt as a reader that I was participating in some voyeuristic act as I read about his killings. In essence, I had gone beyond what was critiquing an event into some other shaky realm. Not exactly like I was reading porn, but I felt strange anyway.
I felt the same way when I read the novel In the Cut by Susanna Moore. I cannot remember the exact scene that made me pause and wonder what am I reading here? I just felt strange when I suggested a friend read it. Ellis talked about American Psycho this way (in an interview in Paris Review): “American Psycho is a book about becoming the man you feel you have to be, the man who is cool, slick, handsome, effortlessly moving through the world, modeling suits in Esquire, having babes on his arm. It’s about lifestyle being sold as life, a lifestyle that never seemed to include passion, creativity, curiosity, romance, pain…”
It is good that writers play on the edges, that there are writers who give us a glimpse into worlds that are not easily understood or easy to moralize about. I think of Ellis and Moore, and Chuck Palahniuk.
This is not to say that Gone Girl is as intense (in my humble opinion) or probing socially as some of these other books, but it reminded me of the others in some ways. It packed in social commentary (sometimes disguised as disingenuous rants from Amy). In these rants Amy (and therefore Flynn) acerbically reflects on courtship, city living, writing for a living, the housing bust, and other contemporary themes. She also dissects our precarious high expectations of ourselves and almost constant need for attention.
One of my favorite “nuggets of truth” in the book lies in Amy’s riff about “Cool Girls.” In this tongue-and-cheek denunciation, Amy describes the burden of being the “cool girl to date.” The cool girl is the chick that all other women hate: she serves a man’s need by being unclingy, by being convincingly low maintenance. In fact, the “cool girl,” the chick who doesn’t complain, doesn’t require anything—she’s always willing to go in casual t-shirt and sweats, a makeshift boyfriend for the boyfriend.
Does this person really exist? This sort of mock-female who rolls her eyes at the uptightness of all other females? It’s the kind of gal portrayed in movies who is a sidekick as well as lover. This kind of woman doesn’t demand flattery or jewelry. She’s happy with nada. She’s cool. And no, she probably doesn’t exist. Gillian says this much better than I do and in a hilarious way. Gone Girl is filled with these kinds of insights.
Sometimes these rush of insights—so dead-on, so familiar, yet I wouldn’t have thought of them in a million years, can get tiring. The tone of the book sometimes works against itself. In other words, while Flynn is revealing another curve ball in the plot, she is also elaborating on Amy’s psychology. The depth of the characters is not elaborate. These are not exactly stock characters, but they do fall into type—the perfectionist, hyper, super annoying alpha female (Amy); the lazy, cumbersome, cloying Nick; and the bumbling police. I felt that in the end, Flynn was trying to say something about marriage, about the hazardness of our choices, about the way we cling to one another when we shouldn’t. But it was more fun when the novel was rocketing about at a furious pace.
Lets face it: this novel has true energy and a sugar-spun giddiness. There’s deliciousness about the heightened fabrication. Flynn is having fun. Flynn takes some of the best features of mystery novels—strange clues (reworked here in a bizarre, anniversary treasure hunt), murder by weapon, murder by poison, guts of steel to be able to commit these murders, and loony detectives. This book makes me want to return to Agatha Christie and Nancy Drew. There’s a reason people devour good mysteries and I’m glad there’s a clever woman out there writing them.