When Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl came out in the summer of 2012, it was an instant success, and we don’t have a lot of those in the book world these days. For books not starring dragons or wizards, or books not part of a series, or books written for anyone resembling an adult, the publishing world has become a very tough racket. So it was heartening to see a relatively new literary voice getting attention for her book based, apparently, purely on its literary merit. And what’s more, the book was not just a commercial success but a critical one as well: it received glowing reviews from such tough-to-please publications as the Times and the New Yorker, and was defended vehemently in Salon when it didn’t show up on any year-end lists. “Flynn’s book is inventive, shrewd, mercilessly observant and stylishly written — qualities that are very welcome and likely to be celebrated in a literary novel,” wrote Laura Miller of the injustice. “But let’s face it: Gone Girl is still considered a crime novel, and the likelihood of any work of genre fiction being seriously considered for a major literary prize still seems as far-fetched in 2012 as the election of a black president looked to be in the 20th century.”
David Fincher has adapted the book, which adaptation will come out in October, and the film is already generating Oscar buzz. The film version feels almost deliberately like it’s trying to evoke the 2007 film Gone Baby Gone, with not only a similar title but Ben Affleck (the latter film’s director) in the lead and a female lead who looks an awful lot like Michelle Monaghan. This comparison felt promising to me, as Gone Baby Gone was written by another author whose work sometimes gets shafted because of its crime-novel nature, Dennis Lehane. As a result, I finally got around to reading it—I resisted for a while because Flynn is the former television critic for Entertainment Weekly, and I recalled being baffled that a former TV critic (a fairly inept one, truth told) had written a bestseller. And now that I have, I’m here to call bullshit on Salon’s article, because I have read both Gillian Flynn and Dennis Lehane and you, Gillian Flynn, are no Dennis Lehane. Gone Girl wasn’t overlooked because it’s a crime novel; Gone Girl was overlooked because it’s a bad crime novel.
(Can I take a brief sidebar here and note how irritating the complaint about prejudice against genre fiction has become in the twenty-first century, when genre fiction is pretty much the only thing that ever gets read? It reeks of the Nixonian paranoia of Christians who claim their religion is under attack while there’s a church on every other street corner in America.)
It isn’t just that Gone Girl is poorly written, though it’s that, too. Flynn’s unimaginative vocabulary causes her to overuse words like “moony” and “mantra” ad nauseum, and to completely misuse the word “literally” to almost comic effect (people in this novel are constantly doing things like literally shedding their skin and literally looking on the bright side of things). She has an inability to choose between past and present tense narration, sometimes within the same sentence (see Amy’s conversation with Desi at the end of section two for the most damning example of this). The dialogue thuds, 80% of it existing as mere exposition, characters mouthing plot points that Flynn didn’t know whether the readers would pick up; for a fun drinking game, take a shot every time a character says “No, that can’t be right. Think about it,” and then a colon, and then a sentence explaining the thing that we as readers are supposed to be thinking about. And there is a rather annoying over-reliance on analogies to television and film (unsurprising for a former TV critic’s third novel), an over reliance that Flynn has attempted to explain as deliberate, a commentary on the modern age when media saturates everything we go through, even our most intimate emotions. But Flynn doesn’t actually do anything with this idea, and in fact it’s difficult to take the Statement she’s making seriously when Flynn herself seems unable to distinguish between media representations of crime and actual crime; at one point a police officer tells protagonist/antagonist Nick that it’s difficult to catch killers because “they watch the same cop shows we do,” as though a) cops watch cop shows for advice on how to do their jobs, and b) cop shows actually churn out accurate representations of evidence and forensics to the point that they could read like instruction manuals.
But the real offense here is that Flynn takes a gem of a premise and totally wastes it. That premise is that every bad relationship, when pushed to its extreme, could end like a noir-style crime novel, and that every crime novel starts from a place as simple as a souring relationship. The first section of the book (there are three sections) is as a result very good, almost mesmerizing in its ability to reveal the past and the present as symbiotic extensions of each other. Every other chapter is told from either Nick or his wife Amy, who met at a New Year’s party and later began to date. They started out cordial, honeymoon-happy, until the stock market crash of 2008 woke them up and made them face some hard realities. On top of all that, Nick’s parents got sick, so he moved the two of them back to his hometown. That’s when their relationship went south and they stopped communicating. We find this out in a series of journal entries that Amy has kept through the years, beginning with the day she meets Nick (suspicious much?). Nick’s narrative is the present action, beginning with the day Amy goes missing, as the world becomes increasingly suspicious as to whether he killed her. We also become suspicious, and credit where credit’s due: Flynn is pretty damn good at telling Nick’s story in first person and yet still being able to keep us in the dark about who he is and what he’s done.
But it’s exactly the talent she displays in that guessing game that makes the remainder of the book such a disappointment, because she obviously had it in her to do better. Reviews of the book hesitate to give away the Big Surprise that kicks off the second section, which (I suspect) is why the reviews have been so glowing; had critics been able to comment on the rest of it, I doubt they’d have anything positive to say (is this the secret to getting good reviews? write all the shitty parts after a reveal in order to tie spoiler-aware critical hands? Discuss). I‘m not as concerned.
So, spoiler: Amy’s alive! And not only is she alive, she’s faked her own death! Everything you come to know about this couple in the first 200 pages turns out to be complete bullshit. You spend half the book becoming invested in them as a couple, a substantive, multidimensional couple—Amy as the hopeful romantic who’s woken up to the realities of a damaged relationship, Nick as a man who has trouble communicating himself, which hurts his marriage and heartbreakingly bleeds into public perception of him in the wake of his wife’s death—and then it all gets washed away in the name of a Shyamalan-esque twist. It’s shameful, really, not only how little the book seems to care about its many missed opportunities (the incestuous relationship between Nick and his twin; the recession-era crime stuff lending itself to a great image of an abandoned mall) but also how much it relishes the idiocy of its gotcha. Flynn spends the next four (!) Amy chapters without any present-action narrative at all, just Amy telling us how she’s set everything up (“Allow me to introduce myself,” says Amy, in a move that even my eighteen year old Introduction to Fiction Writing students would balk at). Then Amy goes on a tirade against Nick, and you can tell that Flynn is over-the-moon in love with the idea of writing this new Amy against the character sketch of “Diary Amy” from the first section, except she has no actual ideas in that regard and apparently no interest in a slow build of a new complex character, so instead Flynn just peppers every sentence new Amy speaks with the words “cunt” “twat” and “ass fuck”, because, you know, she’s tough.
New Amy makes fun of Diary Amy—the latter is representative of the mythical “cool girl” who lets her man go out until three in the morning and then happily gives him blow jobs and watches football with him. This would be kind of an interesting avenue to explore (a brilliant, independent woman stymied by a domineering husband escapes in an over the top way out of pure boredom, and tricks the public into loving her by writing a diary that makes her sound like the kind of girl the public loves). But the problem is that Diary Amy isn’t the “cool girl” at all—Nick’s twin sister Go fits that type to a T and never gets called on it, curiously—she’s a real person with real concerns who wonders whether you’re supposed to tolerate your spouse’s bad habits or try to fix them, the conundrum of any real adult relationship. And New Amy isn’t brilliant and independent, either. She’s not independent, since she spends the whole novel desperate to latch on to whatever man she can (ending the whole thing by sperm-jacking Nick in his sleep (!) so that he’ll stay with her because of the pregnancy and threatening to kill the baby (!!) when that doesn’t work). And she isn’t brilliant, probably because Gillian Flynn is herself not brilliant, and thus unable to write a character who really is brilliant.
Flynn compensates for this by first of all having every character in the book comment on how brilliant Amy is, and second of all making the people Amy tricks cartoonishly stupid. If police were actually as inept as the police are in this book, fuck, I could murder someone and get away with it. She returns eventually after having decided faking her death wasn’t all that fun, and when the police interrogate her about Nick’s claims that she tried to frame him, she offers surface answers that don’t hold water (what, no neighbors saw her leave the house after she faked her own death? It’s not at all suspicious that there’s no evidence whatsoever of Desi being in the house—hair, fingerprints, nothing? The cops can’t get over the fact that no one saw Nick on a beach for an hour, but they don’t even kind of wonder why no one saw Desi in town that morning? I mean jesus). And the cops say, “Her story’s air-tight Nick. She’s covered every angle.”
A lot of this has to do with something I mentioned above, Flynn’s conflation of real crime and crime as it’s perceived by the media. She reportedly began her career as a police reporter but “didn’t have the aptitude,” and well, no shit. Flynn, I suspect, knows crime only through shows like Nancy Grace, a show that, weirdly, gets lampooned in the novel, even though Flynn herself seems to buy into the idea that the world according to Nancy Grace is in fact true. The police refuse to put Amy on trial because she’s got too much credibility with the public and Desi’s mother comes off poorly in interviews, while they can’t wait to throw Nick into a courtroom because the public dislikes him. Huh? Since when does our justice system work this way? Since when do the likes of Nancy Grace get taken seriously by anyone, let alone by judges and the FBI?
Ultimately, the answer to those questions is “since never.” And yet the lesson that comes out of not only Gone Girl but the reception of same is that that—not taking trash like this seriously, as lamented by Salon—is apparently a bad thing.