Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn is one of the most literate mystery novels I have ever read, though it was also one of the most annoying. Let’s start with the good…
Technically, the writing is outstandingly good: Clarity is never an issue. Description is creative and image-conjuring. The author’s ear for dialogue is grand. The right word is the one used. Witty and creative phrases are cobbled together with astounding frequency. Pictures are painted, scenes established, and characters drawn— all leaping from the page so three-dimensionally vivid and true-to-life that it’s like reading a pop-up book.
Flynn is a writer who roams the myriad rooms of the English language like the house she grew up in. She wears language not as a precious garland, not as gleaming armor— but as a comfortable sweater, with lots of cool stuff in the pockets.
The author also does well one of the hardest things there is for a writer to do: she writes from different points of view, and makes each perspective a believably distinct personality. Additionally, one of the two main points of view Flynn uses is a male (Nick, husband to the other main character, Amy)– and I think it takes an excellent writer, indeed, to write believably from the point of view of the opposite gender—especially in a book like this where gender roles and perspectives are front and center and intricately bound up with the story at almost every step of the way. This, alone, is an outstanding achievement.
Flynn’s style is very modern: The extravagant, humorous similes are there. The cutesy funny asides are present. And of course, there’s plenty of space devoted to that specialty of the modern writer: “Gee, look how hilariously weird my family is!” And of course, “See? This is my wacky family—THIS is how I ended up so F-‘d up! THEY did this to me!”
Actually, I thought there were at least one too many anecdotal memories tossed into the pot-boiler in Gone Girl– memories that proved to have little relevance to the story. For instance, hubby Nick goes on for paragraphs about trips to the mall and to baseball games when he was a child, and then rattles on more pages about his mom getting a job at this shoe-store. Also recounted within the novel are several stories from the children’s books Amy’s parents write for a living—again, not always serving a vital plot or character interest. Or let me back up: there are character points to be made, but I think it’s a case of overkill and diminishing returns. There… I think that’s a fair statement.
The argument could be made, of course, that these trips down bizarro-family memory-lane are essential because of the author’s desire to excavate character. But too often I felt these stories-within-the-story were thrown in simply because they were funny or offered penetratingly spot-on insight into the modern family (!) that was just too good for the author to delete.
And by the way… This book is marketed like it’s some sort of Rosetta Stone to be used for the decoding the psychological games people play. And, indeed, it does bring up some good points about relationships– though nothing that most “aware” people have not already discovered for themselves.
One of the themes of the novel seems to be this idea that people today discover how they are supposed to act from television and movies. True enough, but as the human animal has always looked to others to figure out how one should behave, I don’t think this nugget (and those other pop psychology insights and confessions the book is chop-full of) is exactly the clarion call announcing the coming of the second Freud. If this book is what we are currently holding up as an example of a work of fiction full of deeply penetrating psychological revelations, then the bar’s set pretty low.
Perhaps, after those few negative comments, I should say here that I highly recommend this book. It’s one of the best mystery stories I’ve ever read. And it gets better and better the more deeply into the story we go. For instance, cliffhanging chapter-endings start popping up more frequently.
Oh! –and most importantly– the voice that the author is using for Amy takes a thank-you-God!- hard right turn. There were times before this change in character-voice when I actually started skipping over the parts of the narration handled by Amy. Yes, it was that bad—bad in that sort of cloying, chatty, just-us-girls-talking sort of way that drives me naked up a spiked wall.
This leads me to another, more idiosyncratic critique of the book I have. It was way, way too much about relationships for me. I’ll be up front. I’m a dude. If you want to visit my island of political incorrectness, I’d probably take you out to the BeerCave where only us men hang out and we never—ever—obsess over our relationships. So, for what it’s worth, there it is: the very facet of the book that may make others love it (all this chatter about relationships!)—is the very thing that I hated most about it, that I had to get past. I mean, for crying out loud, Amy even offers-up relationship quizzes! Hence, the skipping of certain paragraphs (okay, maybe it was pages).
The mystery that drives the plot of Gone Girl, itself, is extremely well crafted. Nick is married to Amy, and she has gone missing. There are signs of violence. Clues (coincidences? misdirections?) and suspects parade before us at a nice clip. I have to admit I thought it was one person for this reason… only to change my mind… only to wind up wrong both times. Mystery books are just about the only time I enjoy being wrong :/
And then there was the thing I didn’t see coming. I won’t tell you what it was, but it impressed me. I put the book down at The Moment, and just thought, “Wow… I hate this writer for being so good…”
Books I experienced long ago slowly fade from my memory, and it’s difficult to recall just how impactful or mind-bending a particular book was to me, and I may be discounting one or two other books that also knocked my socks off with an unforeseen turn of events like Gone Girl, but if so—I don’t remember them. I think I can say that I’ve never been so surprised by a book. I think part of it was because of those portions in the beginning third of the book that were so chalkboard-scratchingly banal; they lured me into a false sense of low expectations. Of course, I was certain from the quality of the writing that this author was too talented and ambitious to go the obvious way with things; nevertheless, I was still shocked to find that the little cart-on-rails I was riding was actually a roller coaster with a loop-dee-loop in store for me.
You know, I might as well go ahead and throw this out there, too: I found the cursing in Gone Girl excessively crude — but then, like I said, Flynn has a good ear for how people really speak, and though it saddens me to say it, we modern Americans are ignorant, vocab-challenged, foul-mouthed muthafuckers. I doubt most of us have the intellectual ability to adequately express even our most basic emotional states—much less our “deep” thoughts (like, I wonder if they have pancakes in heaven…)
The biggest hurdle Flynn has to overcome with Gone Girl is her two main characters: by plot-necessity, they must be pretty despicable folk—and yet, they can’t be so annoying, so dislikable that we don’t give two stacks of heavenly pancakes about them. As you can tell from what I written above, I don’t think Flynn quite succeeded here. But when you’re as good of a writer as Flynn is—your failures are better than most writers’ successes.
Nick is a Grade A jerk. Amy is a manipulating obsessive. They are two self-centered people refusing to accept that marriage shifts the gravity beneath your feet and after tying the knot (of the noose?) you simply can no longer remain the center of the universe.
Both husband and wife are condescending snobs who have lived too long in the rarefied air of New York City literary circles and consider their trust-funded lives pitiful because they don’t get to live in their dream city and work their dream jobs. Boo hoo. When they move west to a McMansion in some suburbs near the Mississippi, they spend a lot of time making fun of how the locals talk and live: the chain restaurants normal folk eat at, the words and phrases normal folk use and mis-use, the trite wisdoms normal folk utter– even what normal folk name their normal kids. Amy has an especially vindictive tirade against the “Cool Girl”—the woman who women want to be, and men want to be with.
Lastly, I found the end of the book a tad drawn-out and, more importantly, disappointing in this way: smart people start falling, in an out-of-character way, for dumb tricks, with the obvious authorial purpose of tying things up. That said—this is a larger than life sort of book, so a suspension of disbelief is part of the fun.