14 January 2014
London

Gillian Flynn’s psychological thriller Gone Girl, about a man who may or may not have murdered his wife, was the publishing sensation of 2013. But is it any more than finely-tuned pulp fiction?

Gone Girl was one of the “It” books of 2013, that everyone seemed to be reading on the Tube last year (well, those people who still carry physical books rather than the comforting anonymity of a Kindle or tablet). It’s a skilfully rendered psychological thriller that somehow broke out of the sales limitations of its genre and went mainstream – or, as the kids say these days, “went viral”. I picked it up as a fun palate cleanser to invigorate my new year’s reading list, and as something gripping and undemanding to slot in between weightier reads. (Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries still sits on my bedside table in its cream-coloured dust jacket, as large as a coffin and just as foreboding).

The first third of the novel is particularly assured, and speeds along effortlessly like a panther, sleek, predatory and merciless. We’re inside the head of the charming but deeply scary-sounding Nick, a charming and handsome ex-journalist living in Missouri with his wife Amy, on the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary. Amy disappears later that morning, the house turned upside down in what appears to have been an abduction. Or maybe not.

Nick is, we learn, far from a reliable narrator, and not that nice a guy: mercenary, bored in his marriage, a misogynist and quite possibly a murderer. Or is he? With great skill, Flynn sets up a compelling Did-he-or-didn’t-he? scenario, playing expertly with her audience’s sympathies for Nick through strategic withholding of information. Things are further complicated as Flynn intersperses Nick’s terse, dry first-person narrative with extracts from Amy’s diary. We learn that Amy is beautiful, intelligent, a trust fund baby, and apparently devoted to Nick, moving with him from New York City to Missouri after Nick loses his job in the recession and wants to be closer to his dying mother. Through Amy’s eyes, we see the chilly disintegration of the marriage, and the gradual unravelling of our view of Nick as anything other than a villain.

Or so we think. To say much more would be to ruin the surprise and the pleasure for anyone who hasn’t already read it. Suffice it to say that, for the first third of the book, anyway, Gone Girl is a delicious slice of middlebrow pulp fiction, taut and airless and with an impressive lack of writing-school posturing or self-consciousness. Flynn paints a compelling picture of the calcification of a marriage between two somewhat smug 30something hipsters, who feel as familiar as that slightly unbearable couple you know who won’t stop posting photos of their kids or the DIY on their country house on Facebook. In her finest moments, Flynn fashions Nick and Amy into a contemporary, post-sub-prime-mortgage era Hitchcockian couple: the ice-cool blonde attracted to and repelled by a suave and Teflon-smooth would-be psychopath. She generates fear, as Hitchcock did, by tapping into the basic fears that apparently still exist between men and women: Does my partner know me? Is everything we know about each other a lie? Are men really not to be trusted? Flynn plays with her audience expertly, like a cat torturing a mouse that it hasn’t quite decided to kill. We’re left, helpless, wanting more and yet not quite trusting what we read.

Unfortunately, the delicious tension doesn’t last. Like most thrillers, sooner or later, psychological complexity needs to be sacrificed to the exigencies of plot. Eventually, Amy’s disappearance turns into a police investigation, things flatten out a bit, and Flynn’s writing loses its edginess and becomes a fairly standard police procedural. Somewhat surprisingly, Flynn shows her hand (or grows tired of the cat-and-mouse game) much earlier than expected, and “reveals” Amy’s fate about halfway through the novel. The thriller then starts to move in a very different direction. It’s nicely observed and carefully plotted, but all the police investigations and TV chat shows and white trash neighbours and oleaginous defence lawyers aren’t quite a match for the tension and intrigue she creates simply by being inside the complicated, paranoid and quite possibly crazy mind of Nick.

As a piece of genre fiction, Gone Girl works very well, though I’m not sure it quite deserves the rapturous praise it’s received from critics as a crime novel that’s “crossed over” into the realms of literary fiction. Flynn’s writing is slick and some of her cynical observations about post-recession America are nicely made. Once she strays from Nick and Amy, however, the writing starts to show its ragged stitches. In particular, most of the secondary characters feel disposable. I never really saw the point of Nick’s twin sister Margot, other than as a convenient writerly springboard for Nick’s feelings. Similarly, the cops who investigate Amy’s disappearance are sketched unimaginatively and strictly for function, as if lifted straight from a TV episode of Criminal Minds.

The much-talked-about finale is certainly intriguing, and paints an intriguingly dark picture of marriage as a form of mutually endured hell. Psychologically it feels a bit thin, and far too contrived, as if Flynn finally couldn’t resist standing back to admire her handiwork. While the extremes Flynn takes her story to will satisfy readers with a taste for crazy 7even meets Fatal Attraction-type gore, to me, anyway, it erodes some of the great work she does in earlier chapters to set up Nick and Amy as a prototypical portrait of a dysfunctional marriage. Part of the strange appeal of Gone Girl‘s earlier moments is how normal and relatable the couple are, and by extension, how terrifying it is to discover that they’re both standing on an emotional cliff-face. As Flynn ratchets up the craziness and the eleventh-hour plot twists, Nick and Amy’s story strays further away from relatability and into the realms of a horror movie, and thus further away from the insidious It-could-happen-to-you dread of her claustrophobic earlier passages.

Oddly enough, for a book that deals in such emotional extremes, I’d almost completely forgotten about Gone Girl within an hour of finishing it. I recall having the same kind of sugar-addict craving that comes from eating junk food: that moment when you feel unpleasantly full, but are still unsatisfied and want more. The inevitable film version, to be directed by David Fincher, may well smooth out the bumps in Flynn’s narrative, and give a little more emotional weight to the story. Fincher seems well-matched to deal with Flynn’s cynical, violent, manic-depressive universe, and Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike feel like good matches for Nick as the boy-next-door-with-a-dirty-secret and Amy as the irritatingly too-perfect princess.

I’d recommend Gone Girl as an absorbing read for a beach holiday or as a nice distraction for anyone who’s too lazy to read Important Literature like The Luminaries. It won’t change your life – though it may encourage you to think twice about getting married.

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