Monday, April 8, 2013

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

To say “Gone Girl” is a love story would be truthful, but it would be truthful in the same way as saying Hannibal Lecter knows a lot about cooking.

“Gone Girl” is catastrophically romantic, as the character Nick Dunne says of his relationship with his wife Amy. It is a story of obsession, of love curdling into something very close to hatred, then metastasizing into obsession, domination and possession. But one is never really sure who is being possessed, who is obsessed, and where the line between love and hatred exists between Nick and his wife. And the book’s success over the last year can be traced to this hard center which lies at the heart of what might otherwise be only a well-crafted thriller.

Gillian Flynn’s novel uses the device of Nick telling the story of his wife disappearing, seemingly into thin air, one day after they have abandoned New York City for Nick’s hometown in Missouri. His chapters are immediately followed by one written by Amy, giving her side of their marriage. The couple’s move was brought on by the faltering economy, and a sudden change in fortune for the couple, who are both very skilled writers rendered unemployed by the recession and the changing publishing industry. Like many couples, moving unhinges the dynamics that have marked their still-developing marriage. Nick co-owns a bar with his sister Margo, and Amy is struggling to find herself in her new surroundings. But Amy has distinguished herself her whole life – the daughter of a husband-wife team of children’s book authors, their creation being an above average little girl named “Amazing Amy.”

Amy’s disappearance is the catalyst for some truths and some lies between the couple, and each has confessing to do within their pages. But we are conscious early on that Nick is not completely reliable with the truth, and neither is Amy, as we come to discover. Anyone who digests television news on a regular basis can spot the outlines of the story – a woman disappears and her husband quickly becomes the prime suspect. But by putting us in Nick’s (and Amy’s) head, the story doesn’t give us a Rashomon rehash of a marriage coming off the rails, but something else entirely. When the book abruptly changes gears mid-way through, the reader is by this time undeniably hooked.
Tricks? Of course. The couple’s words complement and contradict each other, with chapters ending at just the proper point to drive the reader forward. We know we are getting deeper and deeper into some very dark places, but we hardly care. The Dunnes aren’t a typical couple, by any definition, and they have some surprising things to say about the nature of love.

One theme of the book is genuineness. By taking us back through the beginnings of the Dunnes’ relationship, we see once again how two people assume roles in order to impress and attract the other. The act of courting allows a man and a woman to become, in someone else’s eyes, the person they have always wanted to be seen as. The past can be abandoned and ignored, or even discarded. We find ourselves longing for the artificial instead of the genuine, but the truth will out, as it always does.
But what about in our present world, where the line between the genuine and the artificial, or the genuine and the derivative, is always hard to spot? We live in a time where self-invention takes many virtual forms, but few concrete, tangible ones. Nick remarks on this about a third of the way into the book:

“It’s a very difficult era in which to be a person, just a real, actual person, instead of a collection of personality traits selected from an endless Automat of characters.”

There is another aspect to the story – that of understanding, of appreciation, in the original sense of the word. When love begins in an emotionally immature or still developing person, it usually begins when one person believes the other person “gets them” – understands them on a level previously unknown by anyone else. Usually, this is a positive, and in places of “Gone Girl,” this holds true even for the Dunnes. But gradually, Amy and Nick want each other to fully “appreciate” who and what they are apart, and together. This is not necessarily a good thing at all. One can appreciate a caged lion in a very different way than appreciating one bearing down on you. Some knowledge is better appreciated from a safe distance through a veil of speculation, rather than feeling the full brunt and savagery of the information. 

And then, there’s love itself. In the final chapter of the book, Amy makes an observation:

“I was told love should be unconditional. That’s the rule, everyone says so. But if love has no boundaries, no limits, no conditions, why should anyone try to do the right thing ever? If I know I am loved no matter what, where is the challenge?...It makes me think that everyone is very wrong, that love should have many conditions. Love should require both partners to be their very best at all times. Unconditional love is an undisciplined love, and as we all have seen, undisciplined love is disastrous.”

Since Christian love is supposed to be unconditional, there is a ready answer for this – what Amy is talking about isn’t total unconditional love, not between two people. Because total love is what makes the other “try to do the right thing.”  It is love that inspires action, even constant action, that keeps the lover tuned into what the beloved wants, and vice versa. What Amy is speaking of sounds suspiciously like an act, a pantomime, but it is a serious observation, because for human beings, undisciplined love is disastrous. It easily changes and warps out of love and into the acts that drive the Dunnes apart, together, and back again, over and over. 

“Gone Girl” puts the hook into the reader, and then slowly reminds him that even the clichés that riddle the evening news are embodied by real people, and sometimes the light shines on them to reveal how much larger – and smaller – we all are than the images we cling to, about ourselves and each other.

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  1. Yes! So much love for this review right now, it took me a while to get into this book too, but it was so definitely worth it, I was left shocked so many times, how did Flynn ever come up with such a brilliant book!

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  2. I loved the book till the very last page. Sets up for a sequel but very unsatisfying. I was so disappointed. Leaves you hanging like a bad nail!

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