So, after much cajoling by The Duchess, I read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. It’s going to be a movie next year starring Ben Affleck and several dozen other people you’ll recognize, produced by Reese Witherspoon and most probably being the talk of the town for a week and then disappearing. As films do.
Anyways, I’ve been thinking about this book. Because it could be used in a creatve writing class to simultaneously demonstrate how to pull off some writing tricks well while also being used as an example of how to pull off some writing fundamentals really, really poorly. You don’t often find books that are simultaneously clever, well-written in spots, and disastrously bad nonetheless. It’s sort of made me obsessed with the book, frankly: On the one hand I am breathlessly jealous of Flynn for her genius twisty concept. On the other I am angry at the way she frittered it away. Let’s talk about it.
HERE THERE BE SPOILERS
First of all, let’s be positive, the way they teach us in writing workshops. The twist is super clever, and cleverly handled, in my opinion. The creative use of unreliable narrator totally sets you up for the reveal, and it works. The first half of the book is very well observed, with both narrative voices working. I believed the marriage between Nick and Amy, I believed their slow descent into disdain and anger at each other, and I believed the ancillary characters. The mystery of what happened to Amy was intriguing, and overall I was sold.
The reveal itself was great, for a while at least.
What Flynn does very well is create a mystery. A down-home, old fashioned mystery. What happened to Amy? What’s Nick hiding? It’s set up really well and I was sucked in. The problem is that the books is all set up. It’s so much all set up that Flynn herself seems to lose interest in the book after the big reveal.
So, spoilers: You know the basic plot, I guess, if you’re reading this. Nick’s wife Amy disappears on their fifth wedding anniversary, after much marital water has gone under the bridge. It looks very much like Amy was abducted violently, and that someone cleaned up the crime scene. Nick falls under immediate suspicion. The story is told in alternating first-person narratives, Nick in the present day and Amy via diary entries that seem to detail a romance and marriage falling apart, and a husband getting angrier and more abusive. Then, it’s revealed that Nick is having an affair, Amy knew of it, and she stages her own kidnapping in order to punish him, by framing him for her murder and watching him rot on Death Row.
Yup, it’s quite a twist. It’s borderline ridiculous, but could have been sold if Flynn had handled it better. The audacity of the twist almost sells the book by sheer power, in fact. The problem is simple: Flynn plays dirty, so dirty that the second you get over your amazement at the reveal you get pissed off.
Using faked diary entries from Amy – written by her but intended to present the police with a totally false depiction of her life with Nick in order to set him up as an angry, abusive husband – totally works because, as with all unreliable narrators, we’re fooled into thinking it’s real. That’s a simple trick. The problem is that while the Fake Amy in the diary makes sense to us, the Real Amy whose distasteful, sociopathic Voice takes over in part two of the novel is so awful you simply cannot believe for one second that anyone likes her, much less marries this monstrous woman.
Yes, she’s pretty. And we’re told a lot of other things about her to explain her ability to lure people into thinking she loves them while simultaneously being horrible to them. But that’s the real problem with the character (all the characters, really): We’re told these things. The characters themselves do not behave in any way that makes sense.
We’re told that Amy is brilliant, yet she acts incredibly foolishly beyond her clever frame-up of Nick. We’re told that Amy is vindictive and dangerous, yet when she is victimized at one point in the second half of the book she takes no revenge and meekly allows two grifters to steal all her money. This is a woman who frames her husband for her own murder in order to punish him, yet when two minor characters rob her she does nothing. We’re told that Amy can charm people and make them feel like they’re special to her, but we don’t actually see how that’s possible because the Amy we see is awful, all the time.
Nick’s an unreliable narrator as well, and that’s where things get stupid, because we’re in Nick’s head. Amy’s diary was a fake, so it’s acceptable that she’s lying – it’s done purposefully. Nick’s narration has no such device. He’s just narrating his life to us. Why in the world would he purposefully not think about the woman he’s having an affair with for the first third or more of the book? No reason, aside from Flynn’s clumsy need to keep his affair as a twist to shock the reader. We’re also told a lot of things about Nick that his actual behavior doesn’t support, like his feelings about his father and his feelings for the woman he’s screwing around with. Nick is a device, Amy is a device. Neither are characters.
Now, all of this would have been gleefully forgiven if the book had ended well. I’ll stipulate. If the book had a great ending I would have mentioned my carping about narrators and show-dont-tell and all that other stuff only after a few drinks and some encouragement.
The ending is not good.
The ending is so not good, you can literally feel Flynn running out of steam. The chapters get shorter. The writing more terse. She’s barely there, just tapping out contractually-obligated words to give the whole mess some sort of form. Characters behave in increasingly ridiculous ways, all justified by the supposedly awesome, unbelievable power of Amy, who is apparently, by book’s end, simply an elemental force. Unstoppable. You have to either believe that Amy is absolute power personified, or the ending become ridiculous and unsupportable. And I don’t use the word unsupportable lightly. The ending is so bad it requires not just a suspension of disblief, but a willing disregard of the concept.
And as I said, the worst part is the perfunctory way Flynn writes these last chapters. We’re called to believe that a) Nick cannot in any way prove Amy’s actions despite having a high-powered lawyer and a pretty good idea of exactly what she did – and a sympathetic police ear, b) Despite knowing how awful she is he would allow himself to be bullied into living in the same house with her, c) Despite knowing how awful she is he would remain married to her and d) when she performs her final repugnant act, impregnating herself with semen culled from masturbatory tissues Nick just left lying around the house (really! REALLY!) Nick would simply roll over and resign himself to spending his life living with a sociopath.
That’s a lot of heavy lifting for a writer, but Flynn presents these final chapters as brief sketches. There’s so little effort and detail it’s almost surreal. I could literally picture her just grinding out those final few thousands words with her agent or editor’s edit letter on the desk next to her and a half-finished bottle of liquor by her hand.
It’ll make a better movie, I think. And it’s not that the book isn’t enjoyable. It just made me angry.