Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Wednesday, May 2, 2012: Maximum Shelf: Gone Girl

Crown: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Crown: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Crown: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Crown: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl

by Gillian Flynn

To write about Gillian Flynn's excellent new novel is to face a unique challenge. The plot is riddled with so many twists and turns that describing it, even in broad strokes, runs the risk of giving some of them away; it would be a real disservice to deny any reader the joy of slowly peeling away the layers of deceits wrapped around its deliciously dark heart. Any character or plot detail could be a spoiler. Or not. And this is part of the genius of Gone Girl, where Flynn places her readers on a sea of constantly shifting sand. What is real? Who is telling the truth? Is this review a lie? Reader beware.

On the day of their fifth wedding anniversary, beautiful Amy Elliott Dunne (the inspiration for her parents' wildly successful children's book series, Amazing Amy) disappears from the sterile Missouri house she shares with her husband, Nick. A neighbor calls Nick, who is at the bar he owns and runs with his sister Go, and tells him to come home, that something seems amiss. Nick finds the front door wide open, the iron on, signs of a struggle in the living room, and a freshly mopped floor in the kitchen. The police--not nearly as dumb as Nick first believes--draw what seems an inevitable conclusion; the husband did it. Nick agrees that he looks guilty and--the ultimate unreliable narrator--admits to being a liar right away. Is Nick a killer? Could it be that simple?

Amy's diary, which is doled out in pieces as the investigation into her disappearance progresses, might hold some clues. Here it emerges that Amy wasn't happy about their move from New York City to Nick's boyhood home in Missouri and was distressed by how distant and brutish her husband had become over the past five years. Their marriage had degenerated so much, Amy writes, that she was beginning to get a little frightened of his dark moods. Nick, naturally, tells a different story. According to him, it was Amy who had changed, becoming cold and bitter, not at all the vibrant, cool girl he'd fallen in love with. How, he asks himself--and us--could he be blamed for...? When Amy's distraught, loving parents show up to join the search, it is clear that even they are not who they seem to be. In fact, if there is one thing that Nick and the missing Amy agree on, it is that the Elliots pilfered and exploited Amy's childhood for their own gain.

Our sympathies and suspicions pinball as Flynn thickens her plot with an expert hand. Just before she disappeared, Amy had completed an anniversary ritual; a treasure hunt of clues leading her husband to his gift. When Nick embarks on this quest, desperately trying to find Amy and clear his name, he begins to uncover some disturbing information about certain people in Amy's past and, at the same time, finds himself falling in love with his missing wife all over again. It is at this moment that Nick's much younger mistress emerges and Amy's "best friend" informs Nick--and the world at large--that Amy was pregnant when she vanished. And then things get really complicated.

Gone Girl delivers in spades the thrill and suspense that define Flynn's work, but it also speaks eloquently to the state of things today. Spiked with many sharply funny moments, the novel is reminiscent of Warren Adler's 1981 black comedy The War of the Roses, which detailed the destruction and rancor of divorce using the fight over material possessions as metaphors for greed and bitterness. Flynn has moved this situation to the present time, when the American dream--so seemingly accessible in the 1980s--is in tatters. Indeed, the strain of losing their jobs and subsequent financial hardship is much of what drives a wedge between Amy and Nick. This is a brilliant reimagining of an old theme. Breaking up is hard to do but, as Flynn shows us, staying together can be even harder. Her stunning portrait of a marriage collapsing in on itself like a black hole is a tour de force in miniature. 

It is a rare breed of writer who can combine suspense, an intricately crafted plot and deeply developed characters without sacrificing nuance, but Flynn makes it look easy. Moreover, her characters are completely believable, which is to say they aren't always likeable. In fact, they are often unpleasant in banal, unsexy ways--just like real people. This is an incredible risk for a novelist and an even bigger risk for a novelist writing female characters; the conventional wisdom is that characters that are unlikeable will alienate readers. It is additionally challenging to write fiction this dark and utterly compelling now, in an age when the truth is often so much stranger and darker. Yet it is here that Gillian Flynn excels. Gone Girl is her best work yet. --Debra Ginsberg

Crown, $25, hardcover, 9780307588364, June 5, 2012

Crown: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gillian Flynn: Disturbing in a Most Unladylike Way

Gillian Flynn is the author of the  bestselling Dark Places, which was a New Yorker Reviewers' Favorite, a Weekend Today Top Summer Read, a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2009 and a Chicago Tribune Favorite Fiction choice; and the Dagger Award-winning Sharp Objects, which was an Edgar nominee for Best First novel, a BookSense pick and a Barnes & Noble Discover selection. Her work has been published in 28 countries. She lives in Chicago with her husband and son.

Gone Girl has at its heart a very dark portrait of a marriage. Where did you get the inspiration for this novel?

Hmm... Is it strange to say my husband? Probably, but I will anyway. My lovely, charming, sweet husband and I have been married for almost five years, and I was interested in delving into what an insane enterprise the whole thing can be. How potentially fraught. Because in some ways, marriage is a bit of a con. You present your best self, or even your third or fifth best self, to this person you love during those early years of courtship, but that's not actually the genuine you. It's the you that you'd really, really like to be but aren't. So you basically trick the person you love into marrying you, and then, after a while, the real you--the flawed, strange person you had hoped was perhaps "fixed" by this love--begins to surface. The potential for disaster is great. In the best case, you two are both revealed to be frauds at about the same level, and you love each other even more because of your "idiosyncrasies." (Isn't that the marital euphemism for "Holy smokes, my spouse is crazy"?) But the best-case scenario doesn't hold for every couple. What happens if the real people underneath the golden facades are really, really not meant to be together? What happens if they complete each other in the nastiest possible way?

What were the particular challenges you faced writing such a psychologically twisty story with so many curves and switchbacks? Did you ever find yourself caught up in the deceits of your characters?

Who was telling what lie when, and to whom, and why? I'm a big fan of unreliable narrators, because we are all unreliable narrators of our own self-mythologies. I liked playing with that idea here, and then adding intentional deceits and twists and turns. So it got complicated. I'm an obsessive maker of lists, notes, queries, timelines, all of which I write out longhand in a rather spidery, cramped style of handwriting. Then, because I am a slob and have no filing system, I tape all those random note cards and scraps of legal paper willy-nilly to the wall of my office: reminders of where I am in the story, or scenes I want to revisit, or facts I need to check, or inconsistencies I need to correct. By the end of writing Gone Girl, I had dozens of scraps of paper fluttering from my walls with scrawled notes that said things like: "But what about the Festival?! Boney MORONIE??? Where was Nick at 9 AM then? Mom dead? Crepes!" My office looked like the lair of a serial killer. A really weird serial killer.

Your characters, especially your female characters, are interesting, complicated, and richly three-dimensional, but they aren't always likeable. Do you consider it risky in some sense to present these characters to your readers?

I think likeability is overrated. You want your roommate to be likeable, you want your coworker to be likeable, you want your dog to be likeable. I don't necessarily want characters to be likeable. Likeable doesn't necessarily mean interesting. In fact, I'd argue that we spend more time obsessing over people we don't like (Why did she say that? Why would he act that way? What is wrong with her?) than people we do like, and for me that's what makes a novel work: you want to figure out the characters. A character who acts appropriately, fairly and kindly? I'm probably not going to spend that much time trying to figure that person out: he or she is good. Done. A character that is conniving, vindictive, cowardly, argumentative, selfish? I want to figure out what happened to that person, and what will happen. I suppose it goes back to one's basic motive for reading. I don't read in order to root for a character--personally, I'm not big on the hero narrative. I read because I like to poke around in human psyches. So that's what drives my writing. I should also add that I have a serious soft spot for underdogs, malcontents, freaks, jackasses and psychos, so I find all my unlikeable characters perversely likeable.

Do you feel your work fits into a genre or subgenre? If so, which one?

I'm sure it must fit somewhere but I always struggle with an actual label. Midwest gothic noir? Midwest because I'm obsessed with the midsection of the country. I grew up in Missouri, within walking distance of Kansas, and I truly think they are two of the most interesting places around, historically. Gothic, because my novels have that sense of slightly skewed reality, and are littered with desolate set pieces (Sharp Objects' deadly fairytale of a forest; Dark Places' ruined bank, underground home to the Kill Club; Gone Girl's abandoned mega-mall, overtaken by tribes of squatters). Noir because my books are always peopled with troubled, dangerously striving souls.

On a related note, do you find there are different expectations of and responses to women writing dark, edgy fiction than there are for men?

I like to think that's becoming less and less of an issue, now that so many authors of great, dark stories happen to be women. I can't change my gender--female-- and I can't change the way I look, which is decidedly unthreatening (Comment I most often hear at any book event: "But you look so sweeeet!"). However, I can promise you, if you pick up one of my books, I will disturb you in a most unladylike way. --Debra Ginsberg

author photo: Heidi Jo Brady

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