I’ve never been a big fan of crime and mystery novels, even though one of the few authors I buy without thought whenever he releases a new title is Peter Corris. His Cliff Hardy novels have long been an impulse purchase of mine.
But then Peter is a pulp writer. A great pulp writer, and Cliff Hardy his private eye, is one of the great characters of Australian letters.
What Cliff Hardy ain’t, however, is literature. In spite of all the literary biographies he reads.
Gone Girl is literature, of that strange, unusually American type. Popular, easy to read literature that nonetheless challenges the audience to bear with it though hard times. And hard times are the leitmotif of this novel – the undoing of Nick and Amy Dunne.
The financial collapse is the background vision of Gone Girl. The collapse of 2008, and in a wider sense the collapse of an even longer dream, the idea of the American middle class. There are few more middle class occupations than those Nick and Amy. Magazine writer and trust fund grrrl who dabbles as a designer/author of magazine quizzes. A pity about the collapse of the old media business model. (A collapse which affected Flynn personally when she lost her own magazine job in real life).
That collapse not only forces Nick and Amy back to Missouri, but holds them there, surrounding them, in the form of the all but abandoned housing development in which they fetch up. A development itself becoming increasingly abandoned with time. First by a neighbour who disappears with her three kids after losing her mortgage battle. "The living room windows still has a child's picture of a butterfly taped to it, the bright magic marker sun faded to brown." And then of course when Amy disappears too. We get such a short time to spend with Nick, before suspicion falls on him that I got to wondering very quickly whether or not Nick and Amy were doomed to fail as a couple, or whether Flynn was writing about them to describe the toll that recession and fear and the brutality of market economics can have on romance.
Amy's parents are almost caricatured as the perfect couple early on, and yet they are idyllic existence is turned upside down by poor financial choices. How much of the tension between Nick and Amy was really down to money? They seemed perfectly content while they both had secure jobs and she had money in the bank, or the trust fund. The first signs of discord appear in the wake of the layoffs at Nick’s magazine, and yet when he looks back from the vantage point of two or three years later we can see there already problems on the first anniversary.
We learn, of course, that there are other problems in this marriage, but still the wreckage of the Great Recession is the background scenery of it all . When Nick reaches Hannibal, for instance, searching for the wedding anniversary clue, we see “the glorious gilded age courthouse that now held only a chicken wing place in its basement” and head “past a series of shuttered businesses – ruined Community Banks and defunct movie houses” all while Nick muses on the end of eras. It’s hard not to think Flynn is using the framework of a murder mystery to frame a discussion of the end of American exceptionalism.
As a murder mystery – it seems so obvious Amy has met her end – does Gone Girl work? Oh hell yes. It is replete with red herrings and false leads and blind alleys, and if you are willing to believe, really believe in Nick, there’s any number of alternate explanations for Amy’s absence. Even if he is his own worst advocate.
It should be remembered there are two narrators here, one of whom is missing and one of whom seems… entirely unreliable. (As an aside, I'd be interested to hear from anybody who's listened to the audiobook. Did they use a male and a female narrator? Because they should have). You never get the sense reading Amy's diary that she is lying to you. She seems so self-critical, so unsure of herself. Nick on the other hand holds back information, misdirects, openly lies, but whether to himself or to us remains unsettled for much of the book. When his story, the story he's been telling us and possibly himself, begins to fall apart, it falls apart hard, and the pieces fly everywhere. It's almost impossible to read at times, you're cringing so hard.
So why does he lie? Is he covering up, or is it, as his sister says, that he can't stand not being liked, can't stand not being the most popular guy in the room? So he tells people what he thinks they want to hear, and it gets him in trouble.
Or is he just an asshole? We know that from early on, he keeps nudging up against the trouble they've been having, but it's when he's telling his eleventh lie to the police that we see how bad things really are. Interesting use of the word, literally, there. It's inappropriate, and yet Gillian Flynn rarely chooses an inappropriate word.
Yet having delivered us of that diagnosis of a failing marriage, we then dive back into Amy's diary to see just how well they did work together. She is not a woman who needs a dancing monkey, as she puts it, unlike pretty much every other woman in the world. That was a hard passage of writing to read because it read like one of those unavoidable truths we'd all like to avoid. Especially the menfolk. You finish reading that section and you have to wonder what the hell went wrong, because they seem perfect for each other.
Then despite all of the evidence that’s been staring you in the face, despite the testimony of Nick himself, we finally see through Amy's eyes what a fucking jerk he can be. The third wedding anniversary. Leather. The one where she got in the beautiful vintage briefcase, that he went out on the town to get drunk with all of the writers who’d been laid off from the magazine. That really hurt to read, because I could see myself doing something just like that. It was such a well-written observation of a man failing to be a good husband that I felt bad when reading it.
But, of course, we well know that Nick is an unreliable narrator. What of Amy? Can she be trusted just because these are her 'private' thoughts. The question you have to ask yourself as a reader is whether Nick is the more or less reliable of the two because his deceit is laid out for us to judge.
It doesn’t change the feeling feeling you get when you’re inside his head, though. That feeling of biting down on tinfoil. If he told the cops early on, what he really thought of his wife, as he finally tells us, they wouldn’t have bothered pussy footing around. They’ve have just locked him up on general principles.
"The Amy of today was abrasive enough to want to hurt, sometimes. I speak specifically of the Amy of today, who was only remotely like the woman I fell in love with. It'd been an awful fairytale reverse transformation. Over just a few years, the old Amy, the girl of the big laugh and the easy ways, literally shed herself, a pile of skin and soul on the floor, and out stepped this new, brutal, it are Amy. My wife was no longer my wife but a razor wire knot, daring me to unlink her, and I was not up to the job with my thick, numb, nervous fingers."
I wont give away the ending of the story here, because there might be people as yet unfinished and it would be a shame to spoil a great read for them. Instead, I’ll finish up by saying I enjoyed this book as much as anything I’ve read this year, not just because it’s a great story, but because it’s told so well. Flynn has real depth as a writer, and her control of a line is near faultless. It’s why, I think, she can lay claim to literary status and not just popular acclaim.
I've tried to avoid major spoilers in the write up, but you can expect plenty below. Proceed at your own peril.