I’m a big fan of the lie of omission.
Distilled to its essence, Gillian Flynn’s third novel, Gone Girl, is a vivisection of a marriage, performed in a surgery theater where we’re the audience. And as with any live paring open of the human animal, veterans will nod knowingly while greenhorns may wretch into their hands at the amount of gore they thought they’d prepared for in advance. But if anyone claims to be prepared for the extents the Dunne’s go through to maintain their illusions of the ideal, don’t buy it.
Nick and Amy are a couple in their young thirties, both New York writer-casualties of a publishing industry in the throes of the digital revolution. They meet cute at a party, and for their first two years, at least, their marriage seems the idyllic longing of coupledom. But as we gradually learn through entries in Amy’s journal and Nick’s recollections, their love was erected over still-smoldering heaps of unresolved apathy, resentment, and outmoded expectations.
Resigned to moving back to Nick’s home town of Hannibal, Missouri in order to start over, it isn’t long before smoke seeps through the cracks. Nick is a handsome country-boy with a cold streak who seeks female validation, yet struggles against any anomaly beyond the ideal-woman mold he cast for himself.
I was not good with angry women, he muses early on. They brought something out in me that was unsavory.
Not helping matters is the fact that his mother had recently passed away of cancer, while his father, struggling with Alzheimer’s, is a recalcitrant, bitter resident at a home he frequently escapes from.
Amy is in every way Nick’s equal in the coolness department, though with a fathomless planner’s mentality. She’s a chameleon, always ahead in thought and action, ready to play the “cool-girl” role of masculine fantasy whenever required. To be underestimated is to be insulted on a universal level. As icy blondes go, she would be Hitchcock’s apotheosis.
At the same time, she quietly resents her dwindling trust fund, established by her seemingly flawless parents from the proceeds of the Amazing Amy children’s series of books they wrote while she was a child herself, and whom the title character was modeled after.
People say children from broken homes have it hard, she writes in her journal, but the children of charmed marriages have their own particular challenges.
Their thwarted expectations are expressed in alternating chapters between Amy and Nick’s points of view (which carries through the entire length of Gone Girl), until the simmering reaches a crescendo when, on the eve of their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick comes home from the bar he and his twin sister, Go (Margo), own, to find the house ransacked, a pool of blood in the kitchen, and Amy missing. Thus begins a series of revelations, red-herrings, and twists, with the book shifting between police-procedural and domestic drama.
It isn’t long before Nick is labeled the prime suspect, especially following the press conference over his missing wife where he comes off as aloof and even uncaring. It’s a trait he never denies in himself, telling us at one point, I often don’t say things out loud, even when I should. I contain and compartmentalize to a disturbing degree: In my belly-basement are hundreds of bottles of rage, despair, fear, but you’d never guess from looking at me.
All but convicted in the public eye, he initially undertakes his own investigation in order to prove not only his innocence, but to find physical proof that Amy may have framed him for her disappearance/murder in absentia. Beyond her obvious beauty and charms, he’s well versed in a cunning and frightening self-centeredness that very few have been exposed to except for her intimates, past and present.
But Nick’s protests of innocence fall on deaf ears, with each baby-step towards public reconciliation becoming foiled by mounting evidence to the contrary, not the least of which is an affair he’s been trying to hide from the public with a much younger former student. Seeing little choice in the matter, he decides to hire a famous lawyer (Tanner Bolt) known for his less-than-reputable tactics and propensity for taking on and getting off men who otherwise would be prison-bound, and together they start the slow process of rebuilding Nick’s reputation.
By this point, the reader has already experienced several twists and turns, any one of which would suffice as the major hinge-point in any other crime novel, but in Flynn’s hands, it’s merely the end of a chapter. Her technical skill and confidence has grown noticeably with each novel, and with Gone Girl, it has broken into another level. She handles all the intricacies of converging and diverging time-lines, character movement, and avalanching plot twists with gusto and control, letting moments skim the edge of camp and even absurdity in places before hauling it back in with just the right note of horror or shock. To list any of them here would be to deprive the reader of the joy of peeling an onion with an ever-shifting center. By the end, one has swapped allegiances between Nick and Amy more than once. Neither is all they seem to be, and yet everything is there on the surface in retrospect. It’s tough enough to pull off a story well with a single unreliable narrator, but here Flynn has accomplished it with two distinct, complex people in a war to stave off acknowledgments of failure and vulnerability.
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