Sunday, January 22, 2017

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

This post reveals major plot points including the ending of the book and the movie Gone Girl. It’s impossible to spoil something that’s already rotten but you’ve been warned.

Depending on what source you believe, women make anywhere from 58% to 64% of all book purchases. Women dominate publishing editorial meetings. This is why books are mostly marketed to women, and why so many bestsellers are about strong, successful women who manage to achieve all their dreams— the ideal job, a fulfilling romantic life, the perfect family— despite serious obstacles.

Gone Girl is about a determined, driven, physically beautiful young woman who finds a physically attractive man and molds him into the perfect partner to start a family with—and scores a major book deal besides. But it’s been engineered to allow self-aware readers to feel they’re above reading formulaic bestsellers, while still indulging their desire for popular fiction.

 Amy Dunne is the chick lit equivalent of Jack Reacher. Pure wish-fulfillment fantasy with a hard edge.

Nick Dunne and Amy Elliott meet in New York when both are living a dream of privileged affluence. He has a job as a movie reviewer for a men’s magazine, and she puts her psychology PhD to use by creating quizzes for women’s magazines—although she doesn’t really have to work at all, as she’s the inspiration for her parents’ Amazing Amy series of popular children’s books. They hook up, then he loses her number, then they meet cute a few months later, then they get married. Then the recession hits, Amy loses her job, Nick loses his, the Amazing Amy books are no longer selling and Amy’s parents need to take Amy’s trust fund back. Then Nick’s mother gets cancer, so they pack up and move to Missouri to be with her. Amy finances the purchase of a bar that Nick and his twin sister Go run together.

Their marriage stagnates, then they drift apart. And one day Nick comes home to find tables and chairs overturned, the iron left on, the front door open and Amy is missing. The police find evidence of massive amounts of blood having been spilled and cleaned up in the kitchen. They’re suspicious that Nick killed Amy, but they don’t have enough evidence to actually arrest him.

Part One alternates between entries from Amy’s Diary and Nick’s narration of the events in the few days following Amy’s disappearance. The diary gives us a picture of a relationship that begins giddily, narrated in a cloying tone, that eventually turns dark and abusive. Amy recounts abuse at Nick’s hands, including being punched and poisoned with antifreeze. Nick’s story includes his following her yearly anniversary treasure hunt, where she embeds clues in doggerel, sending him all over town to spots that were important to them during the previous year. Nick’s narration, meanwhile, is sufficiently vague enough that the reader is supposed to think that he might actually be guilty of all the things he’s accused of in the diary. He is a bit of a boner who has been cheating on Amy with one of the students in his creative writing class, after all.

But then in part two the book goes disastrously off the rails, as Amy comes clean to the reader. “I can tell you more about how I did everything, but I’d like you to know me first,” she says. To us. For some reason. And of course this is a big flaw in the book, since at no point can we ever trust anything Amy says— not after the diary setup, which was left behind for the police to find in order to completely and totally solidify Nick’s guilt in killing her. He didn’t kill her, obviously, she just wants to punish him for bringing her out to Missouri and cheating on her. So she put her brilliant mind (everyone from Amy to Nick to her parents to her previous victims claims that Amy is brilliant so she must be, I guess) to work staging her murder and then running off to a rented cabin the middle of the nowhere. But not before stopping and chopping off and dying her hair in a scuzzy bathroom in an abandoned gas station. That’s just one cliche—or is it a trope?—of many that permeates the book.

Unless Amy were going to kill herself immediately, this plan never had any chance of working. As it is, she plans on watching Nick twist in the wind, get arrested, get convicted, and then kill herself. She imagines this will take a few months, and she has about ten thousand dollars in cash that she keeps mostly in her money belt, and stashed throughout the cabin. Which is one of several occupied rentals. And while she’s there she befriends two people, Jeff and Greta, even going so far as to watch TV news accounts of her disappearance with them.

She’s supposedly a brilliant person who researched how to stage the perfect frammis, but she never even bothered to read any Elmore Leonard for crying out loud? Frank Ryan’s rules would have saved her a lot of grief.

Then there’s the matter of her changing the security code at Nick’s father’s house. One of the clues for the treasure hunt leads Nick to his father’s house, and when he enters he sets off the alarm. The security company calls him— so there’s a record of Nick having been there and set off the alarm. This is important because it’s here that Amy plants her diary, carefully burned just enough to make it appear that Nick burned it there. When Nick tries to enter the code to shut off the alarm, it doesn’t work. Amy changed it and made her own “disposable cell phone” the default number for the alarm company to call if the alarm goes off.

Which means that the alarm company has a record of Amy changing the alarm code and setting the default phone number to her secret cell number. And this is never mentioned again after Amy notes in her own narration that they’ve called her, so she knows when Nick has found that particular treasure hunt clue.

The police find the life insurance that Amy had Nick bump up, they find receipts for all the credit cards that Amy took out in Nick’s name—but nobody thinks to get in touch with the alarm company to find who changed the alarm code or why?

The book is full of these problems. It would take me hours to go through them all them but suffice it to say Amy’s plan had no chance of working, ever, and there’s absolutely no “suspense” surrounding that story because it’s all fantasy. There is nothing about Amy’s character, either in the diary or Nick’s narration or in her own, that makes you believe that she’d ever consider killing herself. It’s just a way for Gillian Flynn to rationalize the most glaring flaw in Amy’s stupid plan. If she’s going to kill herself anyway, then fine, maybe she wouldn’t be caught. But otherwise, she’d never be able to just disappear. She’s the inspiration for the Amazing Amy books, for one thing. For another thing, everyone’s life is a series of numbers now. Even if she changed her name and appearance, she’s still going to need new identification (the book never tells us if she has a new license), social security, and so on.

Then again, given the world as created within Gone Girl’s pages, maybe it’s not so absurd. If you lived in a world where Nick’s interview with Whodunnit Rebecca would “humanize” him, or where the mainstream media would wait FIVE DAYS before going “national” with the disappearance of an attractive, blond, white woman who’d served as the inspiration for a series of bestselling children’s books, then maybe it’s possible Amy could have disappeared after staging her own murder.

Once Jeff and Greta rob Amy, she’s left with no money and obviously no prospects. She had planned on killing herself (allegedly) but then once she’d decided against that she was apparently going to manipulate people as she’s done in the past, but she’s lived such a privileged life that she has no real understanding of the flyover country rubes for whom she has such contempt (this is a nice touch by Flynn, by the way—amazing Amy getting rolled in this way). So she calls her ex boyfriend Desi.

Desi Collings is a dandy who supposedly became obsessed with Amy after they broke up. Amy claims that he stripped naked on her bed and tried to kill himself while they were in college, which is apparently another lie. Amy meets Desi at a casino (apparently the only casino in the world with absolutely NO SURVEILLANCE CAMERAS whatsoever?) and tells Desi that Nick was trying to kill her and she had to get away and Desi makes a halfhearted attempt to get her to go to the police but eventually he relents and agrees to take her to his beach house, which he’s set up as a freakish shrine to her, complete with an atrium in which her favorite flowers (her favorite flowers when she was in college anyway) are in bloom year-round.

Basically she’s trapped by Desi. He will not let her out, although he does let her watch TV, including an interview that Nick gives in which he grovels to her.

Now Nick knows that he’s being framed by her, and she’s still alive, and watching. He’s found the final clue of the treasure hunt, which was in the woodshed along with all the video game systems, big screen TVs, golf clubs (he doesn’t golf), and pornographic DVDs (that should have ended the story right there—who buys porn on DVD anymore?) that she’s purchased using the credit cards she’s opened in his name. The final clue which is a giant and totally revealing “eff you” to him, featuring Punch and Judy dolls and doggerel suggesting she’s going to send him “up the river.” So Nick, having retained the services of a lawyer famous for representing men accused of horrible crimes against women, is giving interviews in which he tells Amy how amazing she is, how much better she made him, how he’s learned his lesson, and so on. Because he knows that this will bring her back, for some reason.

Maybe. I don’t know. On the one hand, Amy is supposedly brilliant and I think we’re supposed to believe that her plan is brilliant and if only she hadn’t gotten rolled by those hicks she would have continued on with it indefinitely. On the other hand, there’s some evidence within the text (I’m not sure how much of it is intentional) that Amy is completely deluded—maybe she’s lying to herself?

Anyway, Amy does decide to go back to Nick. Just as he and Go are being arrested. But she has to get away from Desi, who is essentially holding her hostage. So she simulates being tied up by wrapping wire around her wrists, and uses a wine bottle to simulate a rape (she's falsely accused a previous paramour of rape before). Then she seduces Desi, with whom she copulates. Later, as he’s sleeping, she uses one of the knives from the kitchen to kill him, and make her way back home.

It makes for a dramatic scene, as the TV crews lined on the street outside get a shot of Nick meeting Amy outside the house, looking dazed and bloody. Then they go to the hospital, she’s questioned a little by the police, and she and Nick go home.

By now you’re probably thinking WAT??? Her story is that Nick had been physically and emotionally abusive to her—POISONING HER FOOD WITH ANTIFREEZE FOR CRYING OUT LOUD—and she’s been kidnapped by a former boyfriend who repeatedly raped her and she kills him, escapes, and returns home and then that very night she just returns home with the Nick who has allegedly smacked her around and threatened her? WAT??? I realize that history is moving faster than ever, but this book was published in 2012— even back then, the think pieces alone would break the internet. And I have a hard time imagining that Amy would be able to stand up to a carefully worded Jezebel post on her situation.

Remember when Rihanna was beaten by Chris Brown— the outrage that permeated the culture after the horrifying photos of Rihanna’s face surfaced? Then remember the outrage that occurred when Rihanna got back together with Brown just a little while later? That was in 2009: three years before Gone Girl was published. Why shouldn’t the case of Amy and Nick Dunne provoke similar outrage? In fact, given that Amy is an attractive white woman who served as the basis of a children’s book character beloved by white people all over the country, isn’t it reasonable to expect the outrage would be even more pervasive, especially among white liberal media outlets that presumably would feel less self-conscious for calling out a white person for returning to her abuser than they’d feel in calling out a person of color?

Again, these questions aren’t meant to be asked. This is a fantasy novel, intended to make AN IMPORTANT POINT about marriage. Amy becomes pregnant with the sperm that Nick had donated the year before in their previous efforts to have a child (Nick thought she’d had the sperm destroyed), and she uses the child as leverage against Nick, forcing him to stay with her and to back up her story of being kidnapped and repeatedly raped by her nutty ex-boyfriend Desi. (By the way, does Desi have an alibi for the morning Amy was allegedly kidnapped? Did the police bother to check anything about her story? Is there a record of Desi’s trip to the casino? Does his car have GPS? Do the police investigate the lake house where Desi allegedly kept her and starved her and raped her repeatedly? Is there any of Desi's DNA or any indication at all that Desi was ever at the Dunne's home? Did any of the neighbors see Desi's car at the Dunne home? He had to have been there for a long time and Nick is alerted to the fact that his front door is open by a nosy neighbor. I know I know I know these questions don’t matter, not even a little bit, at this point NOTHING about this book makes any sense.) Nick becomes the perfect husband, worried as he is that Amy might kill him at any time, sort of like the point Flannery O’Connor made with the truly powerful “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” There are also echoes of Kurt Vonnegut’s assertion, from Mother Night, that “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

Flynn is a talented writer. But the storyline that she's come up with, with its twists and turns, makes no logical sense, and it would never unfold as it does here. I don't think any writer could have overcome all the issues with this story.

The author of the novel Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn, wrote for Entertainment Weekly, which made them even more slavish in their promotion of big budget corporate art than they usually are.

The movie version exacerbates all the book’s problems because it remains entirely faithful to the book, hitting all the plot points, but without the book’s context or subtlety, such as they are. The subplot with Jeff and Greta is quickly dropped and the two are never mentioned again, despite the fact that they are ticking time bombs waiting to go off at any moment, whether in a 4chan or reddit thread or a YouTube video ("I gotta a friend whose cousin stole, like, a couple hunnert bucks from Amazin' Amy when she was s'posed'a been kidnapped!"). There’s nothing about Amy’s process for changing the code for the security system at Nick’s father’s house. And there’s a strange scene where Amy is interviewed in a hospital room by Detective Boney, a few other cops, and the FBI. One of the FBI dudes seems unusually attentive and eager to just sweep everything aside, despite the rather reasonable questions that Boney raises.

The FBI dude asks her if she feels safe going back home with Nick, given the fact that she’s written in her diary that she’s afraid he’ll kill her (the antifreeze stuff was left out of the movie). And she says sure and she returns home with Nick THE SAME DAY. The interview goes on with Amy in hospital scrubs, with Desi’s blood clearly still on her body. Wouldn’t they clean her off? Wouldn’t they have a psychologist check her out before such an interview? Wouldn’t her parents at least insist on that? Also, Amy slashes Desi’s throat with a boxcutter while they’re engaged in the act of sex, him humping away on top of her. It makes for a dramatic scene (Eros and Thanatos!), with his blood gushing out, covering Amy and the bed, but it makes no sense. Did he cum that quickly—because she didn’t wait very long to slash him. Also, why is Nick’s question about where she got the box cutter if she was supposedly tied up so quickly dismissed? Yes, one or two people might dismiss it—but Amy talked to a lot of people in that interrogation. If the audience can see the KNOWING GLANCES that Amy gives to Boney, why can’t anyone else—trained law enforcement personnel—see the ABSOLUTELY *S*I*N*I*S*T*E*R* way she looks and her obvious deflections. Oddly, the film removes all references to Nick’s alleged porn habit, and the credit card receipts don’t show any of his quaint interest in pornographic DVDs—but in voice over Amy does allude to her distaste for oral sex. Maybe porn is so mainstream that they thought that Amy’s oblique moralizing on the subject would put people off this big budget film.

At one point in voice over, Amy complains about having to watch Adam Sandler movies. Apparently Movie Nick likes them, although Book Nick’s cinematic taste is more refined. Anyway, this line is intended, like the cutaway shots of Walmart and KFC signs, to establish Amy’s and the audience’s knowing above-it-all-distance from people like Amy’s “best friend” Noelle Hawhtorne (another thing about the movie is the accents—I’ve only spent a few weeks in Missouri but I never encountered anyone who talked like they’d watched fifteen minutes of “The Dukes of Hazzard” and tried to parody it), but the fact is that Gone Girl the book is chick lit, and "Gone Girl" the movie is a chick flick. As I stated before, it ends with a beautiful, intelligent woman HAVING * IT * ALL: The perfect husband who lavishes attention on her, a pregnancy which will theoretically lead to the perfect family, and a great job (in this case, Amy gets a book deal out of it). The movie also makes explicit that Nick is franchising his The Bar—something that book Nick alleges would be distasteful. (Movie Nick at least gets something.)

So the book and the movie try to have it both ways, giving us the popular resolution while at the same time flattering the audience that they’re actually better than this. They know what’s going on. They’re in on the joke. But given that one of the messages of the book and the movie is that you are what you pretend to be, what does that make the writer and filmmakers?

Obviously no crime fiction will be perfect. You’re never going to be able to cover every base or make allowances for every single audience objection. But the flaws in Gone Girl are so numerous and profound and fundamental to the book that it becomes almost cruel to label the work “suspense” (the dust jacket copy of the first hardcover edition claims that Gillian Flynn is “one of the most critically acclaimed suspense writers of our time”) It’s chick lit, all the way. It's on the same continuum as Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded, Jane Eyre, Rebecca, and 50 Shades of Grey. And as chick lit, it’s a success. Obviously, it was a massive bestseller, which is what counts.

At the end of the movie Nick asks Amy why she wants to stay with him. A perfectly reasonable question. He says that they manipulate and abuse each other: "Yes, I loved you and then all we did was resent each other, try to control each other. We caused each other pain." Amy replies, "That’s marriage." Uhm, well, maybe. But not really. That’s OTHER PEOPLE’S marriage. Not those in Gone Girl’s intended audience. They’re better than that; or at least they’re pretending to be.

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