Books Magazine


By T.v. Locicero

Last time I spent most of a lengthy post on John Grisham’s hot new one, The Racketeer and promised a comparison of sorts with Gillian Flynn’s super bestseller, Gone Girl. (If you want to catch up first, please click here.) One of the things these books have in common is the timeless power of good storytelling.

Yes, I guess by now we’ve all read about the Flynn book’s inventive plotting, fascinating (and unreliable) narrators, rich themes and savvy style. And let me say up front, I liked much of it and for those very traits that so many others have noted.

Also, and this may only be my own strange predilection, I liked the novel for what it lacks. Yes, it’s a crime thriller, but there’s no CIA, no FBI to speak of, no Navy Seals, no black ops crew buried in some super-secret government agency, not a single terrorist foreign or home-grown, no physical torture, little blood and gore, no bible-obsessed serial killer and no deviant genius with an imminent plot to destroy half of mankind. Really, bored and annoyed is what I am with most thrillers these days, with incredible plots running rampant and predictable characters laying bloody awful things on each other.

In Gone Girl we’ve got just a nicely terrifying domestic crime drama featuring a 30-something married couple with complex issues and two seemingly stumbling small-town cops. Well, anyway, that’s the one-sentence version.

Now as you may have already guessed, I have a thing about plausibility. But at first, I found only an occasional unlikely note. Early on in the back story there’s a strange time lapse between Nick and Amy’s dreamy first meeting at a party, where they already seem half in love, and their chance encounter on a Manhattan street eight months later. Nick says he was going to call, but the slip of paper with Amy’s phone number got ruined in the wash. Patently ridiculous: each of them could easily have found the other through the party’s host.

Yet Amy acts as if this is no big deal and is simply delighted to have him back in her life. But the Amy we will come to know would certainly have punished Nick for being such a dolt. So why the time lapse? Does it tell us something about each of them? Perhaps how desperate Amy really is, how careless and incompetent Nick is? Maybe, but as we learn much later, an important plot point happened during those eight months. Amy started dating Tommy who didn’t pay her enough attention and got himself accused of rape.

Both Nick and Amy are laid-off magazine writers in NYC, and his decision to move them back to his hometown, North Carthage, Missouri, and to buy a bar with what’s left of Amy’s inheritance seems a bit unlikely. But he is close to his twin sister Go, loves his dying mother and hates his demented father, and these connections make the decision more credible. Actually, one of the things I liked most about the novel was its convincing treatment of the deep impact of money issues and the financial crisis on these individual lives. It cuts them off from potential and possibility in ways that feel, at least for a while, terribly true.

When Amy goes missing after two years in North Carthage with signs of a struggle in the living room, the front door of the house is left wide open. Whether Nick is the culprit (he is soon a suspect) or someone else is, this detail seems odd, since it means the disappearance will be almost immediately discovered.

And why does the woman detective wait until they’re back at the station in a sit-down interrogation to ask Nick if he and Amy have kids? Of course she had already gone through every room in his house, and one of her first questions to him on the scene would have been about children. (Note: the issue of offspring will surface again near the end.)

Still Flynn’s sense of timing is solid. Just as I was getting annoyed at the way Nick was so obviously playing the reader, repeatedly mentioning phone calls to his “disposable” that he won’t tell us about, his young mistress Andie shows up at his door. Soon Nick tells us, unnecessarily: “I’m a big fan of the lie of omission.”

And just when the story clearly needs a jolt, we get the news that Amy had gone to an abandoned mall trying to buy a gun from Lonnie, one of the homeless folks squatting there. She feared someone, she said. He can’t get her one, but later, in retrospect, all this seems hard to believe. Amy wanted to leave a trail that will incriminate Nick, so why not just go to Wal-mart and buy a gun. Do it on the record—it’ll be easier to trace, which should have been the whole point.

Then half-way in, about the time that alternating Nick’s current adventures with Amy’s diary back story has begun to seem mechanical, manipulative and contrived, Flynn pivots and starts giving Amy a chance to report her adventures directly. And we soon learn that all those diary entries, covering their first five years together, have been concocted by Amy after the fact. They were all part of framing Nick for her own murder.

About the same time, all the economic realism I had previously admired just begins to fall away. They were struggling to make ends meet, but Amy secretly ran up credit card charges of $212,000 in Nick’s name. Did he never pick up the mail? Did she do it all online? Then why didn’t the cops find a trace of it on her computer?

After a week or two on the run she’s hiding out at some rundown Ozark cabin resort and still has about 9 grand in cash. She nonetheless decides she needs the 50 bucks oddball Jeff offers to help him steal somebody’s catfish. She stupidly lets Jeff and another obvious grifter, Greta, see her money belt stuffed with her entire stash, and so, surprise, the next day she’s dead broke. And now the hard-to-swallow stuff is really beginning to pile up.

Plan A had been to send Nick to the chair and then kill herself, since, I guess, she’d be fully satisfied with her life.

Plan B involves looking up her old high school flame Desi, a multi-millionaire living just an hour away with his mother in one of his mansions. For decades from afar Desi has been crazy in love with Amy, so first he rescues her, then he imprisons her in another of his mansions, then he makes love to her, after which she slits his throat and escapes in his vintage Jaguar.

Now believing Nick’s TV pleadings that he adores his wife and desperately wants her back, Amy returns with a cracked story that Desi was the one who abducted her from North Carthage and had been raping her morning, noon and night. Except for his mother (who looks exactly like an older Amy and whose vagina seems to smell—it’s mentioned twice), no one cares that Desi’s dead, maybe since he was such a hopelessly flat cartoon man.

Nick’s twin sister Go is also strangely flat. Other than running the bar and worrying about her brother, she seems to have no life at all. In fact most of the secondary characters have no more than two dimensions, although Amy’s parents, Rand and Marybeth, have some interesting heft. A lesson in how to raise a monster, they are a clueless, selfish pair of psychologists who gave their own daughter’s name to the always perfect little girl at the center of their wildly successful “Amazing Amy” series of children’s books.

Look, there’s other ridiculous stuff, but Flynn moves her story along so quickly and engagingly that I suspect most readers don’t have time to notice or dwell on those less-than-credible moments. They’re too busy turning pages and wondering what’s next in this cleverly devised chess match between two always sharp and often nasty people. Yes, it partakes of the gothic at times, but it’s also full of witty, insightful commentary on various aspects of American life—the media and its obsessions, the impact of a crashing economy on personal lives, and most of all the cracks and fissures of identity produced by hyper self-consciousness in a society that seems both pressure cooker and fishbowl.

Flynn’s treatment of the media cluster-effing this bizarre crime tale is one of the best things about Gone Girl. Using well her stint at Entertainment Weekly, she gets just about everything right, from the Nancy-Grace type doing her crazed-crusader thing, to the TV gladiator/attorney Tanner Bolt doing media training with Nick. You wonder perhaps how wiped-out Nick can afford Bolt’s $100,000 retainer, but then money is never mentioned again, so not to worry.

Of course, when you resort so often to the implausible, what you end up with is a fantasy masquerading as realism. That’s what this novel is, and so the ultimate question is, why has this fantasy become such a huge hit? Unlike The Racketeer, which seems to have lots of male enthusiasts, women especially have flocked to Gone Girl, many seeming to find it a kind of feminist cry. Do they see in Amy aspects of themselves? Is there some kind of strange liberation here? It is certainly the end of artifice, of pretending to be the Cool Girl, an end to worries about what men want women to be. This is from one of the book’s most quoted graphs:

Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.

What nerve has been struck here? What deep need filled? My two cents: We live in a time of unprecedented competition between women and men. I know, we have always and forever lived with “the battle of the sexes.” It’s eternal, everlasting. But it has also never, ever seemed so consuming, so constantly present in every corner of our personal, social, economic and political lives.

Equality? It’s only common sense, but benighted forces are still arrayed against it, and so the cries ring everywhere. Gender equality! Equal pay for equal work! Abortion rights! Legitimate rape! The Old White Guy Party’s war on women! Control your own vagina! How many vaginas in the House and Senate? In ’08 Hillary almost made it to that last Glass Ceiling, and 2016 may be hers for the taking. These issues and questions will only gain intensity.

In relationships it’s always been there, and even the male/female cop duo is competing to nab Nick. Not surprisingly the smarter, more competent cop is (maybe just to rub it in) the unattractive woman with the ugly name, Det. Boney.

Heroines (and now anti-heroines) are all the rage these days. No one seems to blink when a wily slip of a girl beats the crap out of a strapping man or two or three. Homeland’s Carrie, despite being bipolar, is more than a match for just about any man in the show. She is smarter, quicker, more intuitive, perceptive and courageous. Saul’s line is definitive: “You were right.” And now we’re hearing that she may have been based on the real life CIA gal (the object of bitter envy at the Agency) who played a major role in getting Osama.

Here’s the fantasy: The woman, Amy, is ridiculously beautiful and smart, but also every man’s worst nightmare. Sensationally desirable, but ultimately despicable, moving somewhere between sociopath and psychopath (more properly the former, although she does seem to swerve from reality at times). She is in fact incapable of genuine warmth for others, condemning her husband to death for cheating and executing in cold blood a man hopelessly in love with her. She, not Nick, has the balls to murder and also that one exclusive natural asset the “weaker sex” has always used to tame the male.

So this story’s baddest badass is not the man but the woman, so super-smart and devious that she can defeat, subdue and control a man who knows her every rotten proclivity because she has confessed it all in the shower, where no tape recorder can nail her.

But now Nick can’t just walk away: Amy has his baby boy in her belly. (She duped him into thinking the fertility clinic they had gone to years ago had destroyed his frozen sperm, then returned there recently to get herself pregnant.) And soon she’ll deliver the unfortunate little tike into a world in which his mother is a monster.

In the book’s final pages we learn that she has carried the baby to term, with submissive Nick there smearing on the cocoa butter and rubbing her feet. And on the marrow she will both give birth and see her new book published, the one that tells her self-serving version of the whole sordid saga.

So she has triumphed. She has won this epic gender war.

Or has she? In their final exchange Amy wonders aloud why Nick is being so good to her. She wants him to say he loves her and she deserves it. Instead he says he just feels sorry for her: “Because every morning you have to wake up and be you.”

At the end Amy tells us she can’t stop thinking about that line from Nick. And so we know without question the war is still on. And, yes, there will be a sequel.

Here’s a final thought from that friend I mentioned in Part 1: About the gender appeal of these two popular novels she says: “Maybe the thrill for women right now is in being bad and getting away with it, while the comfort for men is that being bad does not prevent them from still being good.”

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