YOU don’t expect Gone Girl to be set in a haunted house, but in a way, that’s the locus for Gillian Flynn’s latest novel: a rental house in Carthage, Missouri that is populated with the ghosts of dreams and memories, and the fading illusion of a happy marriage. Equal parts psychological suspense and noir thriller, it’s a mutant hybrid that turns out to be (far) more than the sum of its parts.
Part one of Gone Girl opens with an account by Nick Dunne, a handsome and amiable All-American Boy Next Door type, on the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary. Nick and his wife, the beautiful, brilliant — and formerly wealthy — Amy seem at first glance to be the sort of husband-and-wife combo that you hate on sight; a couple that Bridget Jones instantly placed into the “Smug Marrieds” category. They’re the Golden Couple, young and gorgeous, sophisticated intellectuals with a sense of mutual understanding, supportive of each other in a positively sickening way. They’re so sweet to each other that you may find yourself desperately reaching for insulin to counter incipient textual diabetes.
Fortunately for all concerned, things aren’t quite as copacetic as the first few chapters would indicate. Nick and Amy are forced, after the advent of the internet destroys their print-media jobs — employment that existed in the brief period when there were “real magazines” and the internet was an “exotic pet kept in the corner of the publishing world” — to move back to Nick’s Missouri hometown, a mid-Western settlement devastated by the New Recession: a “ghost town of bank-owned, recession busted, price-reduced mansions”. In stark contrast to their trendy, character-filled New York apartment, their new home is a sterile McMansion: so “Suburban Nouveau Riche” that it causes Amy to drily ask Nick: “Should I remove my soul before I come inside?” It’s not a home. It’s a shell.
From the haunted house, we move to the spooky neighbourhood. Nick and his neighbours take turns maintaining the lawns of abandoned homes to keep up the illusion of an upscale locality and deter squatters from moving in. The neighbourhood expands to include an empty mall, “two million square feet of echo” that is populated by out-of-work residents who deal drugs, are suspected of gang-rape and are otherwise generally seedy to a degree unheard of since Harlem in the eighties. These echoing sites pepper Flynn’s novel, setting the scene for a number of positively cinematic reveals that throw readers for a loop.
There is, of course, much background to all of this, which is doled out to us through Nick’s own first-person narrative and Amy’s diary entries. For example, we discover that while Nick and Amy lived high on the hog in New York, it was only due to a trust fund set up by Amy’s parents. We know Nick is — by his own admission and Amy’s regard — a good-looking guy, if not terribly successful; we also discover that he’s not a gold-digger, although he’s certainly not above using Amy’s cash to spoil himself. Amazingly enough, Amy is as physically beautiful as Nick; easily as witty, if not more so, and thanks to her psychologist parents who wrote an incredibly successful book series about a ”fictional” little girl called Amazing Amy, flush with cash. They’ve got the looks, the brains, and the funds... so what could have driven them to Carthage, Missouri? Surely there’s more to it? Indeed there is. We find out about the dive bar that Nick has opened with his twin sister, using the last of Amy’s trust fund to finance it. We find out about Amy’s parents, whose literary success has turned out to be rather more temporary than they had anticipated. We find out about Nick’s abusive and creepy father, who is now senile and living in — and frequently escaping from — a managed care centre. And most disturbingly, we find out more and more about Nick and Amy themselves. In so doing, Flynn reveals, slowly and gradually, the consummate skill with which her two protagonists manage to lie to each other and to us. She does this as a slow reveal though; while much of what she reveals is not a huge surprise to readers who pay attention, the tempo of the story will likely prevent many people from picking up on the clues and foreshadowing with which Gone Girl is rife.
From the first press conference at which he asks for people to help him find Amy, Nick is instantly pegged as a suspicious sort (desperate to be liked by anyone and everyone, he can’t help flashing a grin while ostensibly grieving about his missing wife). His constant references to poor business conditions and a disposable mobile telephone that he hides from the police don’t help us as readers to have much faith in him either. The lack of knowledge that he shows when questioned about his wife’s plans and habits is so matter-of-fact that you begin to realise just how narcissistic and selfish he is. Hell, even his overpriced celebrity lawyer reaches a point of disbelief (albeit not one that impacts billable hours).
This is further complicated by the alternating chapters of the book in which we start reading excerpts from Amy’s diary. We start seeing things from her perspective — the slow transition from giddy newlywed to disillusioned hausfrau and her gradually increasing frustration with the way in which Nick treats her. When you put this together with Nick’s own shady behaviour and the constant string of white lies that he tells, you can’t help but wonder how long it will take until he’s found to be guilty.
This wouldn’t be much of a whodunit if Flynn had spent her whole novel indicting Nick, and thankfully, she transitions into the meatier part of the story without spending all of her text flogging the dead horse of his culpability. As we start getting a sense of the sort of person Amy is, the veneer of normalcy that covers the couple’s marriage is peeled away.
The wonderful reductive power of the Internet and marketing keywords tosses Gone Girl into the realm of crime-fiction, but that’s akin to describing Dante’s Divina Commedia as a religious story. Flynn isn’t a spectacular writer, but she is an excellent story-teller, with a firm grasp of plot and pacing. And Gone Girl isn’t a literary masterpiece, but it is gripping, provocative, and enthralling — you may find yourself reading through the whole thing without even meaning to.
By Gillian Flynn