Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is a most important novel about America; she makes you think back not so much to Highsmith as to Bellow, Updike, and Didion in their primes. In some episodes of her novel, especially one among lowlifes at a motel in the Midwest hinterlands, she brings to my mind J.F. Powers’s precision in the seriocomic in similar settings in Morte d’ Urban.
The American backdrop of Gone Girl is drop-dead on.
Disguised ingeniously and maliciously as a suspense thriller about a sociopath, Gone Girl is a powerful satire of ever-more-mindless, wired-up America, no country for old (or young) souls in which being Original is a Sin and the already enormous, quickly growing Court of Public Opinion, run by the relentless and inescapable schlock media ever more expert at playing games primates play, is becoming the de facto law of the land. And even worse, the blaring herdspeak is becoming reality itself. As to this Vanity Fair, there is no sanity there.
Gone Girl is an enrapturing, dismaying and spot-on comedy of disgust, of species contempt, that is finally and necessarily a drama of self-loathing, the only possible escape being the grand cackle–sometimes enough to bring tears of laughter–during Flynn’s inspired satire and parody.
And here is a spot to make a fundamental point most readers won’t need to have made: For anyone under the illusion that Flynn is simply writing a gender novel dramatizing that either women or men are the stronger sex, return to Study Hall and start your second, more attentive, reading of the novel. In superb episodes in the story, Flynn makes sure we understand that her archetypal young married couple, Amy and Nick, are both unable to grasp, and indeed (if differently) are each lost and vulnerable in, the predatory Grand Surround of today’s American culture. As clever a plotter as she is in the pop culture jungle, Amy, in spite of her privileged and educated Northeastern background, is far from a graduate degree in street smarts and hence easily victimized by some bottom-feeding petty criminals from the lowlands, nasty types who can read the Grand Schlock for clues about the clandestine Amy, a giveaway which Amy, in spite of her inspired understanding of the dynamics of that Schlock in its media circuses, seems to have overlooked. Conversely, Nick seems almost invincibly naive about the entrapping games of the schlockmeisters played out from sea to shining sea. In sum, Amy and Nick are hardly seers. Indeed, this is central to the dramatic import of Gone Girl.
The storyline: The wife, Amy Elliott Dunne, evidently pregnant, disappears. The husband, Nick Dunne, it is widely thought, Must Have Done Her In; The Husband Is Always Guilty, isn’t he? (Nick has a cleft in his chin: recall the old ditty, “Dimple on the chin, the Devil within”; the Devil has been “Old Nick” for centuries; “Dunne” = Done). Now in their thirties, both Nick and Amy have lost their writing jobs in the “futureland” of Manhattan after the Great Digital dramatically diminishes the paper-and-ink publishing business in no more than a decade. Nick’s sister, Go (Margo), has also lost her Manhattan job, hers having been in the Financial Sector during the Great Recession. The marital magic long gone from their marriage, Nick and Amy now live in a “bank-owned, recession-busted, price-reduced mansion” in a development of largely empty houses in small-town Missouri. Nick and Go run a local tavern, The Bar, which they bought with the last of Amy’s trust fund. After inevitable, sour disillusionment has set in for Amy and Nick, the hopeless dream of Flawless Marital Romance having invariably gone bad, Flynn’s “sociopath” concocts a perfect crime in that perp’s all-too-plausible quest to impose on the spouse a penal continuation, at least in form, of ideal marriage according to Hollywood’s endless succession of light romantic comedies and the rest of the relentless and business-profitable love-dream huckstering in all the other familiar venues.
Flynn is merciless in her disgust. Her savage, pitiless, resigned satire is an inspired riff on the Scott Peterson tabloid extravaganza of the previous decade, and like great jazz Flynn’s story is immensely more insightful than the original version. It becomes a Big Dark Story about America in the Digital Age. Indeed, Flynn takes you on a journey into the ghastly. Along the way, you might have a dark dream in which Bram Stoker rewrites The Bickersons.
But one is grateful to Flynn for the joy and relief of experiencing her Swiftian demolishing of the relentless Great Schlock Industry, that pervasive mental pollution ruining our spirit of place. She’s far too savvy to imagine herself a reformer, but she has made life better by ridiculing that insidious and predatory industry, an industry thriving because foolish human nature is its foundation: in other words, she tells the truth about us, and at least that is a kind of liberation, something of a catharsis. She has a touch of Mencken together with the wicked style of a brutally realistic stand-up comic. She understands perhaps more incisively, and certainly more powerfully, than other dramatists that the Schlock Industry is a plague on our house. The bittersweet laughter she impels has its own special tone and intensity. The plague infects with resignation. Redemption is a fantasy. But the truth eases your journey.
Tailored brilliantly by Flynn to epitomize this world, the Perfect Crime in Gone Girl is strictly contemporary. It entails a careful, complex scheme of entrapment of the other spouse sprung by attracting and masterfully manipulating the media to create a nationally devoured melodrama played out on millions of screens and hosted by unerring novelistic stand-ins for the usual suspect schlockmeisters–I can’t help thinking here of Barbara Walters, Nancy Grace, Dateline, and on and on–in which that errant spouse becomes Guilty in the Court of Public Opinion which in turn rouses the Homo sap primates en masse which in turn makes Local Law = the Primatology of Followers on Twitter and Friends on Facebook.
In essence: Gone Girl dramatizes not the “wisdom of crowds” but the stupidity of crowds.
Better yet, Flynn tells her story through her two major characters, the unreliable Dunnes, in a tour de force of modern verisimilitude; like such masters as Faulkner and Kurosawa in, respectively, Light in August and Rashomon, the truth comes out through somewhat dubious or at least parochial and conflicting testimony and only with the active imagination of readers and viewers who must act as jurors of sorts, sifting and weighing the direct and implicit action of the novel as well as their own reactions, especially when the tale draws to a close and the comedy has become more bitter than sweet.
Apropos: in Gone Girl there finally seems not so much an ending as the reaching of an impasse in the Love Story, a dark state of nature in a Marital Mismatch, the standing of romance on its head. Flynn couldn’t be more up-to-date and prophetic in step with the primatologists of today who, along with others, are rather coldly reviewing human nature and “relationships.” In short, natural selection is hardly the perfect engineer, is it?
And so Flynn’s wired-up America of today captures much in the Grand Surround: the Great Public has been relentlessly primed for exploitation by a comparatively small sector comprised top-to-bottom of utterly callous media con artists and their parasites such as “celebrity defense attorneys” and “personality journalists,” all of them empowered by the instantaneous ubiquity of TV and the Internet and trained by production types in turn trained by richly rewarded scientists and researchers who have demystified pop art by radically improving empirical understanding of how to manage Public Opinion: Potential concert pianists who became button pushers; no mere concert halls for them: All the world’s a cage of super chimps with reliable reactions, a captive audience facing through the bars a stage upon which the fraudsters enact stupidly simpleminded dramas and then laugh all the way to the bank.
The Ellen Abbott Show (might she be something of an amalgam of Nancy Grace and Greta Van Sustern?) begins the National Melodrama, and the vast audience of super chimps jumps up and down through the instigated emotions: outrage, pity, anger, and so forth, but always within an instant of becoming converted groupies should the Guilty One Prove Innocent or Ask Forgiveness. Nick, presumed guilty by the public and condemned on all sides before entering any courtroom, hires celebrity lawyer Tanner Bolt. Nick’s interactions with Bolt, a memorable character, are a satirical highlight in the adventure. (Note: Should you Google “Tanner Bolt,” you’ll discover that it is a company specializing in anchors, which lawyer Tanner certainly does, e.g., anchors like Grace and Walters. Flynn is perhaps the first true Googler as a novelist when it comes to helping you track down allusions, understand wordplays, and similar: for example, who is “Madeleine Elster” and why does Amy refer to herself by that name? Why is North Carthage, the Missouri town to which Nick and Amy move from Manhattan, a sly and inspired reference to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?)
To say much more here would be to commit the spoiler sin. Besides, once you’ve found out whodunnit and what happened, you’ll find Flynn’s fierce satirical energy underscored and thoroughly satisfying. Indeed, a second reading is most rewarding.