It seems that everyone loves Gillian Flynn’s third novel, ‘Gone Girl’, and it’s clear why: it’s the most engrossing mystery most of us have clapped eyes on in a while. ‘Engrossing’ is perhaps an understatement; ‘Gone Girl’ is compulsive and anxiety-producing. It’s a masterpiece of unreliable narration, and Flynn manages to wind her readers through almost two hundred pages of Nick Dunne’s first person account without ever revealing whether or not he murdered his wife.
The first half of ‘Gone Girl’ is a murder mystery. On their five year wedding anniversary, Nick Dunne’s wife Amy vanishes from their home. Their story is told both from Nick’s perspective in the days following her disappearance, and from excerpts of Amy’s diary during the years of their courtship and early marriage.
However, after a deft, tense first half, Flynn abandons her well-constructed ambiguity and turns to that favorite device of genre fiction: the psychopath.
Psychopaths are fascinating – they are humans without humanity. However, in real life, antisocial personalities are characterized not only by a lack of empathy, they are also impulsive, reckless, and unlawful. Flynn’s psychopath, however, shares with her fictional brethren a distinct lack of impetuosity. The premise of ‘Gone Girl’ rests on the ability of a flamboyant sociopath to plan, meticulously, and well in advance, to mask their thoughts and emotions and to forego any short-term satisfaction in order to execute an elaborate and excruciating revenge.
In real life, this is very un-psychopathic behavior. The diagnostic criteria of antisocial personality disorder include “failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors, as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest”, “consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations”, and “impulsivity and failure to plan ahead”. It is striking that these traits are not only absent in Flynn’s psychopath, they would severely limit, if not completely obviate, her ability to plan and carry out her scheme.
The meticulous psychopath is a tempting plot device. He is capable of any evil, smarter than his opponents, and conveniently unencumbered by normal human emotional frailties. There aren’t any characterological weaknesses to limit him, and so he can enact any outlandish deviousness his author dreams up for him.
However, he is totally unrealistic, and while he may have the immediate magnetism of a car wreck, he isn’t actually interesting. He has no internal conflict; he is all plot. When plot is all that matters, he’s fine. That’s why he does such reliable work in cop dramas, soap operas, and beach reads. And maybe ‘Gone Girl’ is only meant to be a great beach read, but it could have been better. The tension Flynn manages to build in the first half of the novel is effective and affecting. The different early perspectives offered by Nick and Amy Dunne make the reader question not only the reality of their marriage, but also the ability of any two people to ever really know each other. It offers a view of marriage that is not a shared life, but merely coincident delusions. It is a dark vision, and it is much more compelling than the Dances with Psychos that the book becomes.
Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn.