Adventures in Contemporary Lit: Gillian Flynn

Warning: This post contains spoilers for all three of Gillian Flynn’s novels: Sharp Objects, Dark Places, and Gone Girl. Plot twists will be laid bare.

Gillian Flynn is the argument for library books.

I don’t read a lot of contemporary lit. I don’t really know where to start with it, and in general (unless we’re talking Cormac McCarthy), what I’ve found just doesn’t speak to me in the same way. It’s not just popular literature like Gillian Flynn. For example, my book club read Colum McCann’s award-winning Let the Great World Spin last month. And it just didn’t do a lot for me. In a weird way, the book seemed to announce its own themes and then spend most of the text continuing to demonstrate those themes. When I read something like Jane Eyre, I feel like I have to do more work to construct a theme and find that my book-club-type questions tend to range a little deeper. Contemporary lit is something I need to work on.

Anyway, I kept hearing that this book Gone Girl was good from friends. I used to enjoy mysteries, so I thought, why not? I found a copy at the library and dove in. In the first hundred pages, I suggested our book club read it. It was pretty good. It was summer. Beach reading! (Well we’re landlocked, but you know.)

Then I finished the book.

Gone Girl is a novel about a guy (Nick) with a kinda-failing marriage whose wife (Amy) goes missing. Of course he’s the suspect. His narrative is intercut with diary entries from his missing wife about how she’s starting to become afraid of him. But Nick maintains his innocence (even though he withholds a lot of information) Then, suddenly, it turns out Amy is not dead. She faked her disappearance to take revenge on her husband for crossing her. And it turns out she’s faked a bunch of stalking incidents in her life. And it turns out she’s thought of absolutely everything because she’s just that smart that she didn’t leave behind a single piece of evidence that’s she’s actually evil and staged the whole thing.

Here are the things that bothered me about Gone Girl: the characters and the plot. So, you know, nitpicky stuff. Nick was unlikeable, but fine, whatever, you’re supposed to be unsure about whether he’s a murderer. Amy is the worst, not just because she’s like a clichéd Psychobitch of the first order, but because she’s not a real character. Her motivations baffled me: she pretends to be someone else, then takes revenge on her husband when he doesn’t bow to her every whim when she turns off the persona she’s constructed to get him to fall in love with her? That’s on you, lady. The unbelievability of her hitch-less scheme is matched only by the unbelievability of her undoing: for all her plotting and perfecting every detail, she has no bullshit detector. And this fact is only revealed when it’s convenient to reveal it.

The plot felt like a bad episode of Law and Order to me. Amy is evil? WHAT A TWIST. It felt unbelievable and yet clichéd at he same time. Amy gets out of everything, no one asks questions, even Nick stops asking questions and they just accept it. And some of the plot threads were dropped: Nick’s abusive father is prone to escaping from his nursing home and is found wandering around town in a dementia fog. And….nothing comes of this. Nothing. It just drops out of the narrative. At one point, Amy gets into hot water when some motel rats steal all the cash she’s set aside. Wow, Amy, how are you going to get out of this one? Oh, by contacting your high school boyfriend who is conveniently still in love with you and conveniently filthy rich and can conveniently hide you in one of his many houses, which are all conveniently nearby.

It’s been interesting to talk to people about Gone Girl. A lot of people I’ve met don’t like it, but it seems like they don’t (or do) like it because it’s “dark” or “twisted.” Maybe I’ve just read too many Cormac McCarthy novels, but I like dark and twisted and Gone Girl doesn’t cut it. It’s more like, “Look how dark and twisted I am! Someone tried to get her husband sentenced to death because she’s EVIL!” You know what’s dark and twisted? Scalping innocent people for money, a.k.a. the plot of Blood Meridian.

I borrowed a copy of Sharp Objects, Flynn’s first novel and winner of the Edgar award. I had to know if all her books were as terrible—and they’re not that long so they’d only take about a day to read. One thing I will say for Gillian Flynn, her books go fast.

Sharp Objects was better, I thought. The premise was a little dumb: Camille is a journalist at a failing paper and gets sent home to Missouri to investigate the murders of young girls, who are showing up dead with their teeth pulled out (to sell papers, I guess?). Her family life is fucked up: her horrible mom and the entire town dote on Amma, Camille’s thirteen-year-old sister, who is creepy as all get-out. But Camille is damaged goods: she used to be a cutter and she has words carved all over her body. Yes, words. And she can “feel” them light up at various points. This is just so dumb to me. It’s too neat. I imagined Camille with a Miss America sash reading “DAMAGED PROTAGONIST.” Seriously, parts of this novel sound like something a seventeen-year-old would write for NaNoWriMo.

Again, it was better. It turns out creepy mom makes her daughters sick with all her “medicine”—this actually killed Camille’s older sister—and eventually Camille fingers her mom as the killer. This conclusion was arrived more elegantly than Gone Girl‘s “oh wait we can lure Amy back because even though she’s super smart she’s ridiculously gullible.” But, aha! A twist! It was Amma who murdered the girls in town. The creepy dollhouse she’s been making has an ivory floor made of their teeth. Amma was raised by someone who has a classic case of Munchausen by proxy. Sure, it’s not a common disease, but the fact taht she turned out to be a murderer makes more sense than Gone Girls “Amy is just a  bad seed.” Do bad seeds occur in real life? Sure they do, but normally there are warning signs.

So I was pretty on the fence and decided to check out Dark Places—both literally and figuratively. Dark Places has another damaged protagonist, Libby Day, whose older brother Ben is in jail for murdering their mother and two sisters. Libby can’t function in society and lives off the proceeds from well-wishers and book royalties. The funds are nearly depleted and she takes offered money to speak at an organization for murder hobbyists. The hobbyists have dedicated their lives to proving Libby’s brother’s innocence, so she begins to conduct an investigation of her own.

Dark Places really wasn’t that bad. Again, the characters seemed a little flat: Libby is pretty much defined by her anger and depression, Ben felt more like a sketch than a person to me. This could be because the narrative alternates between Libby’s first-person, present perspective and the third-person narratives that alternate between Ben and the children’s mother, Patricia, on the day that Ben allegedly committed the murder. It was stretched a little thin.

Again, the plot in Dark Places depended too much upon coincidences. The day of the murders is rife with drama: Ben and his pregnant girlfriend are trying to get out of town, Ben is accused of molesting young girls in town, Ben and girlfriend have a run-in with Ben’s deadbeat dad and the participate in a Satanic ritual. Ben’s mother searches for Ben amidst the rumors of his troubles, she also has a run-in with the deadbeat ex-husband, and decides to have herself killed to get the kids life insurance money and avoid foreclosure on her farm. The killer-for-hire does his job, but he’s seen by one of the daughters, who he then also murders. While all this is going on, Ben and his girlfriend are in the house trying to leave town. Ben’s girlfriend strangles the oldest daughter when she threatens to tattle. When the two emerge, they think like their Satanic ritual worked or something? And right after Libby finds Ben’s girlfriend and daughter, the killer-for-hire is caught: turns out he’s someone the Kill Club was onto who has been killing people in debt for decades. Maybe this is just the way that mysteries are? So full of coincidences? I don’t read many of them, so this seemed a little too convenient for me.

One thing that frustrates me about Gillian Flynn in general is that she kind of addresses issues we experience in contemporary life—the recession, missing pregnant women, blaming violent media for violent actions, the twenty-four-hour news cycle—but sometimes only addresses them halfway. For example, running through Dark Places is the idea that Ben was wrongly convicted of murdering his family because he was a moody teen that didn’t fit in and got swept up in Satanic Panic. But then later in the novel, Ben’s girlfriend and her friend bring Ben along on an honest-to-God (no pun intended) Satanic ritual fueled by PCP. So…instead of critiquing the Satanic Panic mentality of the 80s (like Donnie Darko), the rumors are kind of half-true? What?

So, in conclusion, I am really glad I’m not one of those people who is fundamentally opposed to library books because then I’d be stuck with three Gillian Flynn novels that I’d have paid my hard-earned money for. Some people don’t think I have a very open mind, but at least I tried. I read all her work, I just didn’t like it.

I promise some day soon, I’ll finish The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, but I owe plenty of other fines for non-Gillian Flynn library books, so I wanted to get Dark Places out of the way.

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