His and Hers: Gone Girl

A looong while back we promised you two book reviews on the same book. Without further ado, here they are. If you’ve read the book, please leave a comment to let us know what you thought!

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Hers: If we were in grade school, I’d mark this a C

I have a lot to say about this book. A lot. But a good book review is never a ramble. It is contained, occasionally gushing, often scathing, and above all well-organized. I will attempt to do all of the above in three paragraphs – ahem, not including this one – which will require considerable restraint and long paragraphs. You’ve been warned.

I knew from the first paragraph that I liked author Gillian Flynn. Her writing is intense; it’s the writing of a perfectionist. Each sentence is evidence of artisan craftwork, and as a whole her style is what can only really be called sensual, though not in the way you might think. Her innovative use of metaphor lets the reader smell the tension and taste the fear. Her writing is descriptive in a way I’ve rarely experienced — neither indulgent in the detail (I’m looking at you, J.R.R.), nor flowery, nor blunt. It delivers a hefty punch and yet doesn’t overpower.  For me Flynn is the star of the novel, which, while a strength of the book, is also indicative of its greater weaknesses. 

Unfortunately, with her inimitable style she has chosen to create two relatively uncompelling characters. I can on occasion enjoy a dark read about the abject failure of the human race, but it is never my first choice. And, contrary to the author’s usual intentions, it rarely sufficiently shocks me into remembering it forever. Protagonists Nick and Amy are two anti-heroes without a cause, without a resolution, and without a soul (ouch).

Lest that sound too harsh, I will concede that Flynn succeeds in painting a depressingly insightful portrait of the sin of man and woman. She extracts certain stereotypical traits and blows them up to maximum magnification. Nick is lazy; he is in fact not emotionally obtuse but he pretends to be, never acting on his emotional intuition to reach out and mend what is broken. Amy is the psychopathic extreme of passive-aggressive megalomania – sorry girls, but yes, that’s us – who uses her superpowers in both intuition and action to destroy those around her, all the while defining herself by those same people. This is insightful. It is convicting. It is sad. Perhaps the saddest part of whole thing is the very large pool of reviewers out there who found the novel, to paraphrase, as a “stunning reflection on the modern marriage.”

All I can say is: I hope not.

Gone-Girl-Gillian-FlynnHis:  Rating, based on the standard and entirely arbitrary 5 stars: 3 out of 5 

1. Book review writing tip number one: whenever possible, write your review in list form, since this enables you to better organize your thoughts, as well as freeing you from the chore of having to come up with smooth transitions between paragraphs.  (Note: this is also a good tip for many other genres of writing—basically any piece of writing that let’s you get away with it, which sadly does not include academic papers.)

2. Book review writing tip number two: write your review as soon after finishing the book as possible (best even to take notes as you read).  Under no circumstances should you let over two months pass between finishing the book and writing up your impressions of it.  It turns out this is an especially important tip.  Preliminaries aside, let us turn to my impressions (or should it just be ‘impression’ singular?) of Gone Girl, as best as I can remember them…

3. Gone Girl is a book by Gillian Flynn (pronounced with a hard ‘g’ says the internet: weird).  It’s the “thriller of the year” according to the Observer newspaper, and will soon become a movie starring Ben Affleck and directed by David Fincher.  (Incidentally, Word does not underline ‘Affleck’ or ‘Fincher’ in red—have these two individuals become so famous that Microsoft has formally acknowledged their importance by classifying their last names as properly spelled words?  I had no idea.  Let’s try this with a few others: Clooney?  Yep.  Depp.  No!  So the line of true cultural relevance is drawn somewhere between George Clooney and Johnny Depp…interesting. McConaughey?  Hmm, sorry Matthew, but you don’t make the cut. Bieber?  Nope.  Kardashian?  Nope.  Timberlake?  Yes!  I’m afraid my Word program has been exposed as so 2008.)

The fact about the movie coming out is interesting, since the book has a plot that is simultaneously ideal for the movies (“fast-paced, hard-hitting suspense,” as the movie critics would say, with lots of surprise twists), and impossible to capture on film.  It is difficult to conceive how they’re going to manage it.  The challenge is that so much of the action takes place in the heads and journal entries of its two main characters, married couple Nick and Amy Dunne (I had to open the book to remember their names), and it seems to me that unlike with other book narratives, the story depends on it being told this way.  So I’m curious to see how the moviemakers pull it off.  Anyway, to cut to the chase: I liked this book, more or less.

4. Stuff I liked about Gone Girl: as my better half (the MWG) points out, Flynn’s prose is pretty sharp, especially for someone just writing “genre literature,” as opposed to the highbrow pretentious stuff.  Her writing has that quality that I have often attributed (not without ridicule) to the acting of Gwyneth Paltrow (don’t laugh): intelligence.  What I mean, more specifically, is that her writing, as with GP’s acting, makes her seem intelligent, observant, and thoughtful, whatever the reality may be (in the latter’s case, I do doubt impressions match reality).  It made me admire her, even to the point of thinking I might sorta, kinda enjoy sitting down to a cup of coffee with her.  Flynn packs in clever observation after clever observation—mostly about marriage, relationships, and the sexes—into her descriptions and narration of the action, with these rarely seeming overdone or show-offy.  Her metaphors also sparkle, mainly due to their insightfulness—rather than stylistic complexity or “literariness”— a trait that I personally really appreciate.  The style did seem a little wordy at first, but either she reined it in a bit or I got used to it as I went along.  Although my own marriage is nowhere near as dysfunctional as the one described in the novel (I hope!), I found myself nodding, and occasionally wincing, as her observations repeatedly hit home.  The story of Nick and Amy genuinely made me wonder if we can ever completely trust another person, even our spouses.  While this is an unpleasant and potentially toxic thought, it is nonetheless impressive that what is essentially a mystery/suspense “airport novel” (we bought our copy at Heathrow!) could make me wrestle with this question.  Yet the book is occasionally quite funny, too.

I also really liked that the book is very, very easy to read.  It could be read in one 4-6 hour sitting (except not by me, since I’m slow).  The story is about the disappearance of Amy Dunne, told from Nick’s perspective, with Amy’s journal entries, chronicling their relationship up to the pointshe goes missing, woven into the narrative.  See, even as you read that sentence, you wanted to know what happens to Amy.  True confession: though I enjoy leisure reading, I have a lot of trouble finishing books, especially if they’re not philosophical texts.  I had no trouble finishing this book.

5. Stuff I hated about Gone Girl (very mild spoilers ahead!): ok, so, having praised it to the high heavens just a moment ago, I now have to admit that this book left me with a very bad taste in my mouth.  The problem is that the main characters range from slightly unsavory to full-blown psychotic.  Call me a simpleton, but I prefer stories in which there are at least a couple of characters that I kinda like.  The weakness of an overly cynical plot, depicting the lives of horrible people, is not that it is unpleasant (though it is), but that it is so uninteresting.  This fact is deeply ironic, since our culture has for many years prized cynicism about life and human nature as the very height of sophistication, and our art reflects this.  To take but one example: the recent popularity of “quality” TV shows like The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad, whose views of the world are almost entirely negative (heck, even my all-time favorite TV show, The Wire, makes this mistake at times).  Supposed sophistication dictates that, given the choice between two possible plot directions, the writer should always choose the one that involves the characters acting worse to each other, especially if this involves former friends betraying each other, or a good character being somehow corrupted or morally compromised.

Gone Girl merely pushes this view of human life to absurd extremes.  Halfway through the book there’s a HUGE TWIST that fundamentally changes the way you understand the characters and everything that has gone before, and transforms the central relationship into something of a nightmare.  But I ended up finding most of the second half of the book boring.  I wanted to finish, just to find out what happens, but I no longer cared.  My indifference was not only due to (a) no longer being able to empathize with the characters, but more fundamentally because (b) thoroughly horrible people lack the ability to thrill and challenge us by refusing to choose the easy way out of difficult situations, or by displaying the moral fiber, wisdom, and skill required to cut through the banality, self-indulgence, and deceit of the world around us (there’s a complicating issue, namely a distinction between characters who are not very likeable versus characters who are borderline or entirely insane, with the latter probably even more boring than the former, but I’ll leave this point aside here).  In addition, a cynical plot direction is so unoriginal as to be almost always predictable.  By contrast, and contrary to the wisdom of the world, a portrayal of a virtuous life can be thrilling, indeed profound (two recent examples of stories I have enjoyed in large part because of their nuanced portrayals of good people: the TV show Friday Night Lights and the movie Short Term 12).

Ok, Philosopher, aren’t you taking this stuff a little bit too seriously?  After all, isn’t a book like Gone Girl just supposed to be a bit of excitement and fun?  Perhaps, but a lot of reviewers and readers of the book are taking it much more seriously: as an astute, and I suppose largely accurate, depiction of modern relationships.  If this is what people really think their relationships are like, I feel sorry for them.  And anyway, if this is all intended as just a dark-humored diversion, then a writer as intelligent and talented as Gillian Flynn should spend her time writing more worthwhile books.

 

 

 

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