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Gillian Flynn Is the Real Gone Girl


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Gone Girl is ten, and the virtual ink of the think piece is spilling all over the internet. As I read them, I sank into a familiar disappointment. The monotony of one writer after another discussing the book as a publishing phenomenon, the near ancestor of a proliferation of books categorized as domestic suspense or psychological thrillers, is not only not a novel observation it’s dismissive of Gone Girl as literature. Of course, Gone Girl has spawned a genre’s worth of books about troubled marriages and pretty missing white women. If anyone knows from this phenomenon, it’s me: I cover these books, and month after month I sort through a pile of them and find a few to recommend. I also am the creator of The Girl in the Title of the Crime Novel: The Great Crime Fiction Disambiguation Project, which was just getting going after the first four installments. Please email the editor if you would like more. 

Despite being enmeshed in the publishing world, I try to read outside of business hours: to read not like it’s my job, but like it’s my passion. And I am passionate about Flynn’s book and her accomplishments, about the depth and the resonances of the novel she wrote which slyly tackles so many topics and themes beyond the obvious ones of a crummy marriage and a missing girl. 

So let’s do something radical: let’s look at Gone Girl as literature. Gone Girl is not just clever marketing and good timing. It’s art. 

And let’s look at its author and her creative choices. Gillian Flynn has not taken the expected path after a colossal hit. Flynn’s canny choices make her a potent counterexample to the writer who toils with no hope of fame, money, or recognition, i.e. the literary writer. She has catapulted into another stratosphere of fame and power. Flynn has done what women often deny themselves: instead of continuing along a charmed but familiar path, she swerved. That Flynn has not published another novel does not mean she is slacking: she has chosen Hollywood and parlayed adapting all three of her novels into a showrunner position on a high-prestige HBO project. This is unheard of for a female writer, as women are not generally rewarded in Hollywood without a long track record. Her short but culturally significant one was enough to earn her considerable power.

Gillian Flynn is the real gone girl.

The husband and wife at the center of Gone Girl are Nick and Amy Dunne. To me, “Nick Dunne” is clearly an Easter Egg, an homage to the class- and crime-obsessed magazine writer author of a slightly earlier time, Dominick “Nick” Dunne. As for our heroine, she was the star of a series of books written by her overeducated and highly cultured New York literati parents. The Amazing Amy books, which are limping toward middle age, set the wild expectations people have of the real Amy. Amy’s parents were the kind of people who supposedly wrote for the masses but preferred a bit of Proust and duck confit to Stephen King and a bucket of KFC. When Amy met Nick, she was writing quizzes for a women’s magazine, and it’s that modality Amy appropriates to make her diary feel authentic: love languages, lists of how to please a man, an elaborate scavenger hunt about their love for their anniversary every year. It’s all advice you might read in the latest Cosmo about keeping marriage fresh. Amy also details the trappings of her current life and finds them lacking: her clothes are old, her house is a McMansion in an unfinished subdivision, her career is desiccated. There is little demand for quizzes in a recession when people are losing their jobs, their homes, and their life savings.

Nick and Amy have moved back to Nick’s midwestern hometown in the wake of his mother’s death and his father’s dementia. Nick teaches writing at a community college and is having an extracurricular affair with a very young student named Andie, frequently found blowing up his burner phone. He also owns a bar with his sister, the Bar, which was financed by Amy’s inheritance. It’s a sore spot in his marriage, and where he spends most of his time.

We never get to read of Nick’s writing, but Amy is a hell of a writer. The much-quoted and much-maligned cool girl speech comes memorably not out of Amy’s mouth but in the fake diary she composed and planted as part of the plot of her disappearance. In the diary, Amy writes a fantasy about herself and her marriage complete with staged domestic violence, a fake pregnancy, and girl talk with friends no one knew she had. The hoax diary, an ingenious way to heap suspicion on Nick while utilizing the writing skills he always denigrated, is a literary device: Nabokov writes one in Lolita, for example, another story about a gone girl. 

If Amy played the cool girl to get Nick, the assumption is that Flynn must have played that role too. How else could she know so much about it? No one ever thinks Lee Child is Jack Reacher, but plenty of people think Gillian Flynn is Amy Dunne.

***

Gillian Flynn’s career as a novelist was three books in a short span for a literary novelist but an average one for a crime writer, many of whom produce a book a year. Her debut, Sharp Objects (2006), introduced her skewed version of the American Midwest and tense familial and social ties. Dark Places (2009) added her pitch-black humor to the story of a survivor of a family annihilation who makes her living off of selling lurid souvenirs of her past to creepy collectors and murder obsessives. Then, in 2012, after being laid off from her job as a TV critic at Entertainment Weekly and moving back to her beloved midwest, she published a third book called Gone Girl. 

The theme that runs through all three of Flynn’s novels, their film adaptations, and her persona, it is that of rebellion and refusal. Female rebellion exists all the way up and down the spectrum of intelligence, but this particular book and this particular writer are both very smart and stealthy rebels. There is a meta aspect to this too, in that Flynn writes a book about rebellion which sets up her own rebellion. And if Flynn’s abandonment of publishing—she has not published a book since Gone Girl—is an act of rebellion, that explains the backlash to Gone Girl and to her too. If the book can be shrugged off as merely popular, then all of the literary things that Flynn does are discounted. That’s patriarchy: Flynn and Girl challenge rules about female protagonists and female authors, and it’s palpable in the coverage of both the book and the 2014 film which Flynn was intimately involved in making. There’s also the backlash that comes from defying patriarchal norms. Flynn has mocked the sacrosanct male ego—oh, and a male writer’s ego is a gossamer thing—and has refused the stigma about writing dark, evil women. Gone Girl, finally, is meta: the book, which is about female rebellion, enabled Flynn to stage her own rebellion. This relationship between form and context—the meta aspect—also contributes to the literary quality of Gone Girl. At yet a higher level, I too am enacting a rebellion when I write this with the confidence that Flynn was not lucky, she was onto something.  

There is a real desire for Flynn to be less wholesome, less pretty, less midwestern, less smart, and less happy than she is. That she wrote Gone Girl as a newlywed is often remarked upon, as is the solid citizen—a midwestern lawyer—she married and has two children with.  I, too, was a newlywed when Gone Girl came out. I read it—I gulped it down, I loved its humor and its darkness and its knowingness about the New York media world—and I did think about my own nascent marriage. Is every marriage doomed as soon as the couple realizes they have fallen in love with different people than the ones they are now tied to eternally? Is marriage just a he said/she said waiting to happen?  

In profiles and essays previous to Gone Girl, Flynn asked where all of the good female villains had gone: the most explicit essay of this ilk, written to promote Sharp Objects, is called “I Was Not a Nice Little Girl.” She writes, “There are no good women in Sharp Objects. Camille, my narrator of whom I’m obsessively fond—she’s witty, self-aware, and buoyant—is the closest to good. And she uses booze, sex, and scissors to get through the day.” There is a lot of projection of Gillian onto Camille and Amy and back onto Gillian which parallels the generic confusion about Gone Girl (and her previous books retrospectively—could she have been literary all along?). Gone Girl has many Gothic elements, like the spooky uninhabited McMansions of their subdivision and the deserted malls around the town. Obviously, it has romance: at the center is Nick and Amy’s romance, marriage, and real life, but there is also Nick’s affair with Andie as well as Amy’s sexual hold on a former boyfriend. It’s a novel in a tradition we can trace back to, say, Pride and Prejudice engaged with the many ways the marriage plot can be subverted and perverted.

***

This is not the first time I am commenting on or correcting Gillian Flynn. After I escaped from graduate school, I worked at Entertainment Weekly at the same time she did, and we often worked in the Television section. I was her factchecker many times at the beginning of my writing career, responsible for correcting her proper nouns and questioning her adjectives and calling (yes, on the phone calling) flaks to confirm premiere dates and the spelling of names of minor characters. I weirdly loved factchecking at EW: it was long conversations about Beverly Hills 90210 and very late nights at the tacky and magical Siberia bar located in the 50th Street subway stop. The magazine closed on Tuesday night (by which I mean 3 AM Wednesday morning) and there was always a group who went out afterward. I don’t remember Flynn at any of those nights. She wasn’t friendly but wasn’t a mean girl either. She was self-possessed in a way I now suspect as overcompensation for insecurity, though she was confident about her work. She never blew a deadline or turned in an unworkable piece (you’d be surprised how the magazine sausage is made). Flynn was a good girl—a nice girl—in real life, which makes her books all the more artful.

Ultimately, Gone Girl is a text of feminist rebellion like Jane Eyre or Moll Flanders, a withering love story about a coddled and clever girl who won’t be bested by her anodyne disappointment of a husband. As I fact-checked Flynn and now write critically about her book and its brethren I feel I am in their tribe. Like Flynn and Amy, I am also a rebel. I’m bad at full-time jobs, bad at housework, bad at waiting, and bad at being told no. Flynn now has the power and the money to hear yes, and that, to me, is the real legacy of Gone Girl. A brilliant and popular book was the launching pad for a deeply talented writer who is now doing as she pleases. 

I wish that was a sentence I got to write more often.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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