Nasty Girls – A Review of Gillian Flynn’s fiction

Gone Girl. Gillian Flynn. 2012. Crown Publishers, New York, pp.432. $25 hardback, £7.99, $14 paperback.

Dark Places, Gillian Flynn. 2009. Crown Publishers, New York, pp.368. $25 hardback, £7.99, $14 paperback.

Sharp Objects, Gillian Flynn. 2006. Crown Publishers, New York, pp.272.  $25 hardback, £7.99, $14 paperback.

Review by Rosie White, Northumbria University

Gillian Flynn’s fiction is a popular phenomenon.  Her third novel, Gone Girl (2012) has sold more than two million copies worldwide and she is currently writing the screenplay for the film version.  Her second novel, Dark Places, has already been made into a film starring Charlize Theron as the survivor of a multiple murder.[i]  Flynn’s work on dysfunctional relationships in the American Midwest has received criticism for its alleged misogyny.  In a Guardian interview the author defends her depiction of a manipulative female character in Gone Girl, arguing that to see feminist fiction as only portraying positive images of women ‘puts a very small window on what feminism is …  Is it really only girl power, and you-go-girl, and empower yourself, and be the best you can be?  For me it’s also the ability to have women who are bad characters…’[ii]  Certainly Flynn’s protagonists are not unequivocal role models. 

In Gillian Flynn’s first novel, Sharp Objects (2006), Camille Preaker is a reporter on the Chicago Daily Post sent back to her home town to do a story on the murders of two young women.  Strained relations with her privileged and dysfunctional family are embodied through Camille’s self-harm.  An early fetish for compulsive writing turns into cutting words on her own skin after the death of her sister.  Narrating in the clipped tones of first person hardboiled detective fiction, Camille is covered with words that flare up at critical moments as the novel proceeds:  ‘I am a cutter, you see.  Also a snipper, a slicer, a jabber.  I am a very special case.  I have a purpose.  My skin, you see, screams.  It’s covered with words – cook, cupcake, kitty, curls – as if a knife-wielding first-grader learned to write on my flesh’.  While this first novel is sometimes clunky in its plotting and characterization it demonstrates Flynn’s literary ambition.  This flawed protagonist whose problems are literally written on her body flags up a fascination with intertextuality and metafiction which returns most fully in Gone Girl.

Dark Places (2009), Flynn’s second novel, is a study of how the past and present inform each other. The narrative shifting between different narrators telling the story of events leading up to the murder of three members of the Day family, and the attempt by Libby Day, the only surviving daughter, to find out what happened decades later.  The novel plays with its reader, as we follow Libby through a ‘truth or dare’ process in which she is the reluctant detective.  Initially, at least, Libby is not on a mission to find the truth about the awful events that have robbed her of her family; she takes on the role of investigator as a means of making enough money to get by.  Like Camille, Libby is not heroic; she is (perhaps understandably) wary of other people, drinking heavily and avoiding gainful employment as she lives on the proceeds of charitable donations, until her money runs out and she finds a new income by selling her story to a group of fanatical misfits obsessed with the Day killings.  The novel maps an America breaking under the impact of financial crisis.  This is the small-town Midwest, riddled with poverty, rumour, and urban myths about Satanism and paedophilia.  Dark Places is fully aware of its generic heritage in detective fiction and true crime narratives, evincing a stripped-down, hollowed-out vision of rural America familiar from Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966) and the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men (2007).  Unlike these examples, however, Flynn’s focus is firmly on the female protagonists and the effects of financial crises on women in small-town America.  The depiction of Patty Day, Libby’s mother, in the weeks before her death reveals a woman pushed beyond human endurance by poverty, isolation and desperation.  She is marooned on a failing farm with mounting debts and not enough money to pay the rent or feed her children: ‘They ate soup all through the winter, Patty keeping giant vats of it in the freezer-locker in the garage.  They usually ran out right around the end of February.  February was the worst month.’  As with Sharp Objects, the revelations about who killed whom and why had the power to genuinely surprise this reader.

In Gone Girl, Flynn moves away from detective fiction into much more muddy territory.  This is the novel which has attracted accusations of misogyny for its depiction of a woman who is psychotic in her compulsion to manipulate those around her, including the reader.  Some of the anger about Flynn’s book may be fuelled by the games it plays with narration.  For a popular novel it is remarkably tricksy, playing on generic styles of fiction as well as complex plotting.  It is a page-turner in the best sense; while one may question the morality of Flynn’s protagonists, one cannot question the novel’s ability to hold the reader to the last.  The story follows the disappearance of Amy Elliott (the ‘gone girl’ of the title) and the subsequent media frenzy surrounding Dan Elliott, her husband, who is suspected of her murder.  Both Dan and Amy give their version of events and neither is a trustworthy narrator; they are self-absorbed, arrogant and economical with the truth.  Most of all, they are both writers.  Amy writes quizzes for the popular press while Dan lists ideas for various novels on his computer and teaches literary journalism at a local college.  As in Dark Places the financial downturn is central to the plot; the Elliotts have until recently led a privileged life in New York, largely funded by the proceeds of a series of children’s books about ‘Amazing Amy’, written by Amy’s parents and featuring a fictionalized version of her childhood.  As the novel opens Dan has been sacked from his job with a New York literary magazine and Amy’s parents have gone broke, forcing the Elliotts to return to Dan’s home town, North Carthage, Missouri.  The classical name is ironic, as Amy hates this retreat to the provinces, scorning the small town and its small communities.  The stage is set for a tragic denoument but the novel and its protagonists continually confound this expectation. This is tragedy on a smaller scale, fuelled by thwarted ambition and narcissism.   Some of the most resonant passages describe a deserted shopping centre.

The Riverway Mall sits at the centre of North Carthage’s economy for a quarter of a century.  Built in the boom time of the 1980s it employed a fifth of the local population.  Nick remembers the family trip to see the official opening ceremony:

… we got to take in the full scope of the Event: the impatient crowd, leaning collectively from one foot to another; the mayor atop a red-white-and-blue dias; the booming words – pride, growth, prosperity, success – rolling over us, soldiers on the battlefield of consumerism, armed with vinyl-covered checkbooks and quilted handbags.  And the doors opening.  And the rush into the air-conditioning, the Musak, the smiling salespeople who were our neighbors. 

Nick’s mother has a job at the Mall until it goes bust, like other local industry, overtaken by bigger, slicker, more assiduously computerized dreams of the future.  Flynn offers an evocative account of an America not just falling off the economic merry-go-round but also losing its capacity to imagine itself as a world power.  This is an American landscape that has been outsourced and downsized.

As the search for Amy continues Nick is convinced by a group of locals to join them on a late-night trip to the deserted mall, now occupied by homeless people and drug dealers.  The Riverway Mall has become a repository of American nightmares rather than the American dream:

I’d expected the mall smell as we entered: that temperature-controlled hollowness.  Instead, I smelled old grass and dirt, the scent of the outdoors inside, where it had no place being.  The building was heavy-hot, almost fuzzy, like the inside of a mattress.  Three of us had giant camping flashlights, the glow illuminating jarring images:  It was suburbia, post-comet, post-zombie, post-humanity.  A set of muddy shopping-cart tracks looped crazily along the white flooring.  A raccoon chewed on a dog treat in the entry to a women’s bathroom, his eyes flashing like dimes.

It is not surprising that the novels are informed as much by popular film and television as by their literary antecedents; Flynn worked as a journalist on Entertainment Weekly.  Like Nick she wrote about popular culture for a Manhattan-based periodical, and like him she was laid off as part of belt-tightening in the culture industries.  Unlike Nick Elliott, however, Flynn had just published her second novel and the redundancy in 2009 appears to have added to the strength of her third novel, a massive popular hit.   Gillian Flynn’s background in the entertainment industry – she interviewed film directors and actors – informs some of the most acute aspects of Gone Girl, where Nick has to deal with the media and fails to convince in the role of grieving husband.  Flynn herself is adept at handling marketing and press.  In the postscript to Gone Girl she is asked about the ‘Cool Girl’ figure that Amy Elliott describes, women who pretend to be whatever a man wants:

To pretend to be today’s ‘Cool Girl’ is just as restrictive and confining as it was for women back in the 1950s who were forced into the ‘Happy Homemaker’ role.  It’s sad, though, since today we actually have the choice to be who we are – and we’re still not making that choice.  We’re still too often moulding ourselves into what we believe will be pleasing to men.

This is a pre-emptive response to the accusations of misogyny – many of which focus on a fake rape story in Gone Girl.  Yet after a novel which is so carefully constructed, so playful in its deployment of character and narrative, how can one be convinced by the voice of the author?  In a strange way Flynn is (no doubt self-consciously) enacting Barthes’ ‘death of the author’ by presenting her readers with a novel that repeatedly asks you to question all that you know.  As unreliable narrator is layered over unreliable narrative, Gone Girl peels back readers’ belief in any truth.  Is this postfeminist fiction or simply fiction which refuses to take any political truths as read?


[i] Oliver Burkeman, ‘Gillian Flynn on her bestseller Gone Girl and accusations of misogyny’, The Guardian, 1st May 2013, available online at: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/may/01/gillian-flynn-bestseller-gone-girl-misogyny (accessed 1st September 2013).

[ii] Ibid.

 

 

Rosie White is Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Literature, Theory and Popular Culture at Northumbria University, UK.  Her research interests include the novels of Michele Roberts, violent women in popular fiction, film and television, and representations of women spies in popular culture.  Her book, Violent Femmes: Women as Spies in Popular Culture was published by Routledge in 2008 and she is currently developing a monograph on women and television comedy for IB Tauris. 

 

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