This isn't a discussion on the plot. If you are interested in that, go read the Wikipedia, see the movie, read the damn book already, etc.
When I think of the novel, there are a few themes I keep coming back to that I want to explore here - various forms of role playing, our public personas, what love and marriage should be. And then there are some hodgepodge thoughts and film comparisons. I'm sure these thoughts have been assessed before in some article - the book hit peak popularity four years ago, after all. But I have a book club to prepare and a blog to fill. Book club people, please like me and let's have an interesting discussion.
Here we go!
I'm going to start off with something that really struck me with the book, that the film attempts but doesn't explore to the extent the original text does - the timing. You are firmly in the recent recession. There's the sudden but not surprising loss of Nick and Amy's jobs as free online content takes over real writers. Nick is especially poetic, espousing how New Yorkers used to be able to making a living as a writer, how there used to be real magazines. How he entered a career that wouldn't exist in eleven years. Coal miners - please get to the place Nick is before you destroy the planet, thanks! My favorite bit during Nick's various inner monologues - his imagery of the Internet, starting out as a pet on a leash in the publishing world. Feed it some kibble, it definitely won't destroy you in your sleep. Ha! But it's not just the job loss. There's also the house itself - Nick and Amy rent a McMansion in his home town, new new new (do I have to remove my soul to enter?) and never inhabited, surrounded by mostly empty houses, built during much sunnier and hopeful times. The big mall, once employing 4000 people, now sits empty and abandoned, nothing to be done about it. It reminds me of all the photo essays we've seen the past few years, empty malls and big box stores, slowly but steadily being taken over by nature, abandoned by the economy or the new Super Wal-Mart down the road. There's the homeless Blue Book Boys and the drug epidemic. All so timely! This is a book that will probably be around for awhile, read by teenagers and college women looking for a break from all that Jane Austen years from now. But the way Gillian Flynn paints the novel, it very clearly takes place in a specific date and time.
I enjoy the book, but one semi-serious quibble: stop shitting all over the Midwest. Flynn is from my old neighbor, Missouri, and spent some time in NYC before settling in Chicago. And I totally get it! Whenever I'm regularly disgusted by something the current administration does or the NRA or education numbers, I'm reminded, hey, that's where I came from! But also, it's not that bad. You need to chill on the hate, Flynn. Assholes and saints come from everywhere. I'm also a big proponent of the theory that the divide in the country isn't coast/flyover but rather rural/urban. All that being said, I noticed her flyover rancor much more this time and am preparing myself to defend my place of origin at the Book Club. Hey, the Midwest isn't so bad! Also, New England, please welcome me with open arms. For example, Amy bemoans the prevalence of Sam's Club and Costco (though she is pretty accurate - in Indiana, everyone had a membership to one and it did tend to split right along party lines). She can't find a single Midwesterner who likes New York City - either they've visited and decided it 'wasn't for them' or they've never been and are shocked someone is really from there. Hey! This Midwesterner loves NYC! I'm faux outraged. At one point, Rand goes out of his way to say how ugly Nick's home town is. Sure, big box stores and empty malls aren't pretty, but antique barns and covered bridges and miles and miles of corn are out there, Rand. At one point, Nick says he can't figure Amy out, can't untangle her with his clumsy, bumbling country fingers. This one I'll allow because it's more rural vs urban. And there's what the real 'holy shit, is this a different country' business lies. End my defense of the Midwest rant.
Okay one more semi-serious quibble - the timeline. It's tough to follow, to be honest. Even though every chapter is clearly marked 'xx days gone' or 'xxx days since the return.' And maybe this is intentional, like Nick and Amy are speeding trains colliding. But it was jarring and somewhat confusing. Nick's first few days following her disappearance take literally hundreds of pages, while in that same amount of space Amy's diary describes years. Then she's at the Ozarks only ten days and yet that gets way more coverage than her time at Desi's lake house - which was more than thirty days. And then at some point the Nick and Amy timeline's collide and suddenly the time period that once took us a hundred pages now takes us a couple of chapters. It's jarring and maybe that's the intention. But it was enough I took note and had to write out the numbers.
That's it with the hodgepodge, on to the meat of the thing. One question that keeps popping up: what's marriage for? Any relationship but especially a marriage. At the beginning of the diary entries, Amy talks about being single and enjoying it, even as Amazing Fucking Amy gets fucking married. She looks at all her friends who settled. But then there he is, the rest of her life and suddenly marriage doesn't seem so bad. The book seems to support this idea of maybe not soul mates, but at least people who are arranged just so, so that one person's barbs fits in the other person's holes. Settling doesn't work. It's the taunt that ultimately gets Nick to really stay with Amy, as he imagines life with some boring girl next door, how he'll become his angry dad, thinking - but did you murder for me? Could you do any of the things Amy did? Would you care enough? Be clever enough? Nick even admits at one point he prefers the idea of Andie - the real thing can fall short. And there are the dancing monkeys, a brilliant and scathing retort to those women who beg and implore and nag for their men to continually demonstrate their love. But then Amy, always, turns it into a competition. If he doesn't take out the trash, you lose! If he gets away with fucking the cunt, you lose! And what's the point of being together if you're not the happiest? A central question for Nick, as he chooses between Amy and Andie (did he ever really have a choice?): should your wife/lover/spouse enable you to be who you are or make you be better? Amy: should love come with conditions? Is unconditional love complete and total bullshit? Because Amy totally elevated Nick. She made him above average. In her own words - the bitch who makes him better. And isn't that the point? And boy does it work, as he strives to be the perfect husband. Because if he's anything less, she'll kill him. Or put him in jail. Or leave him and plot some grand plan that puts him in a room with his kid once a week with a state-appointed therapist and guardian. Because only Nick can really be the husband Amy thinks she deserves and vice versa. Their barbs and holes fit just perfectly. They make each other better and isn't that the point of the whole thing.
And then we get to the role playing aspect of the novel, as Amy writes her own version of the events in the novel's final chapters. Nick won't totally acquiesce into the perfect husband? He's still just going through the motions? That's cool, she's got a novel. She'll write the perfect version of Nick, will him into exist. Because what's the difference? Throughout the novel, there's a desire to have the perfect image, whether it's to the public in the novel or to the reader herself/himself. The public image is of serious concern in the book. I'm not sure who Nick is talking to, but when Andie is finally introduced, after several references to a mysterious disposable phone, he says: here is the part where you stop liking me and I become just another lying, cheating bastard, because I have a mistress. It's not just a reveal of this other potential motive, this other imperfection in Nick's life. It's a direct address to the reader and the reader's perception of Nick. Back in the public opinion of the Gone Girl world, Ellen Abbott is introduced, in her most Nancy-Grace-est. She's essential to Amy's plot because if it's not picked up by the national news, what's the point? She fakes a pregnancy not to help her case or punish Nick and her parents but because everyone loves a pregnant woman. Throughout the novel, Nick's constant need to put a good face on things gets him in trouble - lies about who wanted kids and who didn't, his 'don't punch me' smile at the wrong times. And then Amy makes her first real appearance and her hope is that the reader likes Diary Amy, because she was meant to be liked. 135 entries, all written to curry favor with the police, the public, the reader of the book. As Tanner gears up for trial, it's entirely based on the public's opinion of Nick, which isn't great. It's public opinion, based on sound bites and 24/7 news coverage. Nick focuses on Hugh Grant and his hooker, because that turned out so well. His interview is play tested to death, only for Sharon to show up with pins on her dress. Ugliness to make the front look prettier. Later, when she reunites with Desi, Amy only allows herself to cry for two minutes. Anything else and she starts to get ugly. Her moment of true emotion, minimized to paint the right picture. Later, Desi gives her a sweater and turns up the AC and turns on the fireplace, because his mental image of them is perennially in fall. When Nick tries to convince Amy to divorce him, he doesn't appeal to their relationship or lack of love but the story it offers - Amazing Amy, leaves cheating scumbag. Nick and Go don't move forward with their version of the truth because all of them - Tommy, Hilary, Nick - are all less credible than Amy. It's all about who will believe whom. Before Nick's book is squashed, he thinks about selling some fucking tshirts - Team Nick versus Team Amy, Amazing versus Psycho Bitch. The public's perception, the story they tell, that's what matters in the end, that's how Amy figures out who wins.
Meanwhile, in another public display discussion, following her grand return, Nick and Amy pretend to be two people in love. And what's the difference? Their inner turmoil or everyone's take on the couple? Nick, while in his head saying 'come home bitch so I can kill you' pretends to be exactly the husband Amy wants, the husband that gets her to kill Desi and return to him. She falls in love with the version of him that he presents, a reverse of Nick in Act One, as he falls in love with the Amy she creates in her letters to him (you are WITTY and WISE and BRILLIANT). Ultimately, everyone is playing a role. First, Amy pretends to be the wife Nick wants, making him swoon with just the right words. And then he returns the favor. They know each other so well and finally have the impetus to once again put in the effort. As Nick repeatedly says, we've already experienced it all via television or movies or Youtube. Loved one sick and dying? Grey's Anatomy will give you just the right response. Want to see Mount Rushmore? Don't bother. There's a video online that has better angles, lighting, and musical cues to get your emotions manipulated. Nothing is new. When Nick is first interrogated by the police, it seems like a TV show, down to how Gilpin sits. What's real and what's just copying what you saw last night on TBS? Everyone has a part to play, everyone is reading from the same script, nothing is new any more. Nick doesn't behave like the husband is supposed to so he's a suspect. So he scripts his interview with Sharon. Just trying to say the right things, in the right way. Amy herself is always playing a role. Desi's damsel in distress, down to hair color and weight. Nick's battered and put upon wife. And then there's Amy piece de reistance, her Cool Girl rant, which is cruelly undervalued in the film. She beautifully lays out the pathetic Cool Girl - pathetic in that men believe this woman exists and women are willing to be her, not for themselves but for men. And suddenly it all fits into place. Seriously, thanks for Cool Girl, Flynn. Maybe it existed before you, like Darfur references and dead hobo jokes, but thanks for bringing into our vernacular. We needed it.
The plot of the book is maybe perfect. Nick's innocence in the first part of the book is never guaranteed. I wish I could read the book without knowing the twists and turns. He has his dad's rage, at one point assuring the reader that he really can't handle tearful women and oh boy, could Amy confirm THAT. He's way too comfortable with the phrase "fuck you, Amy." He's angry and spending money after his layoff - that shit is bespoke. He turns her into a nag, which she really doesn't want to be (don't worry Diary Amy, we like you). She becomes a problem to him, something that needs to be taken care, that interferes. At least that's how the diary and occasionally Nick present her. Hey, it's all about public perception. There are several iterations of "Nick can't just divorce her." She gets old and loses her money. At one point, Nick is disappointed he didn't get 'dumb cops.' The reader has to ask - why hope for dumb cops? What are you trying to hide? There's the facts - the crime scene is funny, so much blood! But there's also just Nick acting like an idiot, not acting like an upset husband should. He rapes her and beats her and becomes a domestic abuser so easily, almost as easily as he became a cheater after a not so great round with Andie. Amy even tricks Go into thinking he did it! And in Nick's own words - lately she was enough to hurt, a razor-wire knot his bumbling country fingers couldn't handle. And if that's not enough to keep the reading turning the page to figure out what the hell is going on, who can really be trusted, Flynn continually puts the legitimacy of our narrators in question.
Throughout the first chunk of the book, before the big reveal, there are discrepancies between the diary and Nick and other hints at what's to come. Nick mentions Amy crying about pregnancy, which surprises him since she didn't want kids, pages after a diary entry stating the opposite. The New York bed bothers me - in the first chapter, Nick mentions lying in their New York bed. Later, Amy insists they leave it in New York for one of his friends. I can't imagine this is an accident - Flynn does this on purpose. Which is true? At one point in her diary, Amy explicitly mentions that Nick hates an Amy that doesn't exist. I have to imagine this is a scapegoat to the reader (of the book or her diary) to account for any discrepancies. Later, Nick mentions, in passing, taking care of his mom, only pages after Amy insisted he was too busy having fun and Amy did all the lifting for Mama Mo. When he visits Desi, he mentions his nicest suit costs a couple hundred bucks, a far cry from the bespoke designer duds Amy mentions in a New York entry. The first time through, these discrepancies might just confuse the reader or make Nick look guiltier (my heart to read this afresh) but going through this time, it just pings out as well-done writing, little clues all over the place, like Scorsese's visual winks in Shutter Island. Some other bits I loved - in the first or second chapter, Nick mentions Go stealing from the tip jar. Later, we learn this is one of the many sources of the cash that Amy has been stock piling. A lovely and telling detail - Amy really did know Nick. And his relationship with his sister. She eventually manipulates him through three simple letters, knowing just what to say to get him to abandon Andie. And he in turn knows just what to say to get her to literally murder a person to make her way back to him. When Nick visits Desi, he doesn't understand the suicide comments and questions to Rand's behavior, a hint at Amy's lies and duplicity. While gearing up towards the big reveal at the woodshed, Nick and Boney briefly discuss a runaway wife scenario. Which she quickly dismisses for a litany of reasons, all items Amy will discuss in a few pages as part of her big list.
And one more thought about the book: let's talk about Amy. Nick, sure, fine, whatever. But Amy! She's worthy of a goddamn book. We finally meet the real Amy after pages and chapters of bullshit Diary Amy. And she is totally right - the real Amy is so much more complex and interesting! She mentions the Hopes and it's a perfect encapsulation of Amy - also a throwback to a Nick comment - no he didn't know the story of her name. Everything is about winning and losing to Amy. No, really, everything. Getting Ellen Abbott's attention is a competition. She eventually shows the real Amy to Nick and is so pissed that he prefers the former (here is where we note the irony - she also fully prefers the Nick he was pretending to be for her). And that's when the hate starts. That is when she decides to be Dead Girl, because she's always in vogue, Cool Girl be damned. Or Gone Girl. And boy does she know Nick. At one point she makes a joke, that some criticism is derivative. And chimes in, mentally, Nick would say even to criticize as derivative is derivative. Which he did literally pages before. They might be a version of twisted soul mates. And Flynn quickly introduces us to the real Amy. When she's in the Ozarks, she's perturbed the cops aren't getting there sooner. The real Amy is always waiting on dumb people to catch up. Not getting Cokes for Stucks. Also super helpful: the Massachusetts truck driver story. She's Old Testament God vengeful. Later, she states that she and Nick will have a happy marriage, even if it kills HIM. She gets the last word of the novel, and, hey, she's earned it.
Side note: one thing that concerns me, in addition to the New York bed business, why did she tie her disposable cell phone to the security office? I could see wanting to know when Nick had made it that far. But was it worth it to create any tie to Amy Dunne and the phone? I'm thinking no.
Finally, let's talk about the movie. First, some caveats. I love David Fincher. The Leftovers and the latest round of Fargo have made me incapable of being critical of Carrie Coon. And I like the film! I really, really do. In 2014, I was home the weekend it debuted. Friday night, I drove with my cousins, aunts, moms, sisters, to see it in the nearby town, half an hour away. I did a family weekend. Then, Sunday, when I was back in my city, I saw it again. I, like, really liked the movie. That being said, here are my concerns. First and foremost, Ben Affleck is seriously miscast. Not that he isn't fine in the role. I'm generally meh on Affleck but he's really fine here. But the description in the book is so jarring. He's supposed to be younger than Amy and have an 80's villain, punchable face. And I'm not feeling it. There are a few changes - no Hannibal, fewer flashbacks. But other parts are word for word. Maybe the stuff Flynn, who wrote the screenplay, was really proud of? For me, besides Affleck, the two biggest changes are Amy's transition and Tanner Bolt. In the book, I feel like her transition from happy wife to sad wife to wife plotting serious revenge is more understood. You, as the reader, are more sympathetic (not that she's not totally crazy in both iterations) to her plight and understand better how she got to where she did. In the film, there seems to be more leaps, making her sympathetic and taking away some of her complexity and agency. In general the film focuses more on Nick than Amy. Guys, it's not Gone Guy. Finally, Tanner Bolt. I don't care how many times he's referred to as a white/orange guy, I'm going to imagine Tyler Perry. I don't particularly like Perry (and as a white woman, I don't think I'm his demographic) and yet there's something about his Tanner Bolt, I can never imagine another. Also, how Nick approaches Tanner and how Tanner comes on board are very different. There's no Hilary Handy, etc.
But hey, you are two fucked up people. And I specialize in fucked up people.