By Gillian Flynn
ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS
I know that everyone loves ‘Gone Girl’. I mean, I love ‘Gone Girl’. I read it, years ago, in one swallow: a beautiful summer afternoon spent inside, on the couch, unable to tear myself away. I have a lot of respect for it as a novel, the craft, the excellent execution of it.
But the other day I finally got around to watching the movie (which I also think was competent and gripping), and was reminded of something that tweaked me about the story, and, frankly, about the genre in general.
A little context, for the two people alive who haven’t read the book or seen the movie: On their five year wedding anniversary, Nick Dunne’s wife Amy vanishes from their home. The first half of ‘Gone Girl’ is a murder mystery, told both from Nick’s perspective in the days following her disappearance, and from excerpts of Amy’s diary during the years of their courtship and early marriage. As the days pass, more and more evidence emerges, all of which points to Nick having killed Amy. He has been having an affair. He has just taken out a large life insurance policy on her. Amy’s best friend comes forward and tells police that Amy feared that her husband would kill her.
It’s a masterpiece of unreliable narration, and Flynn manages to wind her readers through almost two hundred pages of Nick Dunne’s first person account without ever revealing whether or not he murdered his wife. I can’t really understate how impressed I am by her ability to do that. Two hundred pages of first person narration without revealing, in either direction, whether or not that person is a murderer? It’s a real high-wire act of suspenseful dubiety, and it’s completely successful.
However, after a deft, tense first half, Flynn abandons her well-constructed ambiguity and turns to that favorite device of genre fiction: the psychopath.
Amy is alive, of course. She has elaborately, painstakingly framed her husband for a murder that has not happened. And now she is free, living in disguise and watching her brilliant revenge play out from a safe distance.
The psychopathic genius is a tempting plot device. He is a human without humanity He is capable of any evil, smarter than his opponents, and conveniently unencumbered by normal emotional frailties. There aren’t any characterological weaknesses to limit him, and so he can enact any outlandish deviousness his author dreams up for him.
However, there are two big problems with the meticulous psychopath.
First, he is totally unrealistic. In real life, antisocial personalities are characterized not only by a lack of empathy, but also by impulsivity, recklessness, and unlawful behavior. Flynn’s psychopath, however, shares with her fictional brethren a distinct lack of impetuosity. The premise of ‘Gone Girl’ rests on the ability of a flamboyant sociopath to plan minutely and far in advance, to mask their thoughts and emotions and to forego any short-term satisfaction in order to execute an elaborate and excruciating revenge.
In real life, this is very un-psychopathic behavior. The diagnostic criteria of antisocial personality disorder include “failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors, as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest”, “consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations”, and “impulsivity and failure to plan ahead”. It is striking that these traits are not only absent in Flynn’s psychopath, they would severely limit, if not completely obviate, her ability to plan and carry out her scheme.
Second, the literary psychopath isn’t actually interesting. While he may have the immediate magnetism of a car wreck, he isn’t actually a character. He has no internal conflict; he is all plot.
Now, that can be OK. When plot is all that matters, he’s fine. That’s why he does such reliable work in cop dramas, soap operas, and beach reads. But he isn’t a person – he’s a tool that an author can use to advance action. And he’s very useful, obviously, but this utility has caused him to be badly overused in fiction. Once, he was shocking, novel, outre. Now, he’s everywhere, committing ever more elaborate crimes, devising ever more esoteric tortures for the rest of us. He’s become predictable.
Which is a shame, because the beauty of the first half of ‘Gone Girl’ was how difficult it was to predict. The tension Flynn manages to build in the first half of the novel is effective and affecting. The different early perspectives offered by Nick and Amy Dunne make the reader question not only the reality of their marriage, but also the ability of any two people to ever really know each other. The first, better, half of ‘Gone Girl’ is a completely different book: one about intimacy, about whether it is even possible. It offers a view of marriage that is not a shared life, but merely coincident delusions. It is a dark vision, and it is much more compelling than the Dances with Psychos that the book becomes.