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My So-Called Wife

Jul 11, 2012

This is supposed to be a review of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, but the truth is, I don't have the foggiest idea how to review this book. It's not what it appears to be, but to be too specific about what it really is would spoil the fun. What to do?

I'll start by reviewing the book it seems to be, at least at first, which is a mystery. Our hero is Nick Dunne, a writer who lost his job in New York City when the magazine he worked for went under. He retreated to North Carthage, the small town in Missouri where he grew up, dragging his wife Amy--also a magazine writer, also recently unemployed--with him. Nick is a smart, good-looking guy, with a touch of the golden boy about him, but when he moves to Missouri he begins gradually lowering his expectations. He buys a bar with his twin sister Margo. He gets a job teaching writing at the local junior college. He allows his professional prospects to quietly and gracefully deflate.

Amy doesn't. Amy is a type-A personality, a Harvard grad with definite ideas about Nick's career and her own. "My wife had a brilliant, popping brain, a greedy curiosity," Nick tells us. "Her obsessions tend to be fueled by competition: She needed to dazzle men and jealous-ify women." (Flynn--and by extension her characters--has a weakness for the quirky neologism.) Amy doesn't fit in in North Carthage, and with no job and no social life to speak of, she's left alone at home to spin her wheels. They spin fast.

Until all of a sudden she's not at home anymore. On their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick gets a call at the bar from a neighbor: his front door is standing open in the middle of the afternoon. Flynn sketches the crime scene inside: "The carpet glinted with shards of glass, the coffee table shattered. End tables were on their sides, books slid across the floor like a card trick. Even the heavy antique ottoman was belly-up, its four tiny feet in the air like something dead." The police show up. And Nick begins to lie.

Not that Nick killed his wife. He's just a compulsive liar, one of those people whose deepest instinct isn't to tell the truth; it's to tell people what he thinks they want to hear, except that he usually guesses wrong. "You'd literally lie, cheat and steal--hell, kill--to convince people you are a good guy," Nick's twin tells him. When the police start unraveling his inventions, he starts to look like a bad guy. He looks worse when Amy's diary surfaces, detailing the deterioration of their marriage and Nick's increasingly erratic behavior.

But that doesn't quite square with what we've seen of Nick. One of these narrators has to be unreliable. Maybe both are. It becomes apparent in a series of stunning reveals and whiplash reversals that these characters, like the book they're in, aren't what we thought they were. Gone Girl is a story about men and women who live double lives not because they're secret agents or jewel thieves but because as human beings they're incapable of being who they appear to be. Their whole personalities are crime scenes where evidence of their true selves has been hastily concealed--except that nothing stays hidden forever. "Can you imagine," Amy asks, "finally showing your true self to your spouse, your soul mate, and having him not like you?"

Gone Girl is a hall of mirrors where everything is an empty reflection, including the people who live there. That makes it sound like a postmodern exercise in the deconstruction of subjectivity or something like that, which it isn't. Its content may be postmodern, but it takes the form of a thoroughbred thriller about the nature of identity and the terrible secrets that can survive and thrive in even the most intimate relationships. Gone Girl begins as a whodunit, but by the end it will have you wondering whether there's any such thing as a who at all.

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