Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

gone girlThere’s this tremendous moment halfway through Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl when the beleaguered but rather suspicious husband Nick opens the door to a creepy woodshed and begins yammering “Nonononono” in overwhelming panic and I thought hell yes, this is when the book is going to go from good to great, from kinda creepy to full-blown twisted, from Agatha Christie in the parlor to David Lynch cutting off the swaddling to reveal god knows what — bodies hanging from meat hooks? a perfect replica of a covered-up crime scene? Nick’s Rosebud? clones?!?!

But no.

Let me back up. The first half of Gone Girl is, basically, perfect. You get two competing and alternating first-person narratives, one from Nick and the other from his wife Amy. Amy disappears mysteriously (her POV is from the time leading up to her disappearance, Nick’s is from after), and suspicion begins to circle around Nick, who is completely baffled. And as the competing accounts build Flynn very effectively drops all sorts of hints that something is wrong. Not just a little wrong, but deeply, darkly, disturbingly wrong — and it all comes to a head when Nick sees what’s waiting for him in that woodshed.

The second half of Gone Girl gives all the answers. And I’m sure some people will be satisfied by them — and god knows it’s all readable enough to keep you up until 5 a.m. — but I was disappointed.

Look, I don’t really expect every book with a mystery to reach into science fiction to pull out a hand-wavey answer. But I use the bizarre excesses of scifi as exemplars of the kind of crazy thinking that’s really appropriate here. A writer can’t wind the reader up so tightly (as Flynn does so well during Gone Girl‘s first half) and then explain it all away with something mundane. But that’s what Flynn does here — and though it’s not predictable as such, the “answer” falls well within the range of things that this genre has already seen.

It’s really hard to talk about this without spoilers. So let me say a few things, in a spoilerish way, about my objections to where this book ends up.

(Perhaps I should emphasize: alert for vague spoilers.)

First: Gone Girl talks a lot about gender — a lot — in ways that demean both men and women in the beginning (battle of the sexes and all) but end up just being bad for women. I mean, the plot literally turns on the equivalent of false rape accusations and the purported female hysteria associated with this outrageously exaggerated danger. On the flip side, male transgressions — infidelity, emotional abandonment, etc. — are waved away with the equivalent of “But those bitches are crazy!” Ugh.

Second: There is a second, late twist in this book that basically requires a complete reversal from the first twist. But I just didn’t understand how the relevant person could “sell” the second twist to the world given what was done to make the first twist work. I mean, there are financial records, paper trails, and other physical evidence all done to make the first twist work — and somehow all of that stuff is waved away when the relevant person turns on a dime?

Third: The ending is kind of grotesque. You know how the advice for abused women is just to walk away? Yeah. Apparently the characters in this book think it’s better to just hug it out. That’s weird and twisted, sure, but for all the wrong reasons.



The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes

shining girlsLauren Beukes’s The Shining Girls is about a time-traveling serial killer who snuffs out promising young women by brutally murdering them, and the lone surviving victim who becomes obsessed with finding him. But as cool as that concept sounds the book doesn’t really follow through on any aspect of it.

Take the time travel. It happens through a bit of hand-waving — there is a House that allows its occupant (in this case the serial killer) to step out at any point in a several-decade span of time. I’m ok with the fact that Beukes never explains how or why the House does this. But I’m not ok with how little she explores the time-traveling aspect of this story. Sure, there are some funny little loops that pop up (like the serial killer discovering a dead body “before” he’s killed the person) but for the most part the House serves the purely functional purpose of delivering the killer to his next victim. It might as well have been the subway, or underground tunnels, or a discreet chauffeur. There are no Primer-style paradoxes, or Back to the Future-style callbacks, or even the glimmer of a Big Idea from any of the people who discover the House and really should be knocked on their asses by the thought of what they could do with a time travel device. Beukes is so uninterested in the really interesting ramifications of time travel that it’s not clear to me why time travel had to be part of this book at all.

Next, the “shining” girls. Why does the serial killer (his name is Harper BTW) target them? Never explained. Are they actually girls with a bright future? That’s my guess — but who knows. (One of them is a stripper who literally glows from irradiated paint, which doesn’t strike me as a resume item for a Leader of Tomorrow.) It occurs to me that the shining girls are probably just a random collection of picaresques. And although Beukes admittedly does a good job in the few chapters told from the disparate victims’ POVs, if they’re just any old collection of people that makes both Harper’s obsession and the book’s point seem very small potatoes indeed.

Finally, the lone surviving victim, a young woman named Kirby. Her miraculous survival is told in one of the book’s most harrowing and effective chapters but outside of that she’s kind of useless. I’m dancing carefully around spoilers here but suffice to say that (1) she never really figures anything out from 95 percent of her “investigation,” (2) the solution, quite literally, comes to her rather than vice versa, and (3) she resolves nothing really — the cycle of deaths will continue, if I’m reading the ending right. If Kirby had just sat on her butt instead of engaging in lame repartee with a much older reporter who has the hots for her twenty-three-year-old self (a gross sidestory to this book), the result would not have been that different.

So all the really nifty parts of this book — the time travel, the victim class, the protagonist — don’t amount to much. But I didn’t hate The Shining Girls. It was very good in spots and easy enough to read one subway ride at a time. It just never felt as awesome or fresh or surprising as its premise promised.