Gone Girl: the Golden Age revisited?

SPOILER ALERT:
If you are one of the handful of people left on this planet who have neither seen the movie of Gone Girl nor read the, to my mind, somewhat better book by Gillian Flynn on which it is based and have also managed to avoid inadvertently happening on the big plot twist and wish to discover it for yourself in your own good time then stop reading this article right now, go away, get yourself a copy of the book, read it and then come back to read this.

It has been suggested that there are certain parallels between the fictional Amy’s disappearance in the novel and the real life disappearance and subsequent reappearance 11 days later of Agatha Christie in 1926. On these somewhat tenuous grounds it has been argued that Gone Girl might be considered as a homage to the Golden Age of Detective Fiction – updated for the 21st century sensibilities.

It is not the purpose of this article to consider the merits of this claim or to explore the parallels between fact and fiction on which the link might be founded. Instead it is to consider the plot of the novel to determine whether it succeeds or not on the basis of the criteria by which Golden Age novels’ plots are measured. Namely: do they hold water?

I was fortunate to read the novel early enough to be unspoiled by foreknowledge of The Big Twist. I read it with high expectations.  People had recommended it to me, knowing how much I like Golden Age fiction.  They told me it was superbly plotted with a brilliant twist. You’ll never guess it, they said.

They were right. I didn’t guess it.  And it is a brilliant twist. To have not one but two unreliable protagonist narrators with conflicting stories is a superb twist on Agatha Christie’s original stroke of genius.

So why am I unhappy? I think I had better say from the outset that I am not, like many male critics of the novel whose views I have come across, unhappy because of the ending. There is poetic justice in the two-timing jerk being forced to live unhappily ever after with a self-harming sociopath who is perfectly capable of trying to kill him at any point should he step out of line.

No, I am unhappy because the plot by which the straying husband Nick is trapped is full of holes. It’s a complaint that many of the people who dislike the ending have raised but I have yet to see a halfway decent exposition of the plot holes. Indeed most of the so-called plot holes pointed out relate to the movie version, which does stick pretty closely to the book’s storyline, but doesn’t, for reasons of time constraints, address in detail the underlying explanations for the apparent plot holes which are adequately covered in the book.

I’m not concerned with those so-called plot holes that aren’t plot holes at all for readers of the book but with the genuine plot holes: holes that Agatha would not have allowed to remain in one of her Golden Age plots let alone plot holes on which vital outcomes depend.

Why does this matter? It matters because the novel is touted as building an escalating series of plot twists to reach its inevitable surprise conclusion. Whereas, in fact, Flynn has tried to be too clever and overreached a twist, or two, too far. The editors and proof-readers should have spotted these flaws and resolved them, as they could have been resolved or removed, in order for the book to succeed on its own terms.

Let’s take them in turn. Remember: at all points Amy has to construct a plausible reason why something is as it is to fit first one storyline – her husband Nick has murdered her – and then a second storyline – she was abducted by Desi an obsessive ex-boyfriend.

First we encounter the faked violent abduction scene with the overturned sofa.

It is established fairly early on that at least some of the evidence of a violent abduction is faked.  The over-turned sofa proves difficult to overturn and, if overturned, this would not happen without consequential accidents to other precariously balanced items in the room that have remained upright and intact.

This fits the first storyline – that Nick has faked the violent abduction evidence to cover up his own murder of Amy.

But when Amy flips to the alternative storyline of a real abduction then this faked evidence of a violent abduction is inexplicable. If there is a real abduction why is there also faked evidence of an abduction. Discredited fake abduction evidence cannot support a story of a true abduction. This is never explained; it is simply glossed over and ignored.

It is worth noting at this point that ignoring, glossing over or moving swiftly on are all established writer’s tricks to get over awkward, inexplicable plot holes.  Think of it as misdirection, like a stage magician will direct your attention elsewhere while pulling off his sleight of hand.

By the way, some people have criticised the lack of a head wound on Amy after her return to account for the amount of blood on the violent abduction scene. This is a mistake – even a small scalp wound bleeds profusely but heals very quickly – I speak from experience having once cut my head on a corner of a bathroom cabinet creating a bloodbath scene that would have not been out of place in the original Psycho but which left only a small cut, once cleaned up, that healed in a couple of days.

Secondly – Amy’s cut and brown-dyed hair.

Amy chops her hair shorter (significantly shorter and quite crudely) and dyes it brown at the beginning of her disappearance. She also, with remarkable foresight keeps some long blonde hairs carefully preserved which she uses subsequently to plant as evidence of her abduction in the boot (trunk for our US readers) of Desi’s car.

Given she has no inkling at the time she chops her hair that this is the way events will turn out, just why did she save those blonde hairs? Quite simply, there is no reason. It’s a basic chronological error on the part of the author.

There is also the question of why Nick fails to notice that Amy’s hair on her return is dyed blonde rather than naturally blonde. Remember, this is a self-applied wash in hair dye not a top quality salon colouring. That makes Nick crucially unobservant of a critical fact on which the plot depends.

Why is the hair dye so important?

Because there is no reason why an obsessed ex-boyfriend who recreates rooms, colours and flowers based on his accurate memory of what the teenage object of his desire was like would dye her hair and cut it short in a way that is completely different from his memory of her.

So cropped, dyed hair is incompatible with Amy’s “abduction” story on her return. Just how long was she gone that her hair could regain its original length, more or less, and any evidence of brown dye have grown out. Not long enough.

So we are left with a crucially unobservant character who misses a vital clue that would solve his difficulties and give him his “get out of jail free” card despite being very acute in other areas. It is too convenient for the author’s purpose that he should be so.  Again this is not a plot device that a great Golden Age writer would expect to get away with.  And again it is glossed over very quickly in the text.

Moving swiftly on.

Thirdly, why does Amy let two dumb strangers, who almost ruin her perfect plot, get away without any attempt at revenge.

Amy has accused a guy who ended a brief relationship with raping her.  She has gone to the police with that accusation and faked evidence of physical abuse, only stopping just short at the last moment from seeing it through to prosecution. In so doing she more or less ruined his life.

Amy has duped a schoolfriend who did better than her in class into behaving in ways that resulted in the friend being labelled a stalker and having to move away. Again, Amy without compunction, and for relatively slight reason, more or less ruined the friend’s life.

Amy is currently engaged in framing her husband for her murder because he cheated on her.

She does not strike me as the sort of person who just lets things go when other people do her wrong (as she sees it). Yet she lets two people rob her and thereby ruin her plan to disappear without a reaction. She just runs away and puts it behind her.

Of course she is the meticulous planner type and her careful calculations are thrown off course. So immediate revenge is out of the question.

But just letting it go? Even slight insults have been avenged out of all proportion in the past. Why not this major interference in a cherished plan?

You could argue that her previous revenge motives have been directed at social equals for relationship and interpersonal reasons whereas this pair are socially not Amy’s class and their actions are practical – theft – rather than emotional sleights.

If this is the reason, and I do find it implausible that she would behave in this way, then the author should at least have explained it, perhaps with some internal monologue. Otherwise it is a psychological loose end and that is downright careless if you’re writing a novel that’s supposed to be strong on the psychology as this is.

Or, of course, it could be a plot hole that the author wants to gloss over.

Fourthly, lets now consider Amy’s relationship with Desi.

Ultimately it is necessary from the author’s perspective that Desi should be an obsessive ex-boyfriend type. The sort of obsessive ex-boyfriend with loads of cash who will build a mansion to the memory of his childhood “sweetheart” – painting rooms her favourite colour, stocking it with her favourite flowers.  He will also build the mansion with impregnable security so that should the object of his desire ever call on him out of the blue then he can move her into the mansion and keep her prisoner there. With no prior warning or preparation time.

Now that strikes me as the actions of a deeply disturbed multi-millionaire.

He sounds the sort of person to whom a quick jaunt across a part of the USA – not coast to coast, remember, but reasonable driving distance by US standards – to abduct the object of his desires would come quite easily.

Which, of course, fits Amy’s abduction story on her return.

Except he didn’t. He builds the beautiful gilded cage but never does anything with it, other than maintain it in good condition. Until one day, quite by chance, the very bird he built it for decides to fly into it. Then, without a moment’s hestation, he acts. And does so decisively and effectively, trapping Amy.

If he’s that obsessive, why did he stop short of acting out the obsession and carrying out the abduction?

And if he’s not that obsessive, why did he build the mansion to her memory with the impregnable security?

Which is he?

But maybe she’s been stringing him along? The love letters he sends that Amy keeps as evidence of his obsession to use should the ever be needed (wow, more planning ahead for contingencies that are wildly unlikely) are perhaps only one side of a correspondence.  But then where are her replies? Did he keep them at the mansion – in which case Amy could have found them and destroyed them? If not, then where are they? She can’t really risk there being tangible evidence.  So letters and emails are out as a means of keeping him hanging on. So could it be phone calls? Possible, but there there are the pesky phone company records.  It really needs to be addressed in the text how Amy pulls this off and by what means. Having it as an unanswered question is sloppy plotting on the part of the writer if this is what is intended to be the backstory.

It does seem pretty implausible though. Among all the people Amy has lied about to mess up their lives it turns out that there was one person about whom she told the truth to mess up his life.

So in a novel with two unreliable narrators we now depend for the plot to work on a sociopath turning for help in her hour of need to someone who is an even loopier psychopath, knowing he is obsessed with her, because she has no other option. And when it all goes horribly wrong on her, our sociopath murders the psychopath and frames him for everything.

Desi’s fall guy fate is all a bit too Deus ex machina for me. A Golden Age writer on the top of her game would never hope to get away with such a ridiculous ruse.

Which brings us, fifthly, to the deep frozen vomit.

If you’ll forgive the pun, but this really involves some sloppy thinking on the part of the author.

The vomit is significant because Amy, in yet another example of her capacity for self-abuse, swallows the poison. She has carefully researched it using Nick’s computer, creating the damning audit trail. She has also made entries in her fake diary describing the symptoms she experienced.

But the fake diary at this point is describing her “happy” version of events. She describes the symptoms because at this point in the fake diary she has not yet started to “suspect” Nick or be “scared” of him.

But if she is happy and not suspecting Nick of trying to kill her, why did she freeze a sample of the vomit. Preserving a sample of the vomit is the action of a person who suspects she may be being poisoned, which is inconsistent with how she is describing herself in the diary entries.

Amy uses the existence of the vomit sample, hidden from Nick, to persuade him that she can revert back to her “Nick has been trying to kill me all along” story and back it up with evidence.

But this logic doesn’t hold up.

If the diary is real in Amy’s version of events then she was happy and unsuspecting at the time Nick tried to poison her.  Therefore she has no reason to deep freeze the vomit.

If she did suspect she was being poisoned and deep froze the vomit as evidence, then why does her secret diary, discovered by the police after the event, not mention those fears at this point or the fact that she has frozen vomit evidence. From which, the existence of frozen vomit is in fact proof positive that the diary is a fake concocted by Amy.

So what Amy holds as evidence to keep Nick under her control actually proves she is lying in the diary if that evidence were to be produced. In short, far from being her means of control over Nick it is his get out of jail card.

In fact the author has Nick destroy the vomit sample when he does find it in a classic case of the author misdirecting herself.  If the author had got the logic right then a) there never would have been any frozen vomit in the first place for Amy to use as she did or b) the author would have pointed out that by destroying it, Nick had wrecked the one piece of hard – frozen hard – evidence available to him at that point that Amy’s story was a pack of lies.

The fact the author does neither means that it hasn’t been thought through properly. Another unforgivable Golden Age faux pas.

So we come, sixthly, to whether Amy could in fact change her story again.

Amy’s hold over NIck in the end is basically – if you don’t do what I say then I can go back to my original story again at any time and claim you really did try to kill me.

How credible would that be? She would now be claiming that she, this poor wife, was abducted by an obsessive ex-boyfriend fortuitously just in time to prevent her being murdered by her husband.

Except that having killed the said obsessive boyfriend to escape him she then went straight back to the now supposedly murderous husband rather than staying well away.

Not very convincing, I think.

Which just leaves us, seventhly and lastly, with Amy’s pregnancy hold over Nick.

I will set aside the objections put forward by some critics that men don’t care as much about their babies and would be willing to walk away, which could be countered by the argument that this is by no means universally true and is even less likely to be the case where the man is aware of the true sociopathic nature of the woman he is contemplating leaving with the care of the baby. (To mix in another piece of fiction at this point as is permitted in Golden Age detective fiction – has Nick never seen Glenn Close’s bunny-boiler character in Fatal Attraction?)

Nick, very sensibly, doesn’t have sex with Amy immediately on her return. Well she’d been trying to frame him for murder and get him executed so that is kind of understandable however high his sex-drive.

So why cave in and create the ultimate hostage to fortune by indulging in acts that Nick knows Amy is using to get pregnant and gain a permanent hold over him? Why not continue to prevaricate – it would be understandable under the circumstances – and get a vasectomy with the time bought thereby? It certainly avoids the risk and it’s reversible later. His doctor would no doubt be able to give him a good indication of the probable fall in his sperm count over the future weeks and months.

Remember also that the sperm bank was a red herring – Amy wasn’t really pregnant through using Nick’s frozen sperm – that was her story and Nick would be aware that a proportion of pregnancies end in miscarriage so why not wait and see.

Even allowing for Amy getting pregnant, what’s to stop Nick going along with it and then doing a disappearing act of his own with the baby once it is born. Or try to demonstrate that Amy  is mentally unfit to look after the child after it is born.

Of course to an American author it might be  that simply running away with the baby, leaving the USA and setting up home in a country with no extradition treaty with the USA is inconceivable. But the alternative for Nick is living with a murderous sociopath who is using the baby as a means to have him do anything she wants.  That’s a pretty desperate choice.

I would want my author to do a better job of ensuring that Nick can’t exercise any of these options.

Which brings me to my conclusion.

I was led to expect a carefully plotted, nay watertight, storyline with a fantastic twist.

Unlike those who were unhappy with the ending and sought to find ways for Nick to wriggle out of it, I am definitely with Gillian Flynn who says that she couldn’t conceive of any other (better) ending. I don’t want Amy to be found out. I want her to get away with it, dreadful though she is. I want her careful planning to come off…almost. And I want Nick to be stuck with Amy. I don’t want him to kill her.  I don’t want anyone else to do it for him.

I want the novel to have the ending that it does. But I want the flaws in the plot addressed. I want a story that stands comparison with the best of Agatha’s Golden Age plots. I don’t want to feel short-changed. I want Gone Girl in a revised, plot hole free, edition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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4 responses to “Gone Girl: the Golden Age revisited?

  1. Mark, you flatter this novel with a superbly thorough, perceptive, and in-depth analyisis which it does not deserve; it is at best a controversy-seeking attempt to gain itself some notoriety, and at worst just a recycled load of nonsense that makes absolutely no sense and is constructed purely on the basis — as you capture so perfectly here — of whatever the next sudden surprise can be.

    When you say The editors and proof-readers should have spotted these flaws and resolved them, as they could have been resolved or removed, in order for the book to succeed on its own terms, you’ve already given more thought to this than anyone involved in its production. The whole enterprise is a complete mess, with more loose ends than The Floating Admiral and lacking an author of Anthony Berkeley’s talent to tie it all into anything approaching a consistent shape.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a brilliant deconstruction, Mark. I predict that the novel doesn’t stand a chance at success . . .

    Seriously though, it does point out the sad state of the editing business today, since I do not wish to denigrate the hard work I’m sure Ms. Flynn put into this and her other novels. I happened to read it at the same time as my mother, and we both jumped at the mid-point surprise. And then it all went downhill for me until the ending (which I agree with you is the second best thing about the book.) I think about Christie’s hard work laying the foundation for Roger Ackroyd. It seems that this sort of care is no longer required of mystery/suspense authors.

    Like

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