Sunday 18 January 2015

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

It's difficult to express the depth of my admiration for Gone Girl. I've already written about the film. Now it's time to concentrate on where it all started, the novel by Gillian Flynn. ("Gillian" is pronounced with a hard "G" — I just thought you should know.)

This novel is dark — it explores some very twisted realms of psychology, like a magnificent modern take on a classic James M. Cain noir (think of the end of Double Indemnity — the book I mean, not the movie; they're radically different). 

Gone Girl is a fantastically engrossing book. Even more than James Cain, it reminds me of John D. MacDonald, like a vintage Travis McGee tale where the hero begins to unravel the chilling background of the implacable psychopath — the cumulative creation of a most memorable monster.

Quite apart from being superbly plotted, it is also beautifully written. It's full of sharp observation: "Sleep is like a cat: It only comes if you ignore it." And vivid evocation: "The canned heat of a closed house in July shimmered over me." Or: "A jet shot over the house, that awful sky-rip noise."

And then there's the way Flynn nails people. Like the white trash couple who are "meth-weathered." And the bawdy girl who is brought to life thus: "She laughed a pirate-wench laugh." Or consider this unfortunate: "She already has the righteous, eye rolling cadence of a conspiracy crackpot. She might as well wrap her head in foil." (As you can see, Flynn is also often very funny.)

As you may know, the book is as much about media scrutiny — the feeding frenzy of the press — as it is about a murder. And this brings out some of Flynn's finest moments. Here she is describing what it feels like to be under siege by the press: "The seagull cries of a few female news anchors" ... "Once the shades were pulled, it was like covering a canary for the night. The noise out front stopped."

Not since the masterworks of Thomas Harris have I come across a novel which is both so brilliantly conceived and beautifully written. "I could feel my brain expand and deflate simultaneously — my own cerebral Hitchcock zoom." (Gillian Flynn is here referring to a dolly zoom — those unforgettable moments when they zoom in and pull back the camera simultaneously. You know exactly what she means.)

And it is a very acute piece of writing psychologically — "now that she was gone I could enjoy the idea of her." Particularly on the subject of marriage, where the book throws up some deeply unsettling observations: "Our kind of love can go into remission."

It's amazing the grip Gone Girl has on the reader. I was furious, outraged, sick with dread, even though I knew what was going to happen (as a result of seeing the movie). It's almost unbearable to read as Nick gets in deeper and deeper...

Now having both seen the movie and read the book I am tremendously impressed at how they adapted it into a film. Because although all the essentials are the same, there are also huge differences. If you want a masterclass in turning a novel into a motion picture, then study this. (On the other hand, if you want to see how to turn a novel into a TV show, check out The Slap.) 

It's positively breathtaking, what Gillian Flynn and David Fincher have achieved; the diligence with which they boiled down, re-structured and re-emphasised the book is deeply impressive. They have also set about a ruthless winnowing of the book's secondary characters.

My single complaint (I have to have one): Abbreviating a character's name from the proper noun "Margo" to the presumed verb "Go" is as confusing on the page as it was on the screen. Budding authors beware.

(Image credits: All these covers are from Good Reads, including the Czech edition. I love the Czechs — they've just bought my novel.)

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