Anatomy Of A Best Seller: Four Reasons "Gone Girl" is Such A Literary Juggernaut
Since its release over a year ago, I've heard nothing but good things about Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn's novel about a marriage turned toxic and the implications of such toxicity as felt by the husband after the wife disappears. According to the New York Times ArtsBeat blog, the book spent eight weeks at number one on that publication's best seller list, as well as 67 weeks on the NPR Hardcover Fiction Bestseller list. In 2012, it won the GoodReads Choice Award for Best Mystery & Thriller, beating out the likes of Tana French, Harlan Coben and Lee Child. Gone Girl made Salon's top ten What To Read list, as well as The Huffington Post's Top 25 of the year, both Amazon's Editor Picks and Customer Favorite lists, Slate Magazine's Top Ten, and many more that I won't get into here. You get the idea.
I finally got around to reading the book last month, and I have to say, I'm with the masses. It's smart, engrossing, deeply funny (in a few places), and impossible not to analyze. Overall, this is a fantastic read.
But why is it so popular? Don't get me wrong, I'm not disparaging it at all. Like I said, it's great. But there were plenty of critically-acclaimed books released in 2012 that don’t hold a candle to Gone Girl’s success. To name just one, I don’t encounter nearly as many people talking up Bringing Up The Bodies, Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel that appeared alongside Gone Girl on almost every top ten list mentioned above (absent only from the HuffPo list and, tellingly, the Amazon Customer Favorites list). Why is Gone Girl beating them out time and again? (Even now, as of this writing, it's at number 11 on the New York Times Best Seller list.) What is it about this novel that compels people to flock to its pages?
As I begin to unravel this mystery, I will also have to unveil some of Flynn’s surprises. If you’ve read the novel, you know there are reveals, and there are REVEALS. I’ll steer clear of the latter, but if you have a problem with even minor spoilers, go read the book now, and then we’ll discuss.
And now, here are four reasons Gone Girl is such a literary juggernaut…
1. It's A Critical Darling
In case it wasn’t clear from the above introduction, almost every critic loved this book. Need more evidence? Well, I could spend heaps of time quoting from other publications that praised Gone Girl, but I'm going to save myself the trouble and let Wikipedia do that for me:
Gone Girl has been almost universally praised in numerous publications including but not limited to the New Yorker, New York Times, Time, Publisher's Weekly, Entertainment Weekly, Chatelaine, People magazine, and USA Today. Reviewers express admiration for the novel's suspense, a plot twist involving an unreliable narrator, its psychological dimension, and its examination of a marriage that has become corrosive. Entertainment Weekly describes it as 'an ingenious and viperish thriller.'
Of course, not all reviews are one hundred percent glowing. The New Yorker piece Wikipedia mentions (and this is printed on their page right below the above quote) called it a “mostly well-crafted novel,” and “outlandish” in places. Perhaps the most egregious example of a negative review is author Mary Gaitskill’s Bookforum article In Charm’s Way: Gone Girl’s Sickening Worldview, in which Gaitskill trashes the novel for its dubious, media-influenced characters and its “chirpy” narration that echoes modern culture-speak. But I discredit this and other reviews like it, not because I blindly defend things I enjoy and deny their flaws (everything has flaws), but because I feel Gaitskill’s criticism is rooted in snobbery toward mysteries (she admits a bias against the genre in her article), and snobbery toward pop-culture in general (if you need your own pretensions in this regard destroyed, read Jonathan Lethem’s The Ecstasy of Influence).
So this one is easy, yeah? If most critics (who are tough cookies to please overall) say, “You must read this book,” and the few that tell you to avoid it are clearly, ahem (and I'll apologize for this right now) culture snobs, then it makes sense that people—the “masses”—will gravitate towards it. Right?
Well…Bringing Up The Bodies…(and no, I haven’t read that one, either).
So, the phenomenon goes much deeper than mere critical popularity. Let’s move on to number two…
2. It's Well-Written
Flynn expertly provides us with two distinct first-person voices (Nick and Amy Dunne), both of whom are writers who manage to address the reader without sounding too writerly. Their voices are conversational and immediately absorbing—not too poetic, not too pithy.
But by, “It’s Well-Written,” I don’t just mean Flynn’s prose. The author displays an innate ability to hook her readers into this sordid tale, mainly by employing unreliable narration to keep us guessing. Here’s a passage, written from Nick’s perspective, on the day Amy disappears:
I kept trying Amy’s cell, and it kept going to voice mail, that quick-clip cadence swearing she’d phone right back. Amy always phoned right back. It had been three hours, and I’d left five messages, and Amy had not phoned back. I didn’t expect her to. I’d tell the police: Amy would never have left the house with the teakettle on. Or the door open. Or anything waiting to be ironed. The woman got shit done, and she was not one to abandon a project (say, her fixer-upper husband, for instance), even if she decided she didn’t like it…
And there was the living room, signs pointing to a struggle. I already knew Amy wasn’t phoning back. I wanted the next part to start.
Based on the above passage (and so many more hints to come), you think, “Okay, this guy had something to do with Amy’s disappearance.” The evidence is right there, in his own words: the little snipe about her “fixer-upper husband”; the fact he doesn’t expect her to call back; the italicized emphasis on “signs pointing to a struggle” and his eagerness for the “next part” to start. Not to mention, in Amy’s first-person chapters, she constantly fears that Nick might not be as invested as she is in their partnership. It all suggests some kind of premeditated act on Nick’s part, right?
Or does it? Flynn writes Nick in vague terms. She’s already established him as a guy who bottles up under pressure and who is simultaneously enchanted and disenchanted with his wife (that toxicity mentioned before). So it’s absolutely possible that Nick had nothing to do with Amy’s disappearance; that he’s nervous and feeling guiltily because, subconsciously, he’s glad she’s gone. It really is an either/or situation—either he did it, or he didn’t, and we just don’t know yet.
So, another no brainer, yeah? Gone Girl is a captivating, hook-laden narrative, told in an inviting, realistic style. These two elements create a book that is “compulsively readable, creepily unforgettable,” as Publisher’s Weekly put it. Done, that’s it, no other explanations needed, right?
Nope. There’s more…
3. "It's Mystery For People Who Don't Read Mystery"
Okay, even though it’s printed right above this sentence, I hate the concept of “It’s [insert genre] for people who don’t read [insert same genre],” particularly when that distinction is employed by the author (I’m looking at you, Stephenie Meyer). How can you possibly write a genre effectively if your intentions are rooted in belittlement? This idea suggest there’s something wrong with genre fiction, that genre fiction needs to be “fixed” for larger mass appeal.
So why use the phrase here? Well, in part to air out my rash about it (it is an utterly stupid, stupid concept), but also as an oversimplified means of making a point: that Flynn’s novel, while absolutely, one hundred percent belonging to the mystery genre, is simultaneously something else entirely. Put simply, Gone Girl straddles the line between straight-up mystery and literary fiction (another term I’m not wild about, but it helps us define and categorize for the moment).
For me, the book is primarily a psychological examination of two very fucked-up people. The plot—the crime element, the mystery—is there to move the story. It provides intrigue to carry the reader along, but the meat of Gone Girl is the character study. Flynn even says as much in an interview with USA Today, "I use the mystery as a thru-lane to pull me through what I'm actually interested in exploring…which is definitely the relationships.”
More specifically, Flynn aims to examine a relationship that not only stales, but, as mentioned before, turns toxic. For Nick and Amy, bitterness and ennui replace passion and intimacy because they individually built themselves up to someone they weren’t. Nick plays the role of the doting, romantic, outside-the-norm husband, while Amy pretends to be a low-maintenance, undemanding “Cool Girl” who loves and dotes on her husband in equal measure. They pretend to be independently co-dependent, they pretend to be in tune with each other, they pretend to communicate and work out their differences and maintain that old adage, expressed by Amy quite eloquently: “Marriage is compromise and hard work, and then more hard work and communication and compromise. And then work.”
But that’s the rub here: all of this pretending has consequences. As Flynn told Entertainment Weekly, “I’m playing with the idea of courtship as a con game: You want this other person to like you, so you’re never going to show them your worst side until it’s too late.” This is an unfortunate aspect of courtship: many people would rather phone-in the hard work and secure that mate they're supposed to have, rather than hold out and meet a person with whom they truly connect. In other words, they get married for the sake of getting married. Maybe you’ve met a person like this in your lifetime (I definitely have), but if you don’t believe that some people think this way, take a look at this Yahoo! Answers post.
In short, Flynn gives a suspenseful narrative that also happens to feature psychological exploration surrounding a familiar, universal theme we can all relate to. Now, this isn’t to say other mystery writers—like Dennis Lehane, Patricia Highsmith, Patricia Cornwell, Jim Thompson, and fellow genre-straddlers Joyce Carol Oates and Edgar Allan Poe, to name a few—don’t employ psychological character studies alongside universal themes in their crime-fueled plots. This quality isn’t unique to Flynn’s writing, but it is an integral piece to the best seller puzzle, one of the aspects that raises Gone Girl above its competition. I mean, how many other books can tout such across-the-board critical approval, prose that is simultaneously accessible and intelligent, AND a plot that is “beach-read” worthy while also being psychologically dense?
How many? Lots. More than I’d like to talk about here.
But the previous three elements still don’t fully explain Gone Girl’s success. So let’s not waste any more time and move right on to the fourth (and possibly most important) factor:
4. It's Ripped From The Headlines
Gone Girl echoes recent true crimes that swept the headlines and cable news networks. In that aforementioned EW interview, Flynn cites the Scott and Lacey Peterson case as an inspiration for her novel, though she also admits she’s a Dateline junky and her narrative takes cues from numerous stories.
The key is, these true-crime stories, they’re all pretty much the same: wife goes missing/turns up dead, husband seems sympathetic at first, but quickly the public becomes suspicious. We notice how he wasn’t actually crying in that interview, just quivering his lip and looking all sad. He begins to come up short on solid alibis; nasty stuff from his past begins to surface—he has a mistress, for instance, or he took out a life insurance policy on his wife two weeks before her demise. Or both. And before there’s even a trial, this guy is already guilty in the public’s eye.
Flynn knows all this, and more importantly, she knows that we know all this too. And most important of all, her characters know all this as well. EW again:
That’s another theme that I was interesting [sic] in playing with in the book: the idea that it’s hard for anyone to claim that they don’t know how these things work anymore because we’re so immersed in it, on the internet and TV and movies. There are no really new stories anymore.
Nick undergoes the same journey every man suspected of harming his wife goes through, even coming under the radar of a ‘journalist’ clearly patterned after CNN firebrand Nancy Grace (who helps promulgate the now-accepted idea of “the husband did it” every time a case like this enters the public consciousness). And yeah, nine times out of ten, the husband DID do it, but that’s not the point. Flynn asks the question: what if he didn’t?
In this way, Gone Girl serves to scrutinize our modern-day, sensationalistic media—a theme that no one, even those like Mary Gaitskill who shy away from pop-culture, can get away from. Whether we like it or not, we know who Nancy Grace is, we know about Scott and Lacey Peterson (or George Zimmerman, or hell, even Paula Deen). This is the world we live in, and Flynn’s pointed usage of this world deeply resonates with modern readers. We go along for all the twists and turns of Gone Girl’s ride because from the onset we recognize the world Flynn depicts.
This recognition goes further than modern-day media; the economic recession is practically a character in the book—it's the sole catalyst for the Dunnes’ relocation from NYC to Missouri (both lose their jobs and are unable to find new ones); it haunts the Dunnes in Nick's small hometown, where abandoned houses and dilapidated shopping malls stand as monuments of desolation and poverty; where victims of the housing market collapse and laid-off plant workers now live in said shopping malls. The recession lingers in every corner and rears its ugly head frequently throughout the novel.
Once again, Flynn employs this backdrop purposefully. In an interview with The Huffington Post, she said, “I wanted the whole thing to feel bankrupt, I wanted it to really feel like a marriage that had been hollowed out in a city that had been hollowed out and a country that was increasingly hollowed out.” Flynn achieves this more than admirably. When the film adaptation releases next year, I expect the trailer to feature a familiar throaty voice uttering the phrase, “In a world without hope…” We love this book because we’re living in that hopeless world right now (some of us more so than others), and while we don’t like it, we appreciate seeing it reflected in our fiction.
Some may argue this modern day resonance will eventually date the book, but I don't think so. These are topical elements, to be sure, but they’re presented alongside universal themes and situations. On down the line, I think Gone Girl will be about as outdated as The Great Gatsby (i.e., not in the slightest).
So, let’s recap. Or, rather, since I’ve been quoting her throughout this essay, let’s let Gillian Flynn recap the ingredients of Gone Girl’s success for us. When USA Today’s Carol Memmott asked the author why this book resonated so much with readers—more so than her previous efforts Sharp Objects and Dark Places—Flynn replied:
It's a trickier book, but I don't think it's so much more wildly well-written than the other two, that it's ‘Oh, I finally figured out how to write a book.’ But I do think it's the subject matter, the male-female narrator, that push-and-pull between the two narrators and what it's like to be in a long-term relationship. It has a lot of entry points for readers — what it feels to be a guy right now, which Nick kind of thinks about a lot; what it feels like to be a woman right now; what it feels like to lose your job right now in this economy; what it feels like to be in the Midwest. So I think there's a lot of things people like to compare notes on, and I think that's why it's been so embraced by book clubs. It has a lot of things to agree or disagree with.
Well said, Flynn. (And I swear, I found this quote AFTER I’d formulated my own theory on Gone Girl’s success. It does feel nice, however, to have my notions validated by the very person who wrote the book).
You may be asking yourself, “What what was the point of all this?” You might say, “Should I attempt to emulate Flynn’s ‘strategy’ and write, in lean-yet-evocative prose, a taut, psychologically-motivated thriller featuring realistic characters in a familiar, culturally resonant setting”? By all means! We need more books like that.
Should you expect the same success Flynn currently enjoys? No, probably not. The four elements I discussed—the anatomy of this best seller—is just that: the pieces that made this particular novel the triumph it was and still is.
You have to realize, moreover, that this is a deeply personal novel for Flynn—she, like Nick, grew up in Missouri; also like Nick, she got canned from her big-time journalism gig. According to the numerous interviews cited above, Flynn thinks constantly about gender issues, the state of marriage and relationships in our modern age, and the tendency of the public to be swayed by the things they see on television and the internet. This was not a book written for commercial success.
Well, I suppose in a sense every novel is written with success in mind. All writers want to earn a living solely from writing. But that sage bit of advice doled out by countless authors rings true time and again: write the book you want to write, and let the audience find you. By all means, practice your craft and strive to get better; be aware of the successes and the failures out there, and take note of them, learn from them; but, at the end of the day, write the book you want to write. And maybe, if all the elements come together at once—as they did for Flynn—you might find yourself basking in the glow of your very own Gone Girl.
Now, let’s hear what you have to say. Whether or not you liked the book, why do you think it exploded?
To leave a comment