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Category Archives: Gone Girl

Funny How Time Slips Away: Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

Reading is like breathing — don’t do enough of it and your brain cells start to die. Not necessarily the brain cells responsible for walking, hanging up on telephone solicitors and calculating four-way tips on a restaurant bill, but the ones responsible for writing. And I do a lot of writing so it’s necessary that I read.

Dark Places

Dark Places: Don’t let the padlock fool you. There isn’t much inside.

Over the last year I’ve been remiss in my reading habits, as you can tell if you scroll down to the previous book review in this blog and note that it was posted on July 27, 2014. Not that I haven’t been reading since then. I have. I’ve been reading the beginnings of books that I never finished, click-bait articles that somehow wandered into my Facebook feed and the occasional magazine (though I’ve been falling behind in my magazine reading too, something I plan to remedy).

I also read two entire novels during the last year, which I’ve somehow never gotten around to writing about here. I plan to remedy that too, starting with this post, which is about Gillian Flynn’s novel Dark Places. Unfortunately, I don’t really remember a whole lot about Dark Places, partly because it’s been close to a year since I read it and partly because, well, it wasn’t all that memorable.

Not that it was bad. I suspect that anything by Flynn is worth reading, which is why I picked it up, having been deeply impressed by the wit, plotting and deftly deceptive characterization in Flynn’s novel Gone Girl when I read it three years ago. I read Dark Places looking for more of the same and to some extent I found it — at least Dark Places has the same acerbic, observational cleverness of Gone Girl and some of the same strong characterization, but in the matter of plot it felt like Flynn started with the spark of an idea that she never managed to kindle (no pun on my ebook reader intended) into an actual flame.

I honestly don’t remember a lot of the plot, but here’s what I can give you: Libby Day, a 30-ish woman who survived the violent massacre of her family when she was a child, has spent most of her life living on the charitable funds generated by the sympathetic stories about her that periodically grace the pages of magazines and true-crime newscasts. The charity is running out, however, and Libby, who has never worked for a living, finds herself with no marketable skills and no desire to develop the sort of likable personality that might get her either a job or a husband. It’s this desperation for funds that drives her to accept a paid invitation from a club of amateur crime solvers who enjoy revisiting particularly gruesome murder narratives and finding flaws in the original conclusions reached by the judiciary system.

Libby expects the club to consist of creeps and borderline psychos who get off on blood and gore, but they’re mostly harmless nerds who enjoy arguing about clues and courtroom testimony. The particular subgroup dedicated to the Day family massacre is largely convinced that the person eventually convicted of the crime, Libby’s older brother, is innocent — which comes as a surprise to Libby, because she’s pretty much accepted her brother’s culpability, even though he was probably the family member closest to her before the killings occurred. She never visits him in prison and is reluctant to do so even at the club’s request, until they offer her money to talk to him. Being on the verge of homelessness actually motivates Libby to discard her apathy — and, more importantly, to face up to the “dark places” in her brain that concern the crime — in ways that she hasn’t over the previous quarter of a century. The club members gradually convince her that her brother may in fact be innocent, and, um, things happen. There’s something about the brother’s former girlfriend and a lot about women with red hair, a hallmark of the Day family.

Wish I could tell you more — and I probably could have, back when I’d finished the book. Though I suspect that one of the reasons I’ve put off writing this review for so long is that I really didn’t have a lot to say about it even then. I remember finding the ending not entirely satisfactory; I felt that Flynn had thrown in one plot element too many, perhaps to throw red herrings in the reader’s path, more likely because she felt she was at least one subplot short of a novel.

Whatever, my enthusiasm for Flynn’s writing remains undimmed, but it still largely hinges on the deep impression that Gone Girl made with me. Eventually I’ll go back and read Flynn’s first novel, Sharp Objects, and probably be even more disappointed, but as a stylist Flynn is engaging enough that even her lesser works, like this one, are worth reading.

My Compliments to the Chef: The Dinner by Herman Koch

About a year ago, while making excuses for laying aside The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo after only about 40 pages or so, I discussed how much I dislike reading books in translation. The loss of the original text and the substitution of a new one waters down the author’s unique voice, destroys the direct sense of mind-to-mind connection that even mediocre novels can provide, and inflicts on the reader the voice of a translator who probably isn’t as good a writer as the one that he’s translating, else he’d be writing great novels of his own.

The Dinner by Herman Koch

The Dinner by Herman Koch

Herman Koch’s The Dinner, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett, proves how wrong I was. I don’t know what the author’s original voice was like, but I don’t care. Garrett has done such a fine job of rendering the book into English that it really doesn’t matter whether it’s Koch’s mind, Garrett’s mind or a combination of the two that I’m connecting with. The book’s prose is seamlessly readable and I find it hard to imagine that it could have been significantly better in the original Dutch. It reads as smoothly and as intelligently as any well-crafted English-language novel I’ve read in recent years — better so than most — and that’s certainly good enough for me.

My friend George, who brought the book to my attention a few weeks ago when he praised it on a Web forum I frequent, said that the book has been compared to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and I can see why. It has the same acerbic, observational wit, the sense of seeing the world through the eyes of someone who notices telling details about the way we live, details that ring with ironic and often caustic truth. Also like Gone Girl, it has a major plot revelation about halfway through, but it’s not the kind that snaps your head around and causes you to rethink everything that’s come before, as Flynn’s was. In fact, Koch prepares you so thoroughly for the revelation that it doesn’t even come as a surprise and certainly doesn’t qualify as a plot twist.

What Koch does is something much subtler. I suspect that there will be, and probably have been, reviewers who will describe the novel’s first-person protagonist as an unreliable narrator, but he really isn’t. Nothing he tells you is misleading and when he omits information — as he frequently does — he tells you that he’s omitting it and assures you that he’ll fill in the details later — as he also does. What Koch does instead is to take advantage of the reader’s automatic tendency to sympathize with a first-person narrator and gradually, so slowly that you almost don’t notice that he’s doing it, subverts that expectation. I finished the book almost unsure of what I had just read or what any of it meant and when it finally came over me I realized that I was almost reluctant to accept it. Not to give too much away, but in the end the novel amounts to a major political statement — something that sounds quite boring but isn’t in the slightest — that addresses an issue that I find myself pondering during every major election: Why do people vote for things that are almost inhumanly cruel and harsh and then assume that these things don’t — and shouldn’t — apply to themselves?

What happens in the course of the book is that Koch alters your initial perceptions of the characters until you gradually realize that they are precisely the opposite of the people you thought they were in the beginning and that the character you most disdained throughout the majority of the novel is in fact the only person at the table — as its title implies, the novel takes place during the course of a single dinner — who is worth giving a damn about, the only one who isn’t a hypocrite and certainly the only one who has something resembling a conscience. And Koch does this so scrupulously that he never at any point betrays the reader’s trust in the integrity of his storytelling.

But while it is these gradual realizations that make the novel great, it is the witty, sharply observed prose and vividly drawn characters, as well as the way Koch draws out his revelations while always letting you know that they’re coming, that make it readable, even riveting, from the very beginning. If anything was lost in the book’s transition from Holland to America, it probably wasn’t worth having in the first place.

Going, Going: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl cover
I had heard so much praise for this book (and one interesting demurral from an Internet friend) that I was prepared to be seriously disappointed by it. Yes, it would be a decent crime thriller, but like most decent crime thrillers it was probably being praised less because it was good and more because it didn’t totally reek.

God, was I wrong!

Gone Girl is one of the two or three best books I’ve read since I started writing these book reports three years ago and is quite possibly the best crime/mystery/thriller I’ve read ever (unless you count The Silence of the Lambs, which I don’t think will ever be surpassed). Why do I love it so much? Let me count the ways:

Plot: The plot of Gone Girl is a clockwork mechanism that unfolds so naturally that you never sense that it was outlined or planned in advance and yet so perfectly that Gillian Flynn must have plotted it within an inch of its life before ever putting words on her hard drive. It’s a continuing miracle of ingenuity and I was impressed again and again by the way Flynn develops the story. And did I mention that it’s utterly gripping?

Character: The two main characters, Nick (the husband) and Amy (the wife), are so well drawn that Flynn is actually able to turn characterization itself into a plot twist, something I’m not going to further explain. The minor characters, while not always depicted with depth, are always believable and almost always interesting. Nick’s sister Go, short for Margo, is the most fully realized and the most important to the plot, but Flynn’s portrait of the press corps is especially vivid, with a particularly venomous depiction of Nancy Grace, here referred to as Ellen Abbott.

Style: Every line of the novel is written with such incisive wit that, even when I wanted to swipe my finger across the screen of my e-reader to find out what happened next, I forced myself to read slowly just to enjoy the prose. Not only does it crackle, but it occasionally made me laugh out loud. And Flynn neatly avoids the cliched tone of the crime genre, producing something that reads like Jonathan Franzen could have written if Jonathan Franzen would lower himself to writing genre fiction.

But most of all I love it because, somewhere in the midsection of the book, Flynn pulls off the greatest plot twist I’ve seen since the TV show Lost switched from flashbacks to flashforwards. It’s the kind of twist that snaps your head around and makes you rethink everything that’s happened up until that moment. I love it when that happens in a book and I haven’t seen it happen that much lately (or at least the great plot twists seem to have moved from books to serial TV shows). There used to be writers — I’m thinking specifically here of William Goldman, Ira Levin and John Farris — who could do 180 degree turns in the middle of a novel and leave you gasping at the sheer audacity of their literary stunt work, but I was beginning to think that this was a lost art.

I guess I should do a brief plot summary, but I’m not going to dwell on it. Gone Girl is the story of a marriage gone sour, the marriage between the aforementioned Nick and Amy, and it turns on the disappearance of Amy on the couple’s fifth wedding anniversary. Flynn rather ingeniously tells the story in double first person, with Nick and Amy narrating alternating chapters. Nick’s chapters are set in the present time (which is some point in 2012, when the book was published) and Amy’s chapters, which are couched as diary entries, fill in the expository details, giving the reader the back story that led up to the present situation. This works amazingly well, once again reminding me of Lost in the way that Amy’s flashbacks illuminate Nick’s present time action, and it’s this narrative technique that makes the stunning plot twist possible.

If Flynn falters anywhere it’s in the final chapters, where the novel becomes a kind of chess game with players alternating moves and I began to sense that Flynn didn’t know which move to end on. I think she chose the right player to end with, but there’s a sense that she ends the story more because she has to than because she found the right moment to do it. At the very least I wish the final chapter had left more of a sense of what was going to happen after the book was over; there are hints, but I found them rather weak.

But the 95 percent of the book leading up to the end is so brilliantly conceived that I’ll happily forgive Flynn for any imperfections in the way she sums things up.