Our guest blogger in The Murder Room this week is Andrew Pyper, author of supernatural thriller The Demonologist, who makes a compelling case for why Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl, ‘out-Highsmiths Highsmith’.
I was an admirer of Gillian Flynn’s work prior to the thermonuclear publishing phenomenon that is her most recent novel, so I feel able to write this piece from the dual perspective of a reader who’s gratified to see literally millions of readers finding a deserving artist, and as a fellow novelist curious to identify what has made Gone Girl go.
The simple answer, of course, is that it’s a great book. Convincingly drawn, prickly, insightfully contemporary characters (I know a few Nicks, and had some near misses with an Amy or two). Vivid, thoughtful, often surprisingly comic line-by-line writing. A structure that employs point of view in a way that not only generates jaw-dropping twists, but also turns a mirror in the reader’s direction, showing how unsettlingly we can misplace our sympathies, confusing programmed bias with the truth.
But Gone Girl has reached people in a way that almost no thriller, however satisfying, has done in a long time. I’ve been a part of more than a few bookie conversations over the last few months where the participants have tried to decode the source of the novel’s appeal. The answers have ranged from the superficial (‘Awesome cover!’) to the fatalistic (‘You just never know what works’) to the high-conceptual (‘It’s like a literary The Sixth Sense!).
There’s probably something in all these answers, and the many others that may be reasonably proposed. But for me, Gone Girl‘s greatness turns on the way it out-Highsmiths Highsmith. Like the master who precedes her, Flynn has created not just a story but a subtly altered world of the mind, a darkly (and at first invisibly) tweaked reality where the morally diseased – the narcissistic, the calculating, the sociopathic – move presentably, even attractively, among us.
Reading Gone Girl provides the same (if not superior) sensation as reading the best of the Ripley books, a kind of existential vertigo, a trap door opening beneath our feet as we realise the dizzying extent to which our collected perceptions of others (aka ‘personalities’) are little more than transferable masks.
This all might sound like mere nihilism, but Flynn and Highsmith’s accomplishments are far more nuanced, and far less generalised, than that. What Gone Girl achieves is a revelation of the shadowed end of the spectrum of human capacity, a revelation that doesn’t come all at once, but rather creeps under the skin, a niggling but undismissable suspicion, like the one you had as a kid when you started to wonder if maybe Santa wasn’t real, though you pretended he was for as long as you could.
People will continue trying to reduce Gone Girl‘s success to some easily reproducible element – a photo of hair! stories about marriage! – but I’m convinced the novel has been embraced by readers for far deeper reasons than these. As with Highsmith’s work, Flynn seems only to be writing thrillers when, in fact, she’s showing us an aspect of being human we generally avoid contemplating for fear of the chilling side effects. That’s why Gone Girl is not only a book about masks, but wears a mask itself.
Andrew Pyper is the author of six novels, most recently The Demonologist, which is a No. 1 hardcover bestseller in his native Canada and was selected as a Top Ten Mystery & Thriller for spring 2013 by Publisher’s Weekly. His previous work includes Lost Girls (a New York Times Notable Book) and The Killing Circle (a New York Times Crime Novel of the Year).The Demonologist is currently in development for feature film with ImageMovers (Robert Zemeckis’ company) and Universal Pictures. He lives in Toronto.