Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Gone Girl Good Dragon Tattoo Bad

David Fincher's career as a director has taken a more conventional turn in the last couple of years with his adaptations of the crime dramas Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and now Gone Girl. Both books, of course, were international best sellers, but as James Patterson, JK Rowling & Benjamin Black show us selling millions of copies is no guarantee of a book's quality. But what made the movie adaptations of Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl inevitable was the fact that the books went beyond best seller status into a kind of cultural ubiquity. You'd see people reading them everywhere: not just the beach, but lifts, trams, on lunch breaks, squatting by the wall while waiting for the subway...As such they were very important books because they got people who wouldn't normally read a novel to look at one for perhaps the first time since high school. The Fincher film brought even more people to Dragon Tattoo and will kick Gone Girl into the stratosphere. I applaud the latter but boo the former and shall explain why below, after this spoiler alert. Spoiler, uhm, alert. 
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Ok, I had 5 major problems with Dragon Tattoo: 1) As a locked room mystery it didn't work because the reader was not given all the information to solve the puzzle. 2) Cally Blomqvist's character seemed like nothing more than a middle aged male's wish fulfilment fantasy 3) Larsson wanted to have his cake and eat it too: deploring violence against women but giving us lots and lots of it in lurid sadomasochistic detail. 4) The use of magic to solve plot problems. (Whenever the plot bogged down Lisbeth would hack the information from the internet and the plot wd move forward again.)  5) The clunky prose, extreme length and heavy handed cliches made the book pretty dull (I give Larsson a pass on this one because if he had lived the novel would have been given a tighter edit). 
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Gone Girl though is a different kettle of fish. (The following paragraphs continue major spoilers - if you plan to read the book or watch the film STOP READING NOW.) Ok, still with me? Good. Brief plot summary follows: Gone Girl takes place in rural Missouri where Nick Dunne has relocated after losing his job on a New York magazine (Gillian Flynn was downsized from Entertainment Weekly and after her dismissal also relocated to rural Missouri). Nick takes his flightly but sweet wife with him and they both try to adapt to living in a small town. One afternoon Nick comes back from work to discover that his house has been broken in to and his wife has gone missing. The cops suspect Nick knows more than he's saying and when they discover that he was having an affair they are convinced that he killed his wife, but we the reader know different...
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The first thing I liked about Gone Girl was how unlikeable the two main characters were. Initially I thought this was authorial incompetence, but it wasn't: the husband and wife are both rich, spoiled, self involved yuppies and we're supposed to not like them. We're supposed to read the book despite Nick being a toady and a creep and a third of the way in we discover - in a major twist - that his wife, the beautiful sweet Amy Dunne, is an unreliable narrator (we've been reading her diary in alternate chapters) and she is in fact a highly functioning sociopath. Amy has staged her disappearance to get revenge on her husband for his affair and wants to see him squirm, get convicted and possibly get executed. I also liked Amy's backstory (she's the star of a series of children's books written by her chilly parents) and although I never warmed to Nick at all I did enjoy seeing him try to weasel his way out of the shit. Yes the book was too long (almost all books are too long) but it was also ironic, funny, off kilter. With unlikeable leads, self awareness and a brilliant downbeat ending Gone Girl is my kind of airport novel and I'm glad that it was and is a success. It's both a missing girl thriller and a satire of missing girl thrillers (there are many delicious digs at Nancy Grace and her ilk). If this is the entry level novel for many people into the crime fiction genre then a jolly good thing it is too.