Monday, February 23, 2015

Dueling unreliable narrators: Gone Girl

Well, I'm late to the party, but I finally read Gone Girl (Random House: New York, NY; 2012) by Gillian Flynn, which is a really interesting case of dueling unreliable narrators. (By the way, there's pretty much nothing you can say about this book that is not a spoiler alert--so reader beware!)

Just to refresh the memory, an unreliable narrator is a narrator who is not credible. Sometimes they're not credible because they're emotionally or mentally instable, sometimes because they omit or distort information, and sometimes because they are too naive or inexperienced to accurately interpret the world around them. In the case of Gone Girl, both narrators--the husband Nick and the wife Amy--are unreliable, since they alternately lie, omit information, or exhibit various aspects of narcissism. They "duel" back and forth in the sense that the chapters alternate between their points of view and slowly reveal information that has been hidden or manipulated--over time, we discover that the initial situation is not what it appears to be (the murder of a wife by a husband), but is something else entirely (a wife staging her own murder and framing her husband for the crime).

What makes studying an unreliable narrator interesting is that he/she is, by definition, a kind of liar. We tend to be repulsed by liars, though, so the challenge to keeping a reader invested is making him/her a compelling liar. Here is a quick look at what I think makes Nick compelling as a narrator--even though he makes for a convincing murder suspect at the start of the book.

1. He comes across as a pathetic puppy dog.
Guilty puppy snipped from here.
The "screen" his narration uses, if you will, is that he's basically a well-meaning, sweet guy who can't help the fact that he's a loser with poor decision making skills--not someone who could mastermind a cold-blooded murder. This screen is just endearing enough to charm the reader, but uncomfortable enough for the audience to withhold trust. 

For example, Nick openly admits to one of the bad decisions that has contributed to the deterioration of his marriage--promising his sister that he'll move to Missouri to take care of his parents without consulting Amy--but then he disappears into a sort of hang-dog act (pun!) to excuse himself. He says:
"I simply assumed I would bundle up my New York wife....and transplant her to a little town on the river in Missouri, and all would be fine. I did not yet understand how foolish, how optimistic, how just like Nick [a phrase Amy uses when placing blame on him] I was for thinking this. The misery it would lead to. (p6)" 
His sentiments seem to reveal genuine regret, and yet they also manage to divert responsibility by invoking Amy's past criticisms and by implying that he was too young and naive to understand the situation--he's good at making external factors the straw man, while simultaneously slinking away with his tail between his legs. 

To further complicate, the character Amy
is the star of her own kid's book series--
written by her parents when she was a child.
2. It's tough to live in the shadow of unbeatable expectations. One of my favorite pieces of the books' first section is the anniversary treasure hunt that Amy organizes for Nick every year--it's so wonderfully manipulative on Amy's part (she devises clues so obscure that hardly anyone but herself could guess them, yet she is disappointed when Nick cannot solve them). This, of course, feeds perfectly into Nick's sense of failure and self-styled "loser" image. Nick's summary of the treasure hunts reads as follows: "...[A] genuine tradition was born, one I'd never forget: Amy always going overboard, me never, ever worthy of the effort. Happy anniversary, asshole. (p20)"

Amy's expectations--in both the treasure hunt and in life--seem impossible and crushing, and it's tough not to feel sympathetic to Nick, even despite his self-sabotaging tendencies.

Snipped from here.
3. The boy's got self-esteem issues.
It's also tough not to draw a dotted line from Amy's role in Nick's life to the role of Nick's father, Bill. At the time of the novel, Bill has Alzheimer's and lives in a nursing home, but he still looms large over Nick's life, and if readers recognize Nick's s inadequacies, I think they also find the evolution of his personality compelling. For example, Nick borrows money from Amy to start a business in Missouri. This makes him feel somewhat guilty and emasculated, and he imagines what his father would think: "I could feel my dad twisting his lips at the very idea. Well, there are all kinds of men, his most damning phrase, the second half left unsaid, and you are the wrong kind. (p7)"

It's safe to say that Nick's self-image and ideas about manhood have been deeply influenced by his father: never be made dependent, vulnerable, or otherwise compromised by a woman. The father also projects a strong judgmental, dismissive energy--a parallel to Amy, who may also see Nick as the wrong kind. Take Amy's constant refrain about her husband (referenced in point #1 above):"Just like Nick, she would say. It was a refrain of hers; Just like Nick to...and whatever followed, whatever was just like me, was bad. (p5)" If Nick is a bad apple, he's an apple fallen from a rotten tree--and that gives his narration a context that rings true.

In short, we like our liars to be compelling, relatable, and plausible, even if they're not justifiable or likable.

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