I picked this up on a whim in the library last week. I’ve seen the film, a little while ago, and I’ve read a few reviews of it, so it didn’t hold any secrets plotwise. However, I was curious to see how it worked as a novel and what the writing was like – and whether it was actually all that good. I had quite low expectations, because I felt that the film had started well but then got schlocky. (I assume that I am the last person on Earth to read this novel so as usual there will be lots of spoilers in what I write so if I’m wrong and you are the last person on Earth to read this novel and you haven’t read it yet, stop here.)
Having low expectations and time to read it carefully instead of racing through to find out what happened really benefitted my experience with this book. It was miles better than I had anticipated, and the main characters were drawn with some subtlety. I still think the murder of Desi is a bit too much and Amy becomes too great a monster, but it worked better in the book and the ramifications of it were also well handled. Book-Amy was a more rounded and believable character than Film-Amy (in the novel, there is much more from her viewpoint).
It struck me that one at least of the core themes of the book is authenticity and fakery and the grey area in between. Early on in the investigation, Nick muses nihilistically:
It seemed to me that there was nothing new to be discovered ever again. Our society was utterly, ruinously derivative [...] We were the first human beings who would never see anything for the first time. We stare at the wonders of the world, dull-eyed, underwhelmed. Mona Lisa, the Pyramids, the Empire State Building. Jungle animals on attack, ancient icebergs collapsing, volcanoes erupting. I can’t recall a single amazing thing I have seen firsthand that I didn’t immediately reference to a movie or a TV show. [...] and the worst thing, the thing that makes me want to blow my brains out, is: The secondhand experience is always better. The image is crisper, the view is cleaner, the camera angle and the soundtrack manipulate my emotions in a way reality can’t anymore. I don’t know that we are actually human at this point [...] If we are betrayed, we know the words to say; when a loved one dies, we know the words to say. If we want to play the stud or the smart-ass or the fool, we know the words to say. We are all working from the same dog-eared script.
It’s a very difficult era in which to be a person, just a real, actual person, instead of a collection of personality traits selected from an endless Automat of characters.
And if all of us are play-acting, there can be no such thing as a soul-mate, because we don’t have genuine souls.
So saturated are we with these second-hand experiences, Nick argues, that we are lost. If we consciously model our behaviour on how a character from a film behaves, we have no authenticity. But if we try to avoid doing that, we confuse others (who do expect us to react like a character from a film) and make ourselves so self-conscious that we can’t behave ‘authentically’ anyway. This is what happens to Nick. He is so hyper-aware of all his second-hand experiences that he cannot behave as people expect him to behave; instead he is awkward and uncomfortable, with the result that everyone immediately assumes he must be guilty of murdering his wife. (I was reminded here of the way that many people treated Kate McCann, the mother of the little girl who vanished from her hotel room. Mrs McCann was considered to be insufficiently grief-stricken in public.)
In order to be perceived as innocent, Nick has to fake genuineness. Meanwhile, as the reader progresses, his story and Amy’s diary diverge increasingly in their portraits of their marriage. Amy’s diary, as is suddenly revealed, is also fake and the mystery that everyone is trying to solve is fake too, with fake clues. Yet there is a real mystery too.
In her diary, Amy writes about how she feels compelled to play rôles – how we all do – although most of us never take is as far as Amy does. For the first few years of their relationship, Amy played a rôle and so, to some extent, did Nick. Both of them claim that they brought out the best in each other, but neither was being entirely ‘themselves’. As time passes, they come to know each other ‘better’, they see each other’s faults and the marriage starts to go wrong. Now they bring out the worst in each other. Yet are these selves really so much more authentic than the ‘better selves’ of the early relationship? Are they just different traits picked from the Automat at different times?
And at the end, Amy and Nick’s marriage is paradoxically a yet deeper sham but also, finally, more ‘authentic’, with less rôle playing. The couple know each other too well for that now. Living with a psycho-killer might not be everyone’s idea of a happy ending, but Nick understands that the ‘real’ Amy is more complex, surprising and interesting than the woman he thought he had married; he will never feel that this experience is second-hand, he will have always to be alert if he is to survive. This seems to suit him. Sometimes.
It is almost a feminist tale. Amy has had to sacrifice a lot for Nick: she’s left her home and family, she has been turned into a housewife (there’s nothing wrong with being a housewife but there is something wrong with being one against your will), she has given Nick all her money to set up a bar of dubious profitability. In return, he has been unsympathetic, neglectful and unfaithful. In both of their accounts, however self-justifying, that much is clear. Who wouldn’t, in such circumstances, spend a year plotting their fake murder and framing their spouse? Heh. But finally, Amy wins Nick’s respect. He has to be careful of her. He might be physically stronger than her, but she is infinitely cleverer and prepared to go to extremes he cannot. There is still no true equality in their relationship, because Amy has complete control over the situation and Nick has to do what she wants. I did not feel as sorry for Nick as I might have been expected to feel, as I did watching the film.
I wonder what will have happened to them in twenty years’ time? That’s a sequel I’d be curious to read.
I know that all of you reading this have already read Gone Girl (because I’m the last person etc. etc.). What were your impressions?