Reviews

‘Gone Girl’ Is the War of the Sexes and the Coasts, Turned Deadly

Gillian Flynn’s my-wife-is-missing thriller wraps smart East Coast-versus-Midwest satire and wicked repartee around a bottle-rocket payload.


Gone Girl

Publisher: Crown
Length: 432 pages
Author: Gillian Flynn
Price: $25
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2012-06
Amazon

Gillian Flynn’s sly and rippingly suspenseful novel, Gone Girl, is one of those novels it’s hard not to try and shanghai other people into reading, as in immediately. Flynn (Sharp Objects, Dark Places) lays down a vivid and plainspoken narrative that can read like the most jet-fueled of airport thrillers but is still bejeweled with sparkling asides and dead-on commentary. Her writing is, as needed, funny, perceptive, headslappingly honest, or sometimes an amalgam of the three. That this all happens in a book whose plot seems at first ripped from a Dateline NBC true crime episode is all the more impressive.

Flynn’s first narrator of two is Nick Dunne, a onetime magazine writer from the small Missouri town of North Carthage, who has moved back home about two years before the novel begins, with his wife, Amy. She serves as Flynn’s other narrator, answering Nick’s monologue with a series of diary entries, many of which were written long before the action begins, when the two of them were still living in New York. In both of their recollections, that was a golden time, when the two were making a living as writers in the big city. Many writers will twinge to read Nick’s recollection of when he first arrived in town in the late '90s:

"This was back when the Internet was still some exotic pet kept in the corner of the publishing world—throw some kibble at it, watch it dance on its little leash, oh quite cute, it definitely won’t kill us in the night. Think about it: a time when newly graduated college kids could come to New York and get paid to write. We had no idea that we were embarking on careers that would vanish within a decade."

Amy was a writer as well, even if her output consisted mainly of multiple-choice quizzes for women’s magazines. While Nick was an aspirational blue-collar boy from the weedy shores of the Mississippi River, Amy was one of those gold-plated, Girls-style New York girls, with famous writers for parents (they even created a bestselling children’s book series inspired by her), a trust fund, and a blithe disinterest in anything more than one step removed from her cosseted life.

Nevertheless, they fell in love with a combative fervor and were quickly married. Almost as quickly, it seems, they fell out of love; the work of it just became too much. And when the bottom fell out of their industry, and Nick’s parents started heading downhill, he moved them back to Missouri. It was then, just a few pages after the book begins, that Nick comes back to a wrecked house (one of those wall-to-wall carpeted McMansions that stood as almost some kind of rebuke to their old Brooklyn brownstone) and realizes Amy has gone missing.

The story at first is almost entirely Nick’s. We see Amy through his eyes, and the portrait darkens fast. A beautiful woman with high demands, she both utterly entrances and also deeply bothers him. There's a lot of nicely-handled relationship detail here, the granular accumulation of discontent and the storing up of the kind of grievances that can scuttle the strongest of bonds. In between the lines exist whole other novels of what is not being said, at least at first. They are waging the war of the sexes, passive-aggressively, via a selection of avatars each has created to satisfy the fantasies each has of themselves and each other.

Amy is resentful of being yanked from the only world she ever wanted to know to a dying nowhere town where everybody shops at warehouse stores (Republicans at Sam’s Club, Democrats at Costco, she notes in one of Flynn’s many spot-on anthropological asides) and doesn’t seem all that enamored with people (like her) wearing their neuroses and needs on their designer sleeves. Nick, meanwhile, is portrayed (by himself) as a generally happy, trying-to-soldier-on guy who is juggling a couple jobs—teaching at a local college and running a small bar with his sister Margo, or Go—while trying to deal with his increasingly demanding wife.

While building her hall-of-mirrors spousal combat zone, Flynn is steadily plugging in new mystery-ratcheting plot elements. She prefers to deal at first in the volleying racket of Amy and Nick’s points-of-view and the accruing tension of the low-grade marital guerrilla warfare they have been waging for some years now. By the time that landscape has been well darkened, the twists start dropping in like pinpoint mortar rounds, each demolishing a clutch of preconceptions and concussing you forward.

Amy’s disappearance begins to mutate from a kidnapping into one of those chum-bait whirlpools that suck in increasingly large media whales (there’s a caricature here of a lynch mob-baiting Nancy Grace-type which is more vivid for being so sparingly used) and is destined to end in more than one book deal and at least a few civil lawsuits. For all of her skill at detailing the gathering storm of recrimination and suspicion that swirls up around Nick, Flynn smartly refuses to be distracted from her stars. This is a thriller, to be sure, with unlikely twists of fate and gobsmacking cliffhangers galore, but it’s also in many ways just a novel. Amy and Nick are as vividly and deeply rendered here as just about any characters to be found on bookshelves this year, and certainly more tragic in their stoppered guilt and fury.

Gone Girl has everything in it that matters for great fiction: pain, pathos, love, lust, and loss. It also features a sharper eye than we’re used to seeing for sociological detail, from the fine shadings of the Brooklyn literati to the habits of the Ozark redneck grifter. Most impressively, Flynn moves back and forth from its polar extremes of big city and small town, East Coast and Midwest, put-upon husband and demanding wife (or rage-prone husband and eager-to-please wife) without showing a particular inclination towards one or the other.

In the midst of it all, Flynn takes time out for some culturally astute and acidic asides, often in the service of spousal strife. Nick notes Amy’s slam on his hometown for being uncomfortably white, leading him to point out that her circle of friends in diverse New York included precisely one African-American. There is an especially notable essay-like screed by Amy against the pressure for modern women to do whatever it takes to please their man, due to the pernicious “Cool Girl” caricature perpetuated by “too many movies written by socially awkward men”:

"Hot and understanding, Cool Girls never get angry, they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner, and let their men do whatever they want."

Flynn gets the voices right and the people right, no matter where she’s setting the scene or who she’s having us listen to. To do all that and still deliver a crackling page-turner shows a talent that is vanishingly rare, and sorely needed.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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