We’re All Just Lying Machines: A Conversation about Gillian Flynn

September 21, 2012 | 6 8 min read

coverStaff writers Janet Potter and Edan Lepucki often read (and enjoy) the same books, and like almost everyone else in the world, they found Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn to be a fun, engrossing, and thought-provoking novel, worthy of the attention it’s getting. They decided to read Flynn’s two previous novels, Sharp Objects and Dark Places, and discuss all three books via email. Below is their conversation about the author and her books. Subjects include: murder, milk, Pinterest boards, and camp (the aesthetic, not sleep-away).

Janet Potter:  Something that strikes me in these books — particularly Dark Places and Gone Girl — is how singling out and digging into a person’s life, whether or not they are guilty of murder, tends to raise suspicions about that person. A theme running through Gone Girl is that everyone is keeping secrets, but are they harmless secrets, dangerous secrets, or the secret — the secret that you’re the culprit? Everyone that’s investigated or suspected at any point starts to look capable of murder or at least deception.

It started to make me wonder. If tomorrow somebody came to look through my apartment, what kind of things would snag as strange? Why do I have three heavy-duty padlocks sitting on my bookshelf, a set of keys to an apartment I moved out of seven months ago, and four different types of milk in the fridge? Each of these things has a rational, if unusual, explanation, but I haven’t left those explanations on post-it notes in case I disappear.

Do you think this is just a feature of Flynn’s books, or do you think it’s an accurate depiction of how many secrets we’re all keeping at any given time?

coverEdan Lepucki: Firstly, Janet, let’s get to the bottom of this: Why do you have four types of milk? That is suspicious!

Ms. Flynn is masterful at writing plots — her books move at a delicious pace. For me, one essential element to any strong plot is the repeated but changing resonance of things like setting, possession, character choice, and so on. What seems like a harmless action at one point in the novel is rendered differently later on in the book. Her books continually zing!  because something is seen anew, or a character understands an event in a different light. I think that’s what Flynn is doing with these secrets that her characters harbor: they have an emotional reason for being in the book, but they also scratch a plot itch.

It’s interesting that Flynn’s novels make you paranoid about how, say, a homicide detective or the media might view your life, should there be some crime committed that you’re connected to. When I was reading her books, I kept worrying about the men I know — mainly my husband —  for Flynn’s books seem mostly interested in the way the world perceives men’s appetite for violence. Perhaps you’re right, and that “everyone that’s investigated or suspected at any point starts to look capable of murder or at least deception,” but the people who are investigated  in her novels are always male. Which leaves you and me off the hook! Let’s go murder some people!

Flynn’s work is most engaging to me for what it says about gender: what men are accused of, what cruelties women are capable of, and so on. I’m interested in the conversations her novels have about female sexuality, and the roles women play and play-at, for others.


JP: In the past few weeks I’ve needed specific types of milk for specific recipes — paneer (whole), fried chicken (buttermilk), creme fraiche (cream), and basic coffee-drinking (skim). I’m glad you think that even my dairy melangerie wouldn’t mark me as a person of interest, because I’m of the gentler sex.

It’s true, as you say, that the suspicion of murder usually falls on the closest healthy male, but the women in Flynn’s books certainly don’t come across well either. There is a scene in each of the three books in which the main female character is forced to spend time with a group of women. The horror! The gaggles of ladies are all about wine, casseroles, pointed comments, and over-sharing. Of course, an aspect of these Missouri-based scenes is that the lead females are from somewhere else, like New York or Chicago, and are hanging out with women they find less sophisticated than themselves. But still, Flynn repeatedly portrays hanging out with women as torture.

coverDo you think Gillian Flynn would want to hang out with us? Or would we just get wined up and insult her Pinterest boards? I’m not saying that she writes flat female characters. She also writes incredibly wise, no-nonsense women (the detective in Gone Girl, the mother and aunt in Dark Places). And her lead women — Camille, Libby, and Amy — are damaged, complicated, and resilient in turns.

In Gone Girl, Amy spends a long time describing herself as a “cool girl” — the perfect girlfriend, not whiny, dependent, jealous, or easily offended, beautiful without seeming to primp. A cool girl seems to be invulnerably confident. What Flynn seems to dislike so much about groups of women is that when they get together they tend to fetishize their own vulnerability.

The vulnerability of women has many forms in her work. Some women hide it, some preen it, some hide behind it as a guise for their cruelty, some reject it, and some use its appearance as a weapon. Weaponized vulnerability! I think this comes back to your point, that so much of what defines Flynn’s women is how they react to the fact of being a woman. And that they should watch out for killers.

EL: That you drink coffee with skim milk. Ugh! That’s enough to book you!

Amy’s passage about being a cool girl felt like a diatribe versus a brag. That is, she recognizes that the cool girl thing is a role, a construct. She can play that role with elan, she can play it so well that it lets her manipulate others. But implicit in that passage, if I remember correctly, is this sense that playing that role is also oppressive. She is empowered and suffocated by the game simultaneously. And that totally rang true to me as a woman.

What I love most about Gone Girl was the way Flynn made me think about how character and identity are constructed. She made me like and then dislike a character, dislike and then like another one, and then dislike the whole lot of them, the idea of identity dissolving and reappearing at every moment. Who are these people? Who am I? It’s a gloriously postmodern conception of identity, I think — nothing is inalienable, we are all constructs, and so on. That Flynn gave that to me in a disgustingly readable novel is just icing on the cake, er, buttermilk in the chicken.

coverI’m also interested in the evolution of tone in her novels. Sharp Objects seems the most raw and intimate to me, while simultaneously using some truly Gothic touches that are also absurd they’re so theatrical. That Gothic stuff — the dead sister, say, or the living sister, dressed up as a doll and playing with a doll house that’s an exact replica of the house she lives in — moves to something else in Dark Places, with the Kill Club, and the crazy wackness that is Deondra (Holy shit!  The part where her pit bulls poop inside and she doesn’t clean it up?!), and then onto something else in Gone Girl, which has a kind of War of the Roses, campy vibe to it by the end. It’s comic, but that doesn’t seem like the right word.


Can we also talk about class in her novels?

JP: This slippery idea of identity that you brought up was what impressed me the most about Flynn as a writer. In reading Gone Girl I felt like I knew Nick and Amy, in the sense that they were recognizable, real, fully-formed characters, and yet I didn’t know them at all, in the sense that they were their own constructs, adept at deceiving me as well as each other. I don’t know how she did that, but the skill with which she did gives the book that chilling, disorienting feeling you mentioned. Any time I thought I had learned something true about one of them, I would later learn that I had been fooled. Flynn’s books are so — here it comes! — creepy because they make you distrust your everyday life. We’re all just lying machines.

I had to think about your question on tone. It’s something I usually take in subconsciously until somebody points it out. There are two faces to her writing — the realism of her settings and characters, and what you call the Gothic touches, but I call the wackos. The evolution that I see is these two elements moving towards each other. That is, in Sharp Objects I felt we were in a normal small town but there were WACKOS EVERYWHERE!, but by Gone Girl the wackos were hiding in plain sight. It became harder with each successive book to say, “I don’t know any people like that,” because the point was that you wouldn’t know if you did.

I noticed the class issue even less. Tell me what you think.

EL: I’m beginning to think that tone is the last frontier in fiction. Sure, we still see experimentation with language and the cross-pollination of genres and the like, but lately the narrative art that I’m both invested in and puzzled by plays with tone: this sense that I can’t quite pin it down — is it meant to be funny, or somber? Is it meant to be irreverent or transcendent? Am I supposed to weep or curse? Probably all of the above — and yet, the work still feels driven, intentional. I feel this playfulness with tone when I watch Louis C.K.’s eponymous show on FX, and I feel it with Flynn’s novels, too: it’s a refusal to be categorized emotionally, and it’s product of a nuanced point of view. With Flynn’s work, I feel like she’s playing with this idea that murder is sensationalized and gossiped about and profited from. It’s also awful and terrorizing, and that will never ever change no matter how many episodes of Cold Case or Law & Order that you watch in a day. She acknowledges both of these elements in her books.

There’s a great review of Gone Girl in Full-Stop by Catie Disabato, which talks about how Flynn’s book is really two books in one, and I totally agree. Disabato points out that all of the reviews discuss the first half, which is the mystery. None of the reviews mention the second half — which isn’t a mystery at all — because they don’t want give anything away. I wonder if Flynn’s next book will even have a mystery in it, period. People would call it “a departure” but I think her novels are working in this direction, away from a straight-up whodunit crime book. Each novel is less straightforward structurally and tonally than the next.

And, lastly, there’s a ton of stuff about class in her novels. In Sharp Objects, the narrator’s family is the richest in town, which gives them power and enables certain crimes to happen. In Dark Places, the narrator’s family is the poorest in town, and her brother is lured by the wealth (not to mention the hot pussy) of the richest girl in town; also, what the narrator does in the present action of the story is initially motivated by a need for money — she has to pay the rent, so she must face her past whether she wants to or not. In Gone Girl, much of their Missouri town has been devastated by the recent recession; I will never forget that chilling scene in the abandoned mall, taken over by squatters, junkies, and those simply forgotten by the rest of the country. One of the reasons the whole country bands together in support of Amy, I think, is because she is “wholesome” and “middle-class” — the kind of girl everyone supposedly loves/is supposed to love. Had she been poor (and/or not white), the machine would not have consumed her story as it did. Overall, Flynn seems interested in the ways that poverty and wealth can alter (i.e., wreck)  the human psyche.

I hope there’s a grad student out there writing a PhD dissertation called Rich Girl, Poor Girl: Gillian Flynn and The Economics of Murder. Or something.

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