Back when I was an art class nerd in high school, I once struggled with an assignment to use “negative space”. We were supposed to create a painting or artwork that communicated through the shape or presence of what wasn’t there, rather than what was.
I didn’t understand the assignment at the time, but I found myself thinking about “negative space” as I tried to figure out what was so fascinating about Gillian Flynn’s popular mystery thriller Gone Girl. The palpable tension of the story emerges from the chasm of credibility that lingers between two parallel stories: the alternating first-person narratives of a husband and a wife in a very bad marriage.
Gillian Flynn’s very clever and protean novel (which, yes, most people have already finished reading and finished talking about by now, but I’m slow) takes the concept of the unreliable narrator to a new level. Her cursed husband and wife are both charmers and natural-born writers, so they are each believable in isolation as they tell their sides of a bleak, frightening story involving a disappearance and likely murder. But they contradict each other, and they contradict other people, and then sometimes other people contradict both of them together, and it’s impossible to tell (till the end of the story, which I won’t spoil here) which characters to trust more and which to trust less. It’s pretty clear that none should be trusted completely.
The negative space in this book between the husband’s and wife’s stories often produces a swirling comic effect, as with an extended sequence of reactions to a bite on a face that looks like hives (if you are inclined to believe so) or doesn’t (if you’re not). They lie to each other, they lie to their relatives and friends, and as they become sudden celebrities, they lie to their global audiences (indeed, the needs of a voracious thrill-hungry global audience plays as big a role in development of this novel’s plot as it does in Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games).
As I read Gone Girl, I felt tremendous admiration for author Gillian Flynn’s ability to calculate and manipulate layers of half-truths that wax and wane — and also an appreciation for the psychological accuracy of all her characterizations. Her sharpest portraits are those of the two ambitious spouses at the center of the story, both dreadfully caught in self-inflected traps of misguided love and naive romantic idealism. They both, sadly, really want their difficult marriage to work, but are unable to stop harming and hating each other. Flynn’s minor characters (a trusting sister, several meddling parents, two Ozark drifters in a hotel, a puzzled lady cop) are also sharply drawn portraits of brittle psychological fragility.
Gone Girl uses negative space in yet another way: it is a bestselling thriller about violence in which no violence (or at least very little) takes place. Except to the pride and self-regard of the novel’s married hero and heroine, paragons of selfishness yearning for something called love, though they don’t know what it is.