For as long as there have been reviews and blurbs and publicists, the phrase “This summer’s [insert name of last year’s bestseller]” has been beguiling — and assaulting — readers from the catalogs and roundups that roll out around this time each year. In the aughts, for instance, wave after wave of empowered, transformative female characters set the standard against which other novels were marketed. In 2004 and 2005, any frothy, sartorial saga that hinted at the indignities of working as an underling was “This summer’s The Devil Wears Prada.” In 2006 and 2007, tales of ass-kicking punkettes on the fringes of society were inevitably “This summer’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” In 2008 and 2009, any woebegone memoir of triumph-through-travel was “This summer’s Eat, Pray, Love.” In 2009 and 2010, any injustices in small-town America were “This summer’s The Help.”
And since then, every novel that hints at an unreliable narrator, that presupposes that marriage is not all hand-holding and dream-sharing, that lets a lady go off the rails and takes us along for the ride, is, of course, “This summer’s Gone Girl.”
It’s a sensible, and most likely lucrative, marketing ploy. Call to mind a universally beloved page-turner, insert a quick reminder that this is a summer read to ensure no reader will fret over its seriousness, and use Emily Dickinson’s favorite vaguely specific word, “this,” to imply immediacy and hipness — and voila! In just a few simple words, an unheard-of derivative novel becomes The Next Big Seller. (This tactic is, of course, a cousin to that mathematically suspect equation that blurbers often resort to, e.g., “Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep + Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm = Tana French’s The Secret Place)
For most novels, any comparison to a breakaway hit is a boon — and in some cases, tectonic shifts in publishing do cause a cavalcade of similar novels to be released in a few short years. There can be any number of witty looks inside the desperate striving of the New York magazine scene, or Scandinavian crime novels that pit fiery investigators against the machinations of violent political ideologues. As Cheryl Strayed’s Wild has proven, even Eat, Pray, Love — that totem clutched to many a 30-something’s chest — can be matched or surpassed in readers’ hearts. I’d gladly read another brilliant travel memoir by a soulful woman, or sip on a cocktail of the Manhattan art scene’s ugly inner workings. But when it comes to Gone Girl, I simply never want to read another book like it again. Or for a dozen years at the very least.
This isn’t because I didn’t enjoy Gone Girl. I tore through it (perhaps ill-advisedly, as I was engaged at the time — but am happily married now, thank you very much) with the same ferocity as millions of other readers across the country. This also isn’t because I thought it was so great as to be inimitable. In many ways, Gone Girl is really a pastiche of the many tricks and illusions that crime writers employ; any Patricia Highsmith or Shirley Jackson reader has seen these devices at work before. I don’t want to read this summer’s, or any summer’s, Gone Girl because touting a book as such inevitably means that the ending — hell, the entire plotline — holds no real secrets. We know it will be “surprising,” and therefore, it won’t.
The traditional relationship between the reader and the narrator is like that of a guide and his follower wandering through an unusual and potentially dangerous landscape. The guide mustn’t necessarily reveal every detail of what they know and observe, but they do need to offer just enough information keep their follower intrigued. From the moment we notice that our narrator is unreliable (and nearly all narrators are inherently unreliable; as James Wood quotes W.G. Sebald in his How Fiction Works, “fiction writing which does not acknowledge the uncertainty of the narrator himself is a form of imposture I find very, very difficult to take. Any form of authorial writing where the narrator sets himself up as stagehand and director and judge and executor in a text, I find somehow unacceptable”), we begin to wonder which facts about our surroundings were burnished with the stain of the narrator’s own emotions, or which crucial details have been left unsaid.
When Nick Carraway introduces himself to readers of The Great Gatsby by claiming he is “inclined to reserve all judgments” — and then proceeds to label Tom a boor, Daisy a silly narcissist, and Gatsby a pretender, we know to expect emotional manipulation. We know that American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman is delusional, and A Clockwork Orange’s Alex is insane, and that their tales are certainly embellished, enhanced, or even fictional at times. Each unreliable narrator is unreliable in their own way; our determination of how to interpret those inconsistencies helps to form the pattern of the novel.
But for the novels that have repeatedly been labeled as new versions of Gone Girl — The Girl on the Train, The Silent Wife, You Should Have Known, and this year’s Disclaimer; all tales of marital mistrust and psychological warfare — the narrative unreliability is patently obvious from the beginning. It does not shape the gradual architecture of the plot and its undercurrents. It tells us immediately that we are engaging in a farce. In replicating the tottering narrative device of Gone Girl, these books reveal their catch at once — that, as Janet Maslin said in her 2012 review, “Both Nick and Amy are extremely adept liars, and they lied to each other a lot. Now they will lie to you.”
Gone Girl distinguished itself by using a set of narrators who not only couldn’t trust each other, they couldn’t trust the world around them, their own internal compasses, or the existence of the very reality they found themselves in. And most importantly for the reader, they created a narrative that was not just a lie, but a purposeful reconstruction designed to slowly eliminate any sense of trust that the reader might have in the idea of narration itself. The story you read wasn’t the story of Nick and Amy Dunne at all. It was the story constructed about their utter unreliability. That’s a once-in-a-generation magic trick.
When we’re promised that a book is a reiteration of a classic, say Howards End, what we’re hoping to feel in our reading experience is the same rich interplay of two colliding worlds, each struggling to adapt to modernity. Even by drastically altering the setting from Edwardian England to contemporary Cambridge, MA, and introducing race as a differentiating factor, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty still produced that same sentiment we get from Forster — that ineffable Forsterness that defines his novels.
But when we pick up a novel that promises to read like Gone Girl, what we hope to find is more than just an array of unreliable narrators. We want that feeling of utter surprise when we discover that the author herself has been playing a game with us the entire time. We don’t want the same trick that Flynn already pulled, or any variation on it. We want innovation, a novelist whose adeptness with a narrative arc is such that we’ll need to reread the novel once we’ve finished, just to understand how she pulled so many strings so smoothly.
There are rumors that Gillian Flynn is at work on a Gone Girl sequel. I hope that, instead, she doubles back and comes at us with a novel so removed from her usual array of small-town domestic nightmares that we are shocked all over again. After all, the woman whose delightfully twisted imagination produced the ever-surprising Amy Dunne certainly has more cards of her own to play.