Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing

Gillian Flynn’s plotting in Dark Places

The deceptive attraction of overkill

This post discusses important plot points from each of Gillian Flynn’s three novels, in particular Dark Places. It’s aimed at people who have already read these books. If you don’t yet know, and don’t want to know what happens in them, don’t read on.

FLYNN: Despite what people might think from Gone Girl, plotting is not my forte. It doesn’t come naturally to me.

This is from an interview by Christopher Bollen with Gillian Flynn in Interview Magazine dated November 2018.

On reading that disclaimer by Gillian Flynn, my first reaction was a double-take. But I quickly saw that Flynn was expressing a truth that I’d been trying to approach from a different direction. Whatever else Gone Girl might be — portrait of a sociopath, gothic thriller, “grip-lit” — it’s without doubt a carefully plotted story. That final twist — Nick and Amy will stay together, after all they’ve done to each other and in spite of all they’ll do to each other in the future, because she’s got what he can’t leave behind: his child — has something like a structural function: it‘s like a knot in the end of the various narrative threads, tying everything up into a secure, if pungently rotten package. The author who put that package together knows how to plot, even if it doesn’t come easily to her.

In my review of Flynn’s first novel, Sharp Objects (which I read only after and as a result of having read Gone Girl), I commented that I didn’t expect her ever to write another novel as good as the latter. In retrospect, it’s clear that her first novel’s failure to measure up to her most successful one is a matter of plotting. The final revelation that it was Amma, not her mother, who killed Ann and Natalie is a vital plot point, and a significant one — Adora’s homicidal narcissism has been passed on (possibly though a combination of genetics and learned behaviour) to the next generation.

But the way this is handled isn’t satisfactory: it feels like a bit of exposition tacked on at the end. When she came to adapt the story for television, Flynn seemed to recognize the flaw and made the revelation of Amma’s guilt much more visual. (I haven’t seen the TV series, so I can’t say for sure how well this change works.) In Flynn’s middle novel, Dark Places, there’s no such obvious flaw in the plot — though I notice that at least one Goodreads reviewer finds that the simultaneous presence of two unconnected killers strains credibility.

The point, I think, is that the murders of Patty Day and her two eldest daughters, Michelle and Debby, has from the start looked like overkill: Patty has first been knifed, then butchered with an axe and finally shot with a shotgun. Debby gets the same treatment, apart from the knife. It’s only in comparison with this that Michelle’s death appears less violent — but she has been suffocated in her bed (a very violent act in itself), with her glasses being broken in the process.

A combination of circumstances, bad luck and extreme selfishness on the part of the males in the family has brought down on the Day household a calamity that can plausibly be painted as the work of the devil. If Runner and Ben have been the primary contributors to the state of affairs which made the massacre all but inevitable, it is the woman and girls, including the survivor, Libby, who have paid the price. (Ben, who is a confused teenager at the time of the killings and ends up spending 24 years in prison as a result, can be regarded as part-victim.)

The main narrative is Libby’s, in which she addresses the reader in the first person. Her story, in the present, alternates with third-person episodes told from the point of view of Ben, Patty and others and set at the time of the killing, 24 years earlier. It becomes clear that Ben’s and Patty’s stories are moving towards the climactic outburst of violence, just as Libby gets closer to her eventual confrontation with Diondra and Crystal, Ben’s daughter.

This is effective enough but but I couldn’t help feeling that the steady march towards the denouement was a bit mechanical or schematic. There was an incongruity between my certainty that the main revelation would come in Patty’s or Ben’s story (or, as it turned out, partly in one and partly in the other), while it was Libby’s narrative that really engaged my interest. In addition, the sense that I, as reader, was moving inexorably towards the final revelation tended to counteract any feeling of suspense, even though I was wholly caught up in the desire to know what had happened, and in the peculiarities of the characters.

The dissipation of suspense wasn’t helped by the feeling that Libby’s quest met few real obstacles. I haven’t managed to persuade myself that it’s plausible that Polly Palm would have had a listed phone number, for example.

If Flynn’s plotting in Dark Places is less compelling than one might hope, her characterization is much more impressive. The strongest parts of the novel, as I’ve already suggested, are those narrated by Libby who is one of the victims of the violent acts that were visited on her sisters and mother, but who doesn’t quite see herself that way, at least not most of the time. She’s a habitual liar and thief, who serially abuses the goodwill of her aunt, foster families and friends, and who describes herself as “deeply unlovable”.

She gave evidence at Ben’s trial, testifying that she had seen Ben at the scene of the murders. She believes she had heard his voice but the claim to have seen him is false. Her apparent perjury was not merely excusable but almost inevitable. In the first place, she was only 7 years old and traumatized. In one of the book’s most remarkable passages, she compares experiences with Krissi who, as an 11-year-old, had accused Ben of sexual abuse which hadn’t (quite) happened — Flynn’s handling of the degree of culpability that should attach to Ben is queasily impressive.

Krissi’s description of the psychologist’s steering her towards the answer that the investigators wanted recalls Libby’s own experience with the doctor who induced her to give evidence against Ben. Here is Krissi:

You seem like a smart, brave girl. I’m relying on you to tell me what happened. Oh, nothing happened? Gosh, I thought you were braver than that. I was really hoping you’d be brave enough to help me out on this.

Libby’s memory of her own interviews is strikingly similar:

I know this is hard for you, Libby, but if you say it, say it aloud, you will help your mom and sisters, and you will help yourself start to heal. Don’t bottle it up, Libby, don’t bottle up the truth. You can help us make sure Ben is punished for what he did to your family.

Considering that we often project what we least like about ourselves onto others, Libby is surprisingly forgiving and understanding of Krissi.

In the end, I felt that because of Flynn’s “overkill” approach to the story, there were just too many plot threads converging on the final carnage. I could happily have done without the devil worship and the accompanying slaughter of the livestock — and equally without Diondra’s unhousetrained dogs! The cascade of events in Patty’s and Ben’s stories eventually came to seem like just one damned thing after (or on top of) another. This felt particularly jarring as the more compelling part of the story, Libby’s journey, seemed cut off from the rest, as being a first person narrative set in the present, juxtaposed with two third-person stories set 24 years earlier.

(Some people would no doubt characterize Libby’s path as one leading to “redemption” — I prefer to see it as a trajectory of self-discovery, self-conciliation and, OK, if you must, self-forgiveness. But keep in mind that, as it turned out, Libby was much less in need of forgiveness than she’d believed.)

Comparing this book with one I reviewed not long ago, Joakim Zander’s The Swimmer, I’m tempted to conclude that the alternation of first-person narrative with other points of view in the same story is a difficult trick to pull off. Flynn at least does a better job of it than Zander does. Her next novel (Gone Girl, of course) would be a great leap forward.

I’ll leave the parting shot to Runner Day, father to Libby, Ben and their murdered sisters:

“Ben’d got her pregnant. Or that’s what he said. Made a big deal out of it, like it’s hard to do …”

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