My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“America is not a young land: it is old and dirty and evil before the settlers, before the Indians. The evil is there waiting,” wrote William S. Burroughs, a writer who was born, like Gillian Flynn, in Kansas City, MO, and who ended his days in Lawrence, KS. Dark Places, a novel from and of the middle of Burroughs’s America, suggests much the same. Despite Flynn’s post-Gone Girl status as bestseller and crowd-pleaser, her second novel offers a surprisingly grim view of nation and humanity, and it does so in a satisfyingly rich, if often grotesque, prose:
I kept glancing at her breasts, which were even bigger than mine, tightly packed and well trussed so they poked straight out. I pictured them under there, shiny and globular like cellophaned chicken.
This startling and memorable observation, one of many, comes from the novel’s partial narrator, Libby Day. A woman in her early 30s, Libby is the lone survivor of a murderous attack on her family’s farm in 1985, an attack that left her mother and two sisters dead and her brother imprisoned for life as the killer. Libby’s life has been stunted since childhood, as she has been able to live on the various funds her family’s tragic notoriety has raised. She can therefore evade her trauma by doing next to nothing; she exists in a depressive state of mental inertia. She wants to avoid above all of the “dark places” in her memory of the murders:
Maniacal smears of bright red sound in the night. That inevitable, rhythmic axe, moving as mechanically as if it were chopping wood. Shotgun blasts in a small hallway. The panicked, jaybird cries of my mother, still trying to save her kids with half her head gone.
But the money in Libby’s bank account is running out, and, unprepared for a normal 9-to-5 life, she gets involved with the Kill Club’s investigation of her family’s murder. The Kill Club, an invention worthy of DeLillo, is a group of men and women devoted in a fannish way to infamous murders. Those who have looked into the Day killing have concluded that Libby’s brother, Ben, is in fact innocent of the murders and was convicted largely due to the “Satanic panic” of the 1980s, given that he was a teenager who listened to heavy metal and, for shock value, spoke about devil worship.
In alternating chapters, Libby narrates her own quest to discover the truth about the murders; she does so in the sardonic tones of the outsider, the one uninvolved in social life who can consequently express how ridiculous and disgusting social life often is. The chapters between those narrated by Libby are third-person accounts of the day of the murders, beginning in early morning and ending with the carnage, told from the alternating viewpoints of Libby’s mother, Patty, and her brother, Ben. The novel, in keeping with its disillusioned appraisal of human existence, gradually demonstrates how little Patty and Ben know about each other’s experiences; parent and child, living under the same roof, are strangers to each other.
The Patty and Ben chapters move inexorably toward two different types of doom—violent death for Patty and life imprisonment for Ben. They eventually add up to a picture of middle America in the 1980s, the time of the farm crisis and of stultifying cultural conservatism, as a hellish place to be a flawed or unsuccessful individual. Flynn convincingly shows the squalor of the Day family’s life on a failing farm, but without the sentimental condescension or “heartland” mythologizing that one might fear when a successful novelist turns her attention to flyover country. These superb chapters, more sober and conventionally “literary” in tone than Libby’s bitterly funny portion of the narrative, are in the realist-naturalist tradition going back to Zola and Chekhov: they grant poor people’s lives the dignity of literary prose with all its complexity and beauty, and they do so without moralism or pity.
Dark Places is a page-turning thriller, though. Masterfully constructed, it builds spectacularly, so that Libby’s increasing knowledge in the narrative present intertwines with the mounting revelations about the night of the murders in the alternate third-person chapters. Flynn creates a startlingly dual emotional effect with this doubled narration, as we watch a trap slowly spring for the Day family in the past even as we see Libby’s cage of ignorance and despair swing open in the present as she learns the truth about her life. Turning the pages faster and faster, we rush toward the darkness of slaughter and the light of the truth at once.
I will not reveal the novel’s secrets, except to say that Flynn’s is not a vision in which anyone is wholly innocent. Dark Places ultimately amounts to an inexplicit but undeniable indictment of the United States as a society that creates unattainable materialistic and moralistic ideals and then dispenses with all those—perhaps eventually everyone—unable to live up to them. The Satanic panic is part of a broader pattern: project evil outward, onto undesirable others, and never acknowledge it in the self. Likewise, live your life on credit, even if your life itself is eventually what you owe. Middle America is the novel’s dark place, awash in squalid illusion, living above its means and self-medicating with drugs and religion.
The novel is not “political” (i.e., orthodoxly left-liberal), in that it does not take the easy out of blaming some faceless elites for a cultural condition in which we all play a part; Flynn’s discomforting portrayal of the Satanic panic, for instance, shows the complicity of various left-liberal discourses and institutions, including feminism and the academic social and psychological sciences, in the mass delusion along with conformist Christians.
Dark Places is a wonderfully impressive novel, morally difficult and mordantly nihilistic. But it is not cheaply nihilistic: it never looks away from the cost in human suffering of the national and personal nothing we all live with. It implies in the end that the highest value may simply be endurance. Which brings me to a final, uncomfortable question: how did Flynn go from Dark Places, a novel of great literary achievement that merits its blurb-comparisons to Flannery O’Connor and John Steinbeck, to the poppy confection, the over-sweetened syrupy pastiche of moral complexity, that is Gone Girl? It isn’t that the later novel is without intelligence or interest, but I suspect it was written as a potboiler, and it reads like a calculated regression from all that Flynn can do.
Maybe the story in Flynn’s books is the story of her books too: it costs little less than everything to get ahead in America. Whatever the case, Flynn is surely free from the obligation to write for money now; I hope she gives us a novel as intricate and hideously beautiful as Dark Places again.