My recent interview with Barbara Rogan about her superb literary mystery A Dangerous Fiction got me thinking about one of my favorite genre-blending novels ever, Gone Girl.
Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is the story of a woman’s mysterious disappearance. It’s also the gut-wrenching exploration of her and her husband’s marriage. I relished every word, although it did make me glance at my partner suspiciously for about a week…
Like me, most people loved the book but many were frustrated with the ending. I thought the ending was perfect, but this ambivalence got me thinking: most readers either love or hate how the book ends. Why the extremity?
Then it dawned on me: genre conventions! Readers who consider Gone Girl a thriller are bound to be disappointed, as it violates one of the genre’s most fundamental precepts—a straightforward ending in which the good guy or gal wins. In Gone Girl, there is no Robert Langdon to save the Vatican.
The truth is that Gone Girl is kind of hard to categorize. The compound adjectives we save for thriller novels apply: the book is fast-paced, hair-raising, heart-pounding. The two main characters give us diverging interpretations of the unfolding story, to the point where we’re confounded and can’t trust either. They cast blame on each other, constantly withholding snippets of the truth from us. Reading the book becomes an exercise in finding who they really are. It gets harder and harder to sympathize with either of them.
That’s because it is not an ordinary thriller but a literary one.
The terms “genre” and “literary” have never been mutually exclusive, of course. Beloved writers like Margaret Atwood, China Mieville and Cormac McCarthy have successfully married the two.
And yet, the ending of Gone Girl is at odds with what we know about the thriller genre. Unlike most thrillers, the novel does not end in the climactic confrontation between protagonist and antagonist. In fact, we have a hard time deciding who’s good and who’s bad! Neither character gets retribution for the wrongs he or she has committed—to others and to each other. Anne and Nick’s marriage survives—most ominously! It is this defiance of readers’ expectations of a thriller-like resolution that makes the book genre bending—and wonderfully so to my mind.
But genre bending could be a dangerous game. An inconclusive ending is a delight for some readers and a grave disappointment to others.
To what extent do genre conventions dictate the way you write your book? Do you play with the rules?