Flynn is best known for her hugely successful third novel, “Gone Girl,” in which a wealthy, beautiful woman, Amy Elliott Dunne, elaborately frames her husband for her own murder in order to avenge his infidelity and typical masculine neglect. In the process, she fakes a rape, murders an ex-boyfriend and impregnates herself by stealing her husband’s frozen sperm before eventually returning home, and to the marriage, which is now significantly more troubled than it was at the outset. If Flynn were going to carry out a nonfictional crime, Nolan can take small comfort in knowing she would never stop at such an obvious place as “wife murders husband.”
To experience Flynn’s work is to submit yourself to a series of increasingly incredulous what?s: a deliberate first act of unsettling exposition and character development sets up a chain of wild twists in the second. The stories are propelled by female narrators who lay bare their nastiest impulses to the audience — but not, crucially, to the people in their lives — adding psychological depth and the sense of illicit confession to the cheap thrills of her high-wire plots. Her debut novel, “Sharp Objects,” follows Camille Preaker, an alcoholic journalist with a baroque self-harm regimen (she carves vulgar words into her skin), as she reports on a string of murders of young girls in her Missouri hometown; Camille stays with her mother, who we eventually learn has Munchausen syndrome by proxy and has been poisoning her daughters (but that discovery is hardly where the story ends). Flynn’s second novel, “Dark Places,” centers on Libby Day, who witnessed — or believed she witnessed — her brother murder her mother and sisters when she was 7; but when she meets a group of true-crime enthusiasts debating the old case, she begins to question her memory.
These books sold well, but neither Flynn nor her publishers anticipated the omnipresent best seller — or object of scorn — that “Gone Girl” would become. Since then, she has also benefited from a trend in feminist cultural criticism: These days representations of the “messy” lives of “flawed” women are celebrated as indications of a multifaceted (and maybe even “radical”) portrayal of the gender. Though “Sharp Objects” didn’t garner much critical attention in 2006 — when, as she says, the biggest conflict female protagonists faced was “can she get the boy and can she get the shoes and, oh, she’s had a cosmo again!” — over the summer it became a relentlessly dissected limited series on HBO starring Amy Adams, with Flynn as an executive producer. Next year, Amazon will host the series “Utopia,” about a group of online friends investigating government conspiracies, with Flynn adapting it from the British series as creator, executive producer and showrunner. And this month “Widows,” a film she adapted from the 1980s British TV series of the same name with the director Steve McQueen, will be released. Viola Davis stars — in a cast that includes Liam Neeson, Daniel Kaluuya and Colin Farrell — as the ringleader of a group of women who plan a robbery after their husbands are killed trying to pull off a different heist.
Video games are supposed to be, to borrow Jorge Luis Borges’s favorite motif, labyrinthine. Regardless of how trapped players may feel when confronting a particular obstacle, they can generally assume that there is a puzzle to crack and a way to crack it — a way to reach the center of the labyrinth. This is why I found video games so fulfilling, and no doubt why my introduction to “serious” literature as a teenager was primarily through 20th-century modernists like Virginia Woolf and Hermann Hesse. In their novels, personal improvement seemed to be a matter of process; their characters fight indecision or internal conflict by scaling their own psychological summits or, to draw a comparison to video games, by taking a crack at solving their own inner puzzles. The idea of a challenging yet well-ordered world so prevalent in modernist literature may seem dated now, but as a young reader and video game player I found it tremendously appealing.
Today these debates continue. Looking at Dickinson’s original manuscripts and Todd’s original transcriptions of them, we can clearly see ways in which Todd and Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson (the well-known abolitionist, Civil War hero and 19th-century literary advocate whom she convinced to join her in the editing project for the first two volumes of poetry published in 1890 and 1891) altered words, changed capitalization and punctuation and perhaps most controversially, gave titles to poems that originally bore none. And yet it is clear that without the work of Mabel Loomis Todd and later, Millicent Todd Bingham, the world might never have known the poetry of Emily Dickinson.
Aesop’s fables. How many do you know? Probably between five and ten. The tortoise and the hare, the grasshopper and the ants. Good. Squeeze for a minute, you’ll come up with more. The lion who spares the mouse and then helps him later. The goose who lays the golden omelets. Go ahead and recite a couple, right now. Do your heart some good.
But wait. Go back a second. When you recited ’em, did you forget to add the morals? I bet you did. It’s not as easy to remember to put the moral in there.
I did not fall in love with that man at the pool. He went home to his life in another city, and I to mine. For weeks afterward, when I thought about our interaction, I still felt a pang of guilt alongside the longing. It wasn’t as though I wanted him, specifically, but rather that I wanted to be able to feel a spark like that again. It was such a hallmark of my relationship with Shawn that I missed deeply. It felt wrong to want that with someone other than my husband, but it also felt good to have those emotions again. I didn’t know how to reconcile both sets of feelings.
I didn’t tell anyone right away. What would my friends think? Maybe they would tell me that it was great, but I was convinced not everyone would approve. I didn’t know the “right” amount of time that was supposed to pass until I was allowed to start dating. “Are you sure that you’re ready?” I could hear people asking. That question, of course, has all sorts of judgment within it.
Sanders’s blow-by-blow reconstruction of the sessions embodies his book’s greatest strength and weakness. Dylan’s playfulness certainly comes through, as when he gives “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” the working title of “A Long-Haired Mule and a Porkepine.” An amateur Dylanologist, I found the book gripping, but for the uninitiated, there’s not necessarily much narrative tension in the musicians’ retrospective discussion of the songs’ keys and tempos and in transcriptions of Dylan in the studio, stammering, for instance, “I think the drums should be there. I can’t sense it without the drums.”
In “Behold, America: The Entangled History of ‘America First’ and ‘the American Dream,’” Churchwell explores how the two phrases wended their way through American politics in the first half of the 20th century, journeying from hazy sentiments to loaded clichés.
This is a timely book. It’s also a provocative one. In addition to offering some historical perspective, Churchwell has a point to make. “America first” might never shed the stain of virulent racism and anti-Semitism, but the American dream, she suggests, has a real and discernible meaning located in its origins, one that gives “voice to principled appeals for a more generous way of life.”