But the novel – like the 41-year-old Flynn herself – is a deeply felt product of the midwest. The real place, not the idly dismissed fantasy image held in the minds of those too lazy to venture out into what really goes on in the American heartland. The book is set in an ailing Missouri river town on the banks of the Mississippi – the same giant waterway that inspired Mark Twain. But the town is dying, its mall crushed by an ailing economy and its McMansions crumbling at the seams. Beneath the surface glitter of the marriage of Nick and Amy Dunne, dark things lurk: secrets, hidden plans and desperation.
To anyone who knows the midwest for real, this is no surprise. This is the same region that gave us Truman Capote’s exploration of random, empty Kansas murderers in his masterful In Cold Blood. This is a place founded on the old grass prairies, whose Native American inhabitants were butchered and displaced, and whose soil was ripped up. The midwest is the Indian Creek massacre and the “dust bowl” as much as Little House on the Prairie.
Who knew the Midwest was so dark? Actually, this sort of portrayal sounds very similar to a common genre of work about suburbs that arose after World War II. Both the Midwest and suburbs might be viewed as the “heartland” or where “average” Americans go to live. (At the same time, the Midwest can’t claim the same sort of population proportions as the suburbs – now over 50% of Americans live in suburbs.) But, authors, filmmakers, artists, and musicians have frequently “exposed” the seemy underside of these places. There is no doubt that there are bad things lurking below the surface in all places so perhaps the issue here is the facade that cultural producers think too often gets portrayed as “the truth” about the Midwest and suburbs.
Overall, certain places tend to get a more noir treatment compared to others. For example, the Los Angeles School of urban scholars has argued that Los Angeles also is presented in this way – it may look like a glamorous, sunny place but there is a lot of crime and cruelty below the surface. (See the revered movie Chinatown or the TV show Dragnet.) From the perspective of the LA School, this noir treatment tells the truth as it exposes the capitalistic underpinnings that make Los Angeles both glittering and a hotbed of inequality. Should we take a similar perspective about the Midwest – it really is a place with problems that need to be revealed to the world?