There seems to be something about having the word ‘girl’ in the title of a book that guarantees huge sales. First, Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, which I – like many readers, I assume – couldn’t put down, but which on reflection I found deeply repellent (more than one or two critics have concurred). Apparently the film is even worse, as in, even more misogynist, making the novel seem retrospectively almost progressive. This I can’t imagine. So far I have felt no inclination to see the film, and when asked why not, I realise I start to sound like one of the elderly disgruntled relatives from my childhood who would repeatedly announce, in relation to some film or other, that he didn’t see why he should throw good money after such rubbish. Now we have The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins, the ‘No. 1 bestseller’ as it says on the paperback cover, whose phenomenal success I hoped this time I would appreciate (it too is being made into a film). I could barely read it but read on anyway, wanting to know more or less from page one why such hatred of women would be so popular. I should have known better. After all, hatred of women is something that has concerned me for decades.
By the way, the last two sentences of that paragraph – a bit self-satisfied, blasé, easy-going despite the subject matter – could have been lifted, stylistically speaking, from either of the two novels, whose breezy, matter of fact ‘sanity’ about women who are complete wrecks and/or evil has none of the swish of, say, Fay Weldon’s clipped, often brutal but hilarious advertisement-copy polished prose (she worked in an ad firm before writing her first novel). One of the reasons for the success of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train may be that they make violence not just compelling, like any horror story, nor just manageable, like detective stories (which always reassure us that the worst will finally be contained by the law), but digestible, a bit like consuming a TV dinner, legs outstretched, in an armchair. Sitting there (metaphorically), I felt I was being invited to identify as a reader with a man – a man not particularly sexual, or fit or even menacing, in fact someone who is pretty bored by the world – for whom misogyny just happens to be the best show in town, and, since both these stories were written by women, simply a fact of life that has nothing to do with him (even if, as we will see, he just might be a killer). This is Tom, key male player, near the end of The Girl on the Train: ‘He leans back on the sofa, his legs spread wide apart, the big man, taking up space.’ That women make up a large part of the readership of these novels would be no objection. Again there is nothing new here. Patriarchy thrives by encouraging women to feel contempt for themselves. ‘I don’t understand myself; I don’t understand the person I’ve become,’ laments Rachel, the first and main narrator of The Girl on the Train (she is the girl in question). ‘God, he must hate me. I hate me’ – self-hating and self-ignorant, both.
In these novels, hatred of women is a nonchalant kind of pleasure, neither here nor there. This is the perfect tone for a no-blame culture that takes the present dispensation, however awful, as the only dispensation the world has ever seen, or ever will. All that matters is to get in there and then keep up the pace so that you – characters and reader – never have a minute to think. Stop worrying. Relax. Enjoy yourself. You’re not alone in getting off on one of the ugliest facets of the modern world (which gives the idea of harmless entertainment a new twist). Enter here and you can lose yourself. Perhaps an even better image for the reader of these novels, it occurred to me, might therefore be that of a woman drunk, an image I also lift straight off the pages of Hawkins’s novel: ‘Drunk Rachel sees no consequences … She has no past, no future. She exists purely in the moment.’
It is during one of her repeated journeys into London that Rachel first catches sight through her train window of a woman, Megan, who rouses her curiosity, but later disappears and will subsequently be found murdered. Rachel was on the scene on the night of the crime: it is where she once lived, where Tom, her ex-husband, is now happily ensconced with his new wife, Anna, and their baby, hence the perverse pull of the place (Rachel is a stalker). But she can remember nothing. She spends a lot of time considering whether hypnotherapy might restore memories lost to blackout, researching whether they can be so deeply buried in the mind that it is as if they have never existed: ‘Total black; hours lost, never to be retrieved.’ Rachel is a lost soul: ‘My better angels lost again, defeated by drink, by the person I am when I drink.’ ‘I lost and I drank and I drank and I lost.’ This despite the fact that, to the immense irritation of the police, and pretty much everyone else, she also takes on the role of sleuth. All she retains from the night of the crime are cuts and bruises. She is either the agent or the victim of violence (or possibly both). Much of the suspense of The Girl on the Train stems therefore from a tantalising but vicious ambiguity: what was done to her? Or, what has she done to herself? After Colin Dexter and John Thaw’s Inspector Morse, Ian Rankin’s Rebus and Helen Mirren’s Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect, Rachel raises the tradition of the alcoholic detective to a new level. The novel’s main protagonist spends most of her time on train journeys, with no purpose other than to keep up the pretence that she is still working at a firm from which she has been sacked for being drunk on the job, or else – sometimes both at the same time – completely out of her head. Rachel, we could say, is a ‘trainwreck’ (a term in fact used today to describe women who lose it because they party too much).
At the end – and I realise I am spoiling the plot – it turns out she knows the truth. The central male character, Tom, is the true villain of the piece. He killed Megan, with whom he had been having an affair, after she told him she was pregnant. Megan had been already been attacked by her husband, Scott: when she told him about the affair he hurled her against a wall and tried to choke her. Rachel has been the victim of a more or less psychotic plot to take out her mind (shades of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper). But for me at least, this seems oddly to make no difference. By the time we get here, the image of Rachel as self-pitying drunk is fixed in the reader’s mind. At the moment she is vindicated, she becomes a murderer, killing Tom, whom she and Anna have just confronted. Of course we can read this as the ultimate radical feminist narrative. In the face of male violence, the woman takes the law into her own hands. But if so, this surely leads us into a trap, one that the novel graphically stages. This feminism can only incriminate the male species – and it is always by implication the whole male species – by offering the woman as pure victim, leaving no other solution for the woman than to enact, make her very own, the violence that is meant to belong to men alone. There is no question but that Rachel, and then Anna, who finishes the job, get pleasure from killing Tom, as they turn the corkscrew in his neck (screw you). Could Hawkins have chosen a less phallic symbol for her ‘feminist’ dénouement? I suspect not.
There are films in which women get away with murder, are allowed their moment of violence, but in such a way as to restore to them a sometimes gleeful agency in an unjust world – Thelma and Louise would be the most obvious, Almodóvar’s Volver would be another more sombre version. But not in this case. In The Girl on the Train, all the main female characters – Rachel herself, Anna, Megan – have, from beginning to end of the story, been complete dupes. For me, this fact completely overrides the moments of empathy into the condition of women scattered through the novel: Megan’s baby accidentally drowned when she was hardly more than a child herself, Rachel’s unending grief after the death of her brother, Anna’s gradual realisation of the emptiness of her domestic bliss. All of them are more like a sop or form of blackmail – insights into hopelessness. That includes the endlessly patient psychotherapist who treats Megan, and whom Rachel, stalking again, also consults. For a while, she is convinced that the psychotherapist was Megan’s lover and then killed her (so why is she consulting a murderer?). What do these women want? Not one of them turns out to have been responsible for her fate. At the end, it’s not just Megan who is left without any future to speak of.
We could say that such blindness goes with the territory, or genre. After all, detective fiction hangs on our failure to read the world around us until the truth finally comes to light. But in this case, that failure is gendered: it belongs to the women, even if the veil finally falls just in time – although not for Megan – from their eyes. What propels the plot, keeps up the suspense, is the gullibility of girls (as in ‘silly girl’). This is what you are being asked to enjoy. Without it, there would be no story. You would not be turning the page. That is the deal for anyone reading this book.
Gone Girl is, you might want to say, a whole different story. The main female protagonist, Amy Elliott Dunne, is not a dupe. Far from it. She is too clever by half, an arch-manipulator who stages her own disappearance so as to incriminate her husband, Nick Dunne, with her murder (just in case you miss the point of the name, the back cover asks: ‘What have we done to each other?’). As I was reading, I remembered the list a friend and I once started drawing up of things men would only ever say to women. ‘Too clever for your own good’ came high, alongside ‘I love a good argument’ and ‘You look beautiful when you’re cross with me.’ Gone Girl is the perfect enactment of a brand of misogyny that has women’s minds – as much as, or more than, their bodies – in its sights. This is Nick, in the novel’s first line: ‘When I think of my wife, I always think of her head … a finely shaped head. You could imagine the skull quite easily … Like a child, I picture opening her skull, unspooling her brain and sifting through it, trying to catch and pin down her thoughts.’ You fall straight into a trap, however, if you read this as Nick condemning himself out of his own mouth. The problem is Amy, whose mind, as the novel will unfold, never sleeps. ‘At her easiest, she was hard, because her brain was always working, working, working.’ Nick’s remarks, we will discover, are neither prejudice nor blindness, but insight.
In fact , the two books are mirror images of each other. If in The Girl on the Train women lack intelligence, in Gone Girl the woman has too much, which she uses to torture her husband with the cruellest precision and effectiveness (in a corresponding symmetry, this means that men are either killers or puppets on a string). Either way, intelligence is not something women deploy to any good. Hawkins also makes a nod to Flynn when, for example, Megan’s husband, with the police on his trail after Megan’s disappearance, expostulates to Rachel that he has been set up by his vanished wife: ‘“I am a guilty man,” Scott says, his face contorted in anguish. “I am as good as convicted.”’ Or when Tom, doing his bit to plant the same suspicion against Scott, suggests to Rachel, during one of their rare, or rarely calm, encounters, that ‘Anna says that they argued a lot. That Megan sometimes seemed a little afraid of him.’ Gone Girl is, we could say, less subtle. The last entry of Amy’s diary, fabricated for the police who will find it, reads: ‘This man might kill me. This man might kill me.’
It’s the sinister effect of Gone Girl to make you believe, for the first half of the book, that Nick is the killer, and then turn this story on its head. But it’s only because this type of violence is so familiar that the strategy works, and the reader is drawn in, primed for a mid-novel switch ‘so shocking’, as one reviewer put it, ‘you’ll drop the book.’ Up to that point, you could be reading The Girl on the Train: that is, a story where the man turns out to be guilty. In Gone Girl, wife-killing is the ultimate tease, given with one hand and then taken back with the other. It is something cooked up by women to trap husbands they have gone off, ceased to love, or whom they feel they have been trapped by. Amy is the killer. More or less imprisoned by the former boyfriend she turns to after her disappearance, she seduces and then murders him, staging the death as if she had been clubbed, knifed and raped, to the point of bruising herself and planting his extracted semen inside her own body. She is, in Nick’s formula, ‘a sociopath and a murderer’, or – the title of the novel he tries to write to counter her version – ‘Psycho Bitch’. By the end of the book, though, he is completely in her power, going through the motions of a reconciliation to stave off his fear – reasonable, we’re led to believe – that she will kill him next (he destroys his novel in order to placate her). She has also inseminated herself – she seems to like doing this – with his long-ago frozen sperm and is now pregnant (playing nicely on another male dread). In this light, and as with The Girl on the Train, the novel’s moments of quasi-feminist understanding, such as a diatribe against the ‘Cool Girl’, meaning women who invent themselves solely for men’s pleasure, feel gestural, at best.
Women tell tales. Critics have of course picked up on the disturbing proximity between this notion and the eagerness of large sections of the press and public to discredit women who have been subject to domestic abuse: women who hesitate to step forward because they don’t think they will be believed; who decide not to go to the police or through the courts because of the small likelihood of securing a conviction or because the whole process – the only partly sympathetic, often sceptical, official ear – will be experienced as a repetition of the original violence; or who withdraw charges because they are still embedded with and dependent on a violent partner; or women who can say and do nothing because they are dead. Flynn has tapped into the zeitgeist, making the scepticism to which such women are subjected the driving mechanism of her plot. When the reader discovers that she has been duped, the options are limited: self-contempt for having been, like more or less everyone in the novel, such a fool, or disgust at Amy. But the skill with which Amy plots her trail, littering her path with false or indecipherable clues, makes it impossible not to accord her a grudging admiration. Amy is, in her way, a novelist, like her parents, whose series Amazing Amy has cashed in on her life story since she was a child (they struggle to find the right tone for the latest instalment: ‘Our daughter was kidnapped and repeatedly raped by a monster she had to stab in the neck … but this is in no way a cash grab’). She is the supreme artist, a role model, in fact we could say, for Flynn. In an interview, Flynn insists on Amy’s good qualities: ‘She plans, she follows through, she excels, she doesn’t settle, she dreams big.’ Once again, the misogyny is in the form. After all, the greatest gift of the thriller writer, like that of a woman lying through her teeth, is to lead us down the garden path for as long as is humanly possible. On the other hand, Nick is, by his own account, a ‘one-woman misogynist’ who focuses all his fury and venom on the ‘one woman who deserved it’ – which makes him ‘sane’. By the end, he really wants to kill her, but – the implication is – who wouldn’t?
So: why these novels, this success, now – at the very moment when the fact of violence against women has become something that no one can avoid? Why two novels that, in their different ways, turn abuse of women into a treat? (‘lick your wounds,’ as one might say). And why ‘girl’, with its instant connotation of the prepubescent, not quite developed, but already sexual being? Whether victim or devious – and ‘girl’ surely flattens out the key difference – the image invoked is that of a creature who is pliable, and, if not exactly asking for it, then at the very least ripe for potential abuse. The giveaway is in the titles, their sly complicity with the diminishment of one half of the human race and a world that still permits it. ‘Girl’ as crucially to be distinguished from, for example, ‘riot grrrl’ (the radical Washington-based 1990s music initiative), which turns ‘girl’ to subversive use. ‘Backlash’ would be one diagnosis – men who angrily reclaim their threatened privilege in response to the successes of feminism. But ‘backlash’ doesn’t quite do it, and not just because these novels are written by women. This is nastier, more bloody, all the while mounting its assault on women’s right to think. We should remember, however, that it’s never a question of conscious thought alone. As second-wave feminism discovered, you can’t raise consciousness without stirring the unconscious beneath (perhaps it’s for this, above all, that feminism is punished). Of course we can argue – I myself have argued and would still argue – that women have the right to any fantasies they wish. Nonetheless, the message of these novels rings out loud and clear: if women can take pleasure in what they have most to fear, then so can everybody else.