Corkscrew in the Neck

Jacqueline Rose

  • The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
    Doubleday, 320 pp, £12.99, January 2015, ISBN 978 0 85752 231 3
  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
    Weidenfeld, 512 pp, £8.99, September 2014, ISBN 978 1 78022 822 8

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.’

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