Each evening I’m absorbed in murder, sharing mind-space with witty, chatty sociopaths who describe in detail the awful things they’re doing to the people around them. There are guns, drugs and sharp objects.
They drink and have lots of sex. They plan and scheme. Just when you think karma’s gonna get them, they slither off.
Often they are referred to generically in the titles of the novels I scarf down as “girls.” But this is, of course, ironic. Most of these characters are as girly as the sitting president is studly.
We’ve long had stacks of books filled with male protagonists who are not all sugar and spice and everything nice. Authors like inhabiting twisted minds – the weirder, the better. One of the best: Patricia Highsmith. The literary offspring of her Tom Ripley struts the pages of Caroline Kepnes’s “You” and will be stalking our TV screens this fall.
We don’t mind being in the heads of these fictional predators because we find things that make them human and relatable. We see their insecurities and fears and are not surprised by their anger; we are particularly accustomed to women who feel they’re not enough.
Contemporary novels of the kind I take out by the armload from the public library are filled with characters who will do anything to get what they want and inflict gory harm on those who have hurt them.
While there may not be many female serial killers or psychopaths in real life, when we’re presented with them, it’s hard to look away. People like Ma Anand Sheela, the brilliant and arrogant “star” of the Netflix docuseries, “Wild Wild Country” about the Rajneeshee cult, or Elizabeth Holmes, the ethics-free millennial mastermind behind the huckster Silicon Valley start-up Theranos, featured in Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou’s page-turner, “Bad Blood.” Those accounts, because they’re true, are profoundly unsettling.
Publishing has always been a follow-the-band business. Break-out books get copied, even down to the design of the jacket. And there’s zeitgeist contagion. Suddenly, there’s more than one movie about switching bodies or manuals on how to get hygge.
When it comes to pleasure reading, we gravitate to what we need at the cultural moment. I seem to be in a trench of surrounding myself with female psycho killers. Qu’est-ce que ce up with that?
I think it has something to do with revenge fantasies, with the icky feelings generated by #metoo and #timesup, and with, well, plain old feminist rage. Women are sick of playing nice and catering to male desire.
Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” captured this well. She wrote, “Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want.”
The narrator goes on to tell us this girl does not exist: “You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them.”
Attractive fictional women no longer need to be wispy and poetic like the Manic Pixie Dream Girl of indie films; they reveal themselves as badass. They take a seat at the poker table, slurp their Buds, burp and then bury a shiv in an unsuspecting and unworthy lover. We cheer, reassured that there’s something like retributive justice in the world, even if it’s a little unsavory.
Murder mysteries have long provided comfort. In “cozies,” the dead person is always bad news, and there’s less blood than what you’ve seen shaving your legs. A kindly and brilliant male detective or an amateur woman pokes about and in the end points a finger at the murderer. The evildoer has been outed and will be punished. We can all breathe easy again.
In truth, I’m still reading plenty of those. I wish Louise Penny would write faster because I can’t get enough of her Inspector Armand Gamache, a richly drawn character of great humanity and heart. Her novels are as smart and complex and funny, and I learn much from her.
These days I tend to avoid the kind of literary fiction that holds a mirror to the pathologies of reality and shows what the domestic and/or political world looks like through uber-male eyes. I would rather binge on mayhem than read a novel by Ernest Hemingway, Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy or Jonathan Franzen.
Sometimes I wonder why I am subjecting myself to so much horror every night when I can barely read the newspaper in the mornings. Perhaps it’s because I want to be believe that evil can be contained within 380 pages, and that when I close the book, malignant characters will cease to exist.
Or perhaps it’s simply that I want to see women claiming control over their lives. It’s pleasurable to watch long-stoppered, well-behaved wrath make its way into the world, where as we know, sociopaths walk among us unfettered, running corporations, lying to the electorate and making decisions that will heap troubles on us for generations.
Rachel Toor is a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University. She is the author of one novel and five books of nonfiction.