Late to the party as ever, I am currently cultivating a minor obsession with Louis CK

The perfect film role for this daring funny man is out there somewhere - but he hasn't hit the mark just yet.

Late to the party as ever, I am currently cultivating a minor obsession with the comedian Louis CK. Even describing him as a comedian feels unfairly restricting. His stand-up specials—Chewed Up, Live at the Beacon Theatre, Oh My God—are meticulously crafted dramatic monologues that just happen to be raucously funny, not unlike the work of Stewart Lee (though in a very different register: CK plays with and subverts an Ordinary Joe persona that makes his most poisonous gags obscurely palatable).

He is the star, writer, director and editor of his own FX sitcom, Louie, which is three series old and getting ready for a fourth. His vision is absolute. And the tone of that series is also too amorphous and perplexing to fit under the catch-all heading of comedy. Two episodes I saw recently, one with Chloe Sevigny as a book-shop assistant who is creepily over-enthusiastic in her efforts to help Louie (Louis CK) track down an old flame, and a double-episode in which David Lynch plays a coach preparing Louie to be a possible replacement for talk-show host David Letterman, wandered so far into the comedy of silence, tension and general unpleasantness that it was possible at times to forget one was watching a comedy at all. There were enough skew-whiff line readings and quizzical top-notes to act as reminders of the genre to which the show nominally belonged, but only just.

Film being my primary area of interest, I am excited to see if he will make his mark cinematically. You can’t watch Louie and not feel that he has a great, dangerous movie in him. He’s dabbled: he co-wrote two screenplays with Chris Rock (Down to Earth and I Think I Love My Wife) and is credited as writer-director of another Rock comedy, Pootie Tang. He has had small roles in films, some good (Role Models), others less so (The Invention of Lying), and recently starred in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine as the man whom Jasmine’s sister (Sally Hawkins) picks up at a party.

My feeling is that no one who exerts such control over his own appearances (and works so hard at disguising the precise calibrations in his apparently off-the-cuff stand-up routines) is going to grab the first leading role that comes along. Sure enough, he was unreceptive to the idea of playing the male lead in the new (and rather wonderful) romantic comedy Enough Said, which opens today. “I wrote it with Louis CK in mind,” said the film’s writer-director, Nicole Holofcener. “CK wouldn’t give me the time of day, thank goodness.” (That “thank goodness” is to acknowledge rightly the brilliance of her second choice, the late James Gandolfini.)

Appearing in Enough Said might have been disastrous for CK. It is a rich and delicious part, but it is also entirely sympathetic. For him to play such a character would be the equivalent of Tom Hanks being cast as a cannibalistic child-killer who doesn’t believe in climate change. It would go so violently against the grain of the persona he has spent his career constructing as to amount to career suicide. Sure, we like Louis CK while we are watching him, even when he is in the flow of his most depraved and sexually taboo monologues. But if we were to cease scrutinising the disparity between his repugnant material and his prosaic persona, the comedy might lose one of its choicest elements. What I’m saying is that I love Louis CK and I like Enough Said very much, but they would not have been a happy fit. A part in David O Russell’s forthcoming crime drama American Hustle seems much more his bag. And a movie that CK crafts for himself is an even more tantalising prospect. I’ll happily kill time re-watching Louie or his stand-up routines while I wait for that.

Louis CK and fellow comedian-and-actor Will Arnett at an ice hockey game in New York. Photograph: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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