I’m not overly enthusiastic about single “issue” fiction or about novels that thinly veil polemic in plot: too often characters become ciphers, the narrative voice is overburdened and the plotting pedestrian. And sadly Joyce Carol Oates’ Rape: A Love Story – an account of gang rape and the attendant crusade for justice – is guilty as charged. It opens with a brutal attack on Teena Maguire, a single widowed mother walking home through the park with her daughter Bethie on the evening of the 4th of July. Beaten, bleeding and unconsciousness, she is left for dead at the lip of a boathouse; however, Bethie, who hides in a canoe during the violence, manages to hail down a car and contact the police. One of the first attending officers is John Dromoor, an ex-army cop with a penchant for weaponry (not to mention actually shooting people) whose soul long since “curled up and died like an inchworm in the hot sand” of the Gulf war. Nevertheless, drawn by his simple horror at violence against women and confused by the court’s subsequent unwillingness to finally convict the case against the young rapists, he becomes Teena’s avenging angel… (I assume John’s motive for becoming a vigilante is the “love” part of the story.)
Slim at only 154 pages, Rape begins, as is only fitting, with incredible violence:
“After she was gang-raped, kicked and beaten and left to die on the floor of a filthy boathouse…After she was dragged into the boathouse by the five drunken guys – unless there were six, or seven – and her twelve-year old daughter with her screaming Let us go! Don’t hurt us! Please don’t hurt us!”
Which definitely packs a punch. But then it veers off, this way and that with a fickle narratorial voice that suggests at once stream of consciousness and delivered monologue. Chapters are short, filled with dead space and taking a confusing plethora of POVs. The addressee is a “you”, who might be Bethie Maguire but who is also the reader. Oates’ way, I suppose, of poking her constituency hardest with the issue: as women, we too might become victims facing a justice system notoriously reticent about rape.
The subject is certainly a hard-hitting one and the fiction terribly close to reality: it seeks to expose prejudices and assumptions both about rapists and rape victims. Teena has a reputation for enjoying herself, dressing “sexy” (even in her late 30s) and partying hard; she had been drinking the night of the incident and had chosen to walk home through the deserted park rather than on the safe surface streets. Oates insinuating voices, ventriloquising the rumours rife in Teena’s small town, speak out familiar beliefs about this kind of rape victim: She deserved it… She was asking for it… She probably enjoyed it… How can a loose woman consent anyway?… She provoked them… Maybe she agreed to have sex for money… Read: It was her fault. Undoubtedly, the insidious belief that a woman who exposes herself to sexual predators licenses her own abuse needs revealing and combating, needs to be annihilated.
Still, single issue fiction doesn’t seem the way to go about it: non-fiction, perhaps, campaigns and programmes of education, absolutely, but not a novel. A novel requires certain things; it shouldn’t be possible to shoot your fiction out and hit a sole round target with it. A novel is a cacophony or symphony of character and plot and theme; it is not a didactic pamphlet about the evil of certain actions. Teena, Bethie and John are nonentities, two every-victims and an every-hero who mean a sum total of nothing as individuals. Their immediate responses – withdrawal, denial, risk-taking - are text-book, yet their ridiculously happy ending denies the long-term psychology of sexual abuse. In the novel it’s John Dromoor who takes justice into his own hands, firing off his weapons, but Oates has done the same thing as a writer…riding down her proverbial enemies - misgogyny and sexual abuse - with gusto and then pinning it, rather lifelessly, into a felt display cabinet. One can’t help but feel that she is playing at hard-hitting the rape issue, wish-fulfilling easy justice and easy solutions. Not to mention that the ethics are a no-brainer. What exactly is Oates trying to say? That rape is bad? That violence begats violence?
Worst of all, the novel’s concept of justice is both Old Testament and non-challenging, even retrogressive. Basically it’s a matter of: the law will never work for women nor will be women ever successfully defend themselves through it (the lawyer who nearly looses Teena’s trial is a woman obsessed with her entirely successful male counterpart). Only Dromoor, with his macho heroics, his strength of body and his eye-for-an-eye righteousness, can deal a blow to the horror of rape. Men rape us and only men can save us seems to be the formula. What could be more horrific or more victim-minded than that?
If this had been Oates first novel and not her thirtieth not a single publisher would have touched it (with a barge pole, as my granddad would say) and its inclusion on this year’s Orange long list seems merely a matter of course. At least it was mercifully short.