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Rape: A Love Story – Andy falls at the first hurdle

January 27, 2011

So the idea this year is that in addition to the 12 books Netty and I will both read, we choose six authors from the past three years that we both liked and we read a book of theirs each. Joyce Carol Oates was first up – me this month, Netty in February – and we both had the same idea. Having first read Black Water – a novella, even if the typography pushes it out to nearly 200 pages – we would both aim to read one of Oates’ longer books. And she’s got plenty of those.

And that’s been my problem. She’s written so much, has old Joyce, and it’s widely acknowledged that it’s not all good, let alone great. There were a couple of her books that I was particularly interested to check out – Marya and Them – but having roamed bookshops large and small, chain-store and secondhand, the only one I kept bumping into was We Were the Mulvaneys. Which is supposed to be awesome but sorry, books with the Oprah Book Club logo on their covers dwell not in my home.

I toyed with her short stories – and even found a couple of secondhand volumes that appear to have been signed by the lady herself. But I’ve got short stories oozing from my every orifice at the moment, so that wasn’t an exciting option either.

In the end I did exactly what I’d swore I wouldn’t do. I read another one of Joyce’s novellas. Not Zombie, though. Zombie’s supposed to be impressive but what I’ve read about it sounds a bit fucked up.

AHEM. As Professor River Song, a recurring character in the new series of Doctor Who (his wife, apparently, but not just yet) might say: SPOILERS!

Thirty-something single mum Teena Maguire is gang-raped by a group of drugged young men while her daughter Bethie cowers metres away. She is left with horrific injuries but ultimately recovers – only to face her home town’s suspicions that she is not an innocent victim but was “asking for it”. Fearing that the justice system will let Teena down, a young police officer who has taken a personal interest in the case takes things into his own hands.

Rape is an good read, but it’s not nearly as impressive as Black Water. The writing’s as good – Oates writes some of the best sentences (and half-sentences, too) in the English language. But, not wanting to belittle the subject matter, Rape is a tad more pedestrian than Black Water. Black Water is gut-wrenching not just because we know something like what is depicted has happened, but also because Oates does such an amazing job of imbuing her material with political and ethical power. In Rape she takes something gut-wrenching – a gang rape – but fails to deliver the literary and moral smackdown she achieved with Black Water.

Oh Jesus. Smackdown. Writing about sexual violence against women is problematic for a man, even for a gay man. Criticising a book written by a woman about the gang rape of a woman by a group of men – now that I’m sitting here writing it, it doesn’t seem like such a good idea.

That said, Rape: A Love Story is a well-written, gripping tale. But there’s plenty of it that’s not real convincing.

Most obvious for me is the chaos caused in the court scene that ends Part One. The defendants’ lawyer suggests that the victim is a tramp, a whore, that she wanted to have sex with these iced-up boys, that she wanted money to have sex with them, that she endangered her daughter, that her injuries were the result of her rape by another group of men who came along after the men she’d agreed to have sex with had left. How do you describe such insane accusations? Despicable. Abominable. Reprehensible. Repulsive. But also exactly what you’d expect a slick, reptilian lawyer to say in defence of a clump of loathsome white trash. Why does this tactic leave the court room in chaos? Why isn’t he laughed out of town?

Perhaps that’s Oates’s point. Probably it is. If it is, she doesn’t execute it well. To have a male police officer caught off guard by this tactic – even if he is, as is made clear, a young male police officer – come on. OK, so maybe a quiet country town (although this is Niagara Falls we’re talking about, never been to the States but I can’t imagine that’s exactly the backblocks) might be thrown by the suggestion that a rape victim is a whore; a police officer surely shouldn’t be.

The first chapter of Rape, incidentally,  is titled She Had it Coming. This, to me, is indicative of the moral colour-by-numbers that follows.

Again I’ll reiterate: Perhaps that’s her point. Perhaps what she’s saying is that even in the late ’90s/new millennium (Rape was published in 2003 but is set in 1996) these appalling arguments hold sway. Maybe that’s what she’s saying. If that’s what she’s saying she should’ve done it better.

More problematic for me (and here’s where that SPOILERS! alert comes into full force) is the element of vengeance and vigilante justice that occupies the action of much of the last half of the story. A number of the accused are murdered by the sympathetic police officer because it seems that the court may not convict them (although this is not clearly established, in fact if anything the prosecution case seems pretty strong). Also because the victim, Teena, has been left so destroyed by the rape and the trashing of her identity that testifying is too  monstrous a thought to consider.

I get that reliving traumatic experiences in the environs of a court room would be pretty horrific. There aren’t too many experiences as traumatic as being gang raped, I’d have thought. So Teena’s pathological aversion to appearing in court is entirely understandable.

But, um, that doesn’t actually give a “sympathetic cop” carte blanche to go off shooting the guys accused of the crime.

Does it?

It’s entirely possible that I have completely misread Rape: A Love Story. God knows it’s happened before and when my misreading has been pointed out to me I’ve gone back and discovered what I’d been missing out on first time round. (The Black Swan is not such a misreading. I’ve been accused of misreading The Black Swan. I did not misread The Black Swan. The Black Swan is a piece of shit.) But I don’t think I’ve misread Rape. I think this novella is an example of what sometimes happens when you write like Oates. You whip this stuff up knowing you’ve got a publisher who’ll just say Yup awesome thanks a lot and then you start whipping something else up. Black Water was a much more considered, intelligent, disturbing piece of work. Rape is a good read (and what an appalling thing to say about a book called “Rape”). But it’s flawed, and certainly inferior. And I’m not sure it actually does its subject justice. Soz, Joyce. Maybe I should’ve gone for the Mulvaneys after all.

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