Note: This post discusses the plots of “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage,” “The Interestings,” and “Open City” in some detail.
Writing in the New Republic this week, Judith Shulevitz suggested that “rape has never been as widely condemned as it is in the United States today. Obviously, too many people are still too confused about what rape is and too many women still don’t feel safe reporting it to the police.” Many of our discussions about public policy and sexual culture come with suggestions about how we might remedy these two grave and ongoing problems, including affirmative consent laws, consent education and faster processing of rape kits.
While these sorts of conversations assume that we can reach a place of collective clarity, three extraordinary novels released in the past three years are more interested in the sort of uncertainties we hope we might be able to banish.
“Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage,” the most recent novel from Haruki Murakami, “The Interestings,” by Meg Wolitzer and Teju Cole’s debut novel, “Open City,” all involve adult protagonists grappling with accusations of sexual assault from their youth. Each book has a slightly different arc. But each provides a powerful portrait of why people might refuse to seek out and accept the truth about a rape allegation.
In “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki,” the titular character, now in his 30s, begins to investigate why his exceptionally close group of high school friends dropped him shortly after they all started college. The answer his former acquaintances give him is intensely disturbing: Shiro, one of the girls in the group, accused Tsukuru of raping her.
The accusation is false. And because Shiro has died by the time Tsukuru begins to revisit the rupture in his friendship, neither he nor Murakami really investigate why she accused Tsukuru in the first place. Instead, “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki” explores why their friends sided with Shiro and cut Tsukuru off without giving him a chance to explain himself.
Tsukuru’s old friend Ao tells him that despite discrepancies in Shiro’s story, he felt certain that something bad had happened to her. “It was so detailed, what she told us, that we figured there had to be some truth to it,” Ao says, apologizing to Tsukuru for not asking for his side of the story.
Eri, the other girl in the group, is blunter in her reasoning, explaining to Tsukuru that she knew from the beginning that the accusation was false. “I had to protect her,” Eri explains to Tsukuru. “And in order to do that, I had to cut you off. It was impossible to protect you and protect her at the same time. I had to accept one of you completely, and reject the other entirely.” Believing that Tsukuru was better-equipped to survive the loss of his friends, Eri chose to take care of Shiro instead.
Meg Wolitzer’s “The Interestings” tackles a similar subject — how a group of friends decides what the truth is when one friend accuses another member of the circle of sexual assault — but with significant differences. In “The Interestings,” the friends do not reach consensus on whether or not Goodman Wolf, the troubled brother of Ash Wolf, raped his ex-girlfriend Cathy Kiplinger. And Goodman is not expelled from the group: rather, he skips town to avoid his trial.
For Jules Jacobson, the novel’s protagonist and Ash’s best friend, Cathy’s accusation forces less a choice between two friends than between convenient amnesia and the potentially discomforting search for the truth.
“Cathy had been strong and believable in the coffee shop, but Jules couldn’t hold on to her words,” Wolitzer writes. “If she held on to them, if she remembered them and completely absorbed them, then she might not have still been lingering around the Labyrinth.”
Voicing a belief in Goodman’s innocence, and later, keeping the secret that Goodman is in touch with Ash and her family, become the price Jules must pay for access to Ash’s world. This is not an admirable choice, but Wolitzer makes us see why Jules made it: the best way for Jules to become a Wolf is for her to take on their most terrible secret, their most unpopular opinion, and to validate it for them.
It is only years later that Jules is able to have an open conversation with Ash’s husband, Ethan, about her decision to stifle her own doubts.
“He couldn’t imagine that she didn’t want to keep doing what they were doing,” Ethan tells Jules. “No one ever felt that way about him; everyone was charmed, at least at camp they were. It was that, plus maybe Cathy’s neediness. A bad combination. So, yeah, I would safely say he did something. I think he did it.”
The rapist who does not know the violence he does is an unsettling figure. Is he, as some public figures might suggest, the creation of women who have consensual sex they regret and want to paint themselves as victims? Is he the tragic result of our failure to educate boys and men on what it really means to consent? Literature suggests that he is less easily explained away and eradicated than either of these perspectives might expect.
Such a figure shows up in “Open City” in the form of Julius, a young psychiatrist who is about to go into practice on his own. During the events of the novel, Julius reconnects with Moji, a young woman he first got to know when they were both teenagers in Nigeria. Toward the end of “Open City,” Julius learns that something more than nostalgia has brought Moji back into his life.
“She said that, in late 1989, when she was fifteen and I was a year younger, at a party her brother had hosted at their house in Ikoyi, I had forced myself on her,” Julius recounts. “I had acted like I knew nothing about it, had even forgotten her, to the point of not recognizing her when we met again, and had never tried to acknowledge what I had done..But it hadn’t been like that for her, she said, the luxury of denial had not been possible for her.”
Cole does not address how it is possible that Julius and Moji have such wildly different memories. Nor does he try to determine which one of them is correct in their recollections or lack thereof.
But Julius’s behavior in the final act of the novel suggests that he is capable of the seeming amnesia Moji describes: Julius boxes up their disturbing conversation and gets on with arranging his new office and purchasing tickets to the symphony. If Moji is correct about this aspect of Julius’s character, it seems possible that she is correct about what passed between them. The fact of this blank in Julius’s memory is more frightening than any confirmation of his guilt could possibly be. It is terrifying to think that the event that shattered one person’s life could be utterly forgettable to another.
It is undoubtedly a good thing that, as Traister notes, rape is so roundly condemned. These three novels suggest, however, that there is a cost to that consensus. As sexual assault comes to be seen as a more serious crime, the incentives to deny such charges utterly or to believe them without question become much higher.
Hurting Tsukuru did not get Shiro the justice she deserved from the real culprit who attacked her. Preserving Ash’s belief in her brother embedded a lie at the heart of Ash and Jules’s friendship. And whatever psychological barriers Julius placed between himself and his memories of Moji did not make her pain go away. Even if the law had resolved all three cases fairly and clearly, the characters in these novels still might have done great injury to each other. There is no public policy solution for the complications of the conscience.