There are so many things to love about The Art of Racing in the Rain. This book is wildly popular for a reason – it’s expert at eliciting emotional response. I love the racing stuff. I love the philosophy, though I find it somewhat simplistic (which, since it’s being understood by a dog, actually makes sense). I love the dog, because you’d have to be completely devoid of heart not to love the dog. There’s just one thing that sends me into such a rage that I practically froth at the mouth and it’s this:
WTF is going on with the subplot about statutory rape? Why am I the only person on the entire Internet who finds this entire subplot to be contrived, stereotypical in the worst way, offensive, and wildly improbable? For the initiated, the subplot goes like this:
Denny, our hero, is falsely accused of statutory rape by his in-law’s teenage relative. Enzo, the dog, is the only witness and Enzo knows that really that brazen hussy threw herself at Denny, who nobly turned her down and drove her home. The in-laws want custody of Denny’s daughter and conveniently the teenager presses charges for statutory rape. During the entire ensuing legal battle the in-laws have the kid.
There are all kinds of problems with this storyline, the biggest of which is that it takes a very real problem and makes it into the old “Teenage hussy” cliché. That cliché was tired and ugly when it was used in To Kill a Mockingbird and it’s even older and uglier here. Let’s compare how To Kill a Mockingbird made it work while Art of Racing does not.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Mayella, the young woman who accuses Tom Robinson of rape, is an ugly character, but she is at least a character. She has some background and some personality and a motive. Her accusation has consequences that affect her adversely – it’s understood that this is serious business, even if she didn’t understand what she was getting into at first. It’s explained why, even though she knows these consequences will befall her (not to mention Tom, of course, the victim of her accusation), it’s still worth it to her to make the accusation. She’s a horrible, horrible person – but she’s a person, one Atticus even has some sympathy for even as he utterly destroys her on the witness stand.
Everything in To Kill a Mockingbird is told from the point of view of the child named Scout, who has an advantage over Enzo in that she can get into the courtroom. Still, most of what Scout knows about Mayella doesn’t come from the courtroom – it comes from adults explaining things to her or talking in her presence. Enzo, the narrator of Art of Racing, can’t get into the courtroom, nor is he present when the in-laws talk to Annika. But he is around the in-laws after the case begins, and of course he’s around Denny often. So there’s no mechanistic reason why Enzo couldn’t know more about Annika – for instance, the in-laws could discuss how they made her testify, or Denny could speculate about her personality and motives. Enzo is also around Annika quite a bit before the evening on which Annika attempts to seduce Denny occurs, so Annika could have talked to Enzo then and given the reader a better sense of who she is, even if the topic had nothing to do with Denny.
But alas, Annika has no personality at all except that of a completely one-dimensional seductress. It’s implied that the in-laws somehow convince her into making the accusation, but we never see how. And while I’m willing to believe that sometimes people make false accusations, the idea that this is an easy and painless thing to pull off is a lie. Annike can look forward to being backed up by her family, because they are making her do this in the first place, but in real life often the victim’s family doesn’t believe them or blames them. Some of Annika’s friends might support her, some might envy her, but many people at school will vilify her as a whore. She can expect to have her life scrutinized in court right down to the exact length of her skirts and the number of buttons on her shirt. She’s not in for an easy time.
The author, Garth Stein, has taken a real problem and treated it irresponsibly, and that has two consequences:
1. It’s a harmful thing to do to the hundreds of victims who struggle to be believed but are told they must have really wanted it, and probably deserved it, and are probably lying anyway.
2. It’s sloppy writing. My personal gender politics aside, having a one-dimensional character in a book diminishes the book. One reason that To Kill a Mockingbird is such a classic that it refuses to take that path. Not all the characters are nice people, or even remotely decent people, but they are characters. We might loathe Mayella with every fiber of our beings, but we have some sense of why she is who she is, and some sense of her as a human being. Annika, in The Art of racing in the Rain, is a caricature.
If you are interested in some stories that deal more realistically with sexual assault, here’s a short list, feel free to add to it in the comments:
Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson
She’s Come Undone: by Thomas Lamb
Jailbait: The Politics of of Statutory Rape Laws in the United States, by Carolyn E. Cocca
Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valent1
White Oleander, by Janet Fitch