On Rape Narratives and the Surprising Value of Plot

Why literary novels about wrenching events are taking more and more cues from crime writing

open book with images of an eye and a hand juxtaposed on top of the pages
Vanessa Saba / Mondadori Portfolio / Getty

At the bookstore where I used to work, we shelved fiction in four separate categories. Crime novels shared a wall with speculative fiction; romance had a set of freestanding shelves. The rest of the fiction room was devoted to literary fiction, which, unlike the others, we never identified by genre name. The publishing industry tends to treat literary as a descriptor, a nod to a work’s artistic quality or aspirations. But literary fiction is a genre like any other, with distinct conventions, strengths, and flaws. It typically centers the personal, preferring inner turmoil to external drama and usually de-emphasizing plot. At its best, its focus on interior life lets readers live in other people’s heads. It also means that such works are well equipped to handle the long emotional fallout of painful or complicated events, even if some of the events themselves pose a challenge to literary writers, with their tendency to turn away from plot.

Crime fiction inverts this issue. Its primary convention is a propulsive plot—a mystery driving it forward. Plot has significant upsides: It grips readers, provides narrative shape, and, if well executed, offers catharsis. When poorly conceived, however, it can shrink trauma into a single event or sensationalize pain. This problem can be especially acute in crime writing that deals with sexual violence. Perhaps as a solution, more and more crime writers are placing survivors, not detectives, at the center of their novels, thereby focusing less on assault or its perpetrators than on the mental progressions of those who have been hurt. A pair of recent literary novels about the aftermath of assault, Pola Oloixarac’s Mona and Anna Caritj’s Leda and the Swan, bring this crime-fiction strategy into their own field. These works suggest that, especially where complex stories about sexual assault are concerned, mixing genres can open up our storytelling capacities, giving writers—and readers—access to ever more empathy and nuance.

Leda and the Swan seems, in its first chapters, like a conventional coming-of-age campus novel. Leda is a sensitive sorority girl who befriends a classmate named Charlotte at a party, before drinking until she blacks out. She wakes to discover that Charlotte has disappeared and is presumed abducted, and that she herself may have been assaulted; the latter is a betrayal she isn’t quite able to accept. Here, Caritj begins mixing in crime-writing elements: Leda distracts herself by playing detective in the search for Charlotte, behaving as if she were in a thriller, complete with disconcertingly silly clues. (A yoga-related subplot, for example, seems poorly knocked off from Jonathan Lethem’s beloved literary-crime caper Motherless Brooklyn.) Readers will swiftly recognize that Leda’s efforts to locate her friend simultaneously help her process her own trauma.

red nails on a book cover
Riverhead Books

Sadly, Caritj simplifies Leda’s inner journey, fusing it with Charlotte’s story to arrive at a single, would-be feminist message: In the campus Greek culture she portrays, life for women is all risk, no sexual reward. Caritj’s commitment to this agenda leads her into a trap—and one that relying more on plot could have helped her avoid. Crime novels require action. Their protagonists may be wounded, but they cannot be passive. Contemporary literary fiction, conversely, overflows with passive women. Leda plainly belongs to their ranks. She has casual sex—both before and after her assault—without ever having had an orgasm and wonders whether it’s supposed to feel better, but never experiments, either alone or with a partner.

Similarly, it takes her the whole novel to acknowledge that to her, Greek life, including that of her own sorority, is objectifying and alienating. This realization comes so slowly that Leda herself can’t turn it into social critique, which, as the novelist Lynn Steger Strong has smartly observed, passive female protagonists can do when they are “fully cognizant of their ineffectuality.” Instead, when Leda finds herself at a goat farm, she listens without commentary as a breeder smugly points out the “natural violence” of sex. The on-the-nose moment is undergirded by the narrator’s interpretation of events, not Leda’s—and skates oddly close to shaming her for having sex in the first place.

Caritj could have used crime fiction’s affinity for action to nudge her protagonist further afield from Greek life, or to create cathartic drama. She seems content, however, to simply point out the overlap between sex and danger, which crime fiction typically explores at length. Novels that do so deftly, such as Susanna Moore’s In the Cut and Christobel Kent’s The Day She Disappeared, can serve to critique the very tendencies toward victim-blaming that Caritj inadvertently displays. Leda and the Swan warns against straight college sex without ever considering that Greek life—and heterosexuality, which it tends to represent in an oddly metonymic way—can, at its worst, constrain men and women alike, while at its best, also be a source of experimentation and pleasure. Poor Leda gets none of the latter. At the book’s end, she’s still stuck in literary anhedonia.

Mona, by contrast, leans wholeheartedly on crime fiction. Oloixarac is an exuberant genre-blender. Her work is literary in voice and influence, but, in previous books, she’s borrowed from science fiction, political thrillers, anthropology, and historical fiction. Here, she mashes up satire with psychodrama and old-school noir. Mona reads like Rachel Cusk’s Kudos on drugs. It’s set at a Scandinavian literary conference, where a young Peruvian writer misbehaves—drinking, pill-popping, watching exceptional quantities of porn—while unwillingly reconstructing the hazy memory of being raped shortly before leaving California, where she lives. Slowly, the novel takes apart its eponymous protagonist’s considerable bravado, guiding her to piece together, then process, the violence she’s lived through. In a way, Mona’s macho persona is an homage to old-school detectives: In the trench coat and silk scarf she rarely removes, she’s equal parts Philip Marlowe and the woman he wrongly believes he can save.

Illustration of a woman on book cover Mona
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Oloixarac, like Caritj, adds in a second mystery. Mona has no detective fantasies, but as she tries to process her assault, she becomes preoccupied with tracking the case of a 12-year-old girl, Sandrita, who has recently vanished from a poor Lima neighborhood. On the news, a psychologist suggests that Sandrita may not really be “a missing person. Many victims of abuse go into hiding.” Like Leda’s preoccupation with Charlotte, Mona’s fascination with Sandrita’s disappearance seems connected to her own experience, and she’s willing to entertain the possibility that she, too, is hiding—from her abuser, her memories, or both.

But Oloixarac grants her protagonist more complexity than Caritj does hers, and more than crime heroes usually get. Mona is, for example, both resilient and hedonistic—or rather, she’s resilient through hedonism. She doesn’t watch porn just to suppress bad memories or prove to herself that she still can; she watches porn to get off. Similarly, the novel acknowledges that Mona is drawn to Sandrita, but rejects any easy overlap between the two. Rather, Sandrita’s disappearance forces Mona to recognize that her privilege as a lauded writer changes, but does not erase, the risk with which she, like any woman, must live. Mona knows her rapist through Stanford University, where she teaches; as crime novels set among the wealthy have shown at least since Agatha Christie’s work, prestige cannot shield one from all forms of harm.

Security, in other words, is a myth for Mona, though not in the way that it is for Sandrita. In a tangled but masterful run of thought that borrows from the diction and concerns of philosophy, Mona tries to declare herself entirely safe, but fails. Instead, she decides that she is “a being … without limitations, but nevertheless (and more than ever) a woman.” Hiding in the but is the admission that to be female is itself a limitation. Mona may want to transcend this fact, but Oloixarac won’t let her ignore it. Mona’s theorizing could put some readers off, or make them long for Elmore Leonard’s snappy, comic crime writing. (In fairness, plenty of literary writers could learn from Leonard.) But the novel’s headier passages nonetheless do important work, helping Mona slowly explain to herself, then accept, her complicated reactions to her rape and her vulnerability as a woman.

This nuanced acceptance helps Mona succeed. So does Oloixarac’s genre-mixing, which leads to originality of thought and technique. If her novel’s abstractions are extremely literary, its acknowledgment that total safety isn’t achievable owes a debt to generations of crime fiction. Leda, by contrast, remains locked in Caritj’s seeming desire to protect her protagonist, even at the expense of joy, growth, and exploration. Had she been more willing to explore across genre lines, perhaps she might have arrived at a more thoughtful, precise portrait of sexual assault and its aftermath. Many crime writers—my personal favorite is Christobel Kent—work hard toward that goal, borrowing from literary fiction in the process. Oloixarac does well to return the favor.