The plot properly kicks in when Marco learns that someone he worked with back in the 1970s, Julia Gault, has written a memoir, as yet unpublished, in which she alludes to a night in a hotel when, she says, he raped her. Marco understands all too well the implications should the book ever be published. A legal battle commences and Marco appears to succeed in suppressing the defamatory statement that would otherwise have destroyed his good name. Early on, as mixed feelings about his “victory” are expressed by his friend, readers may begin to feel they are not in the hands of an entirely reliable narrator.
Marco speaks glibly of his so-called “ordeal.” He reflects that in the current climate there seemed to be “a tacit agreement that it was better that a few innocent men should be ruined than a single guilty one go free.” He compares the present situation to old-time Soviet political justice: “The morning denunciation. The noon denial. The evening firing squad.” He even considers making a documentary about it.
A well-drawn portrait of two flawed but highly articulate Englishmen in New York, “Afternoon of a Faun” has a strong plotline, since Marco’s “ordeal,” to his dismay, turns out to be very far from over. Further legal complications arise, and the narrator’s sympathies begin to shift yet again, as at last he confronts the powerlessness and pain of his friend’s accuser, “poor Julia,” as he now calls her. He claims to feel “thoroughly perplexed” by his own “lurching sympathies.”
Then comes his long encounter with Julia herself, which takes place in a rather sterile apartment in a nondescript area of London’s East End. She talks angrily about Marco, his connections in high places and the stigma that attaches to women who admit to having suffered sexual abuse. We see again that the two lives in the balance here, abuser and abused, are very far from equally matched. The narrator feels himself “caught up in a more turbulent drama” than he’d first supposed. At the same time, ominously, the presidential election draws closer, with “fresh allegations about the Republican candidate’s treatment of women.”
It’s a dramatically apt reflection on female victimhood, the issue that informs these two novels, both focused on legally entangled men, that the final image of “Afternoon of a Faun” should be Donald Trump stalking Hillary Clinton onstage during a nationally televised debate. Seeing this, Marco says blithely, “We’re going to win.” In one sense, he couldn’t be more wrong. But in his own conflict with Julia Gault, the outcome is no different from Trump’s victory. In this novel, it seems that the victimizers are still very much in control.