Well now. The time has come to talk about An Untamed State by Roxane Gay.
If you have been living under a rock and haven’t heard of Roxane Gay, get thee to Google. She’s an amazing writer — smart, thought-provoking, funny, poignant. Reading her whether on Tumblr or Twitter or in Salon is fantastic. If I hadn’t crowned Christa my very favorite writer on the Internet for life, Gay could probably rest comfortably in that throne.
So it was great gobs of anticipation that I took up Gay’s novel about a prickly lawyer who is kidnapped from her parents’ Port-au-Prince estate and then held captive for thirteen days while her father wrestled with making a point about, umm, convictions, maybe?
Mireille Duval Jameson is the American-born daughter of Haitian immigrants who seems to have it all — a thriving career, a wealthy, loving family, a hot husband, Michael, and an adorable baby. Of course having it all doesn’t mean it can’t be taken from you in a second. Within the first pages of the novel Miri is violently taken from a car outside the gates of her parents’ estate. She was in the car with her son and husband. They were on their way to the beach.
What follows are horrific scenes of torture and rape interspersed with Miri’s memories of “the before.” Her life growing up in America and having to visit Haiti as a sullen teen. The love affair with her husband. The reminiscing is a coping mechanism for Miri, she goes through these memories to let go of them, to free herself of who she was so she can become nothing the men who rape and beat her body can truly hurt. There were certain scenes during Miri’s captivity where I was shouting, in my head, “just fucking kill her already, this is too much.” Yeah, it seems death would have been kinder. The book evokes a visceral reaction, which is why it’s hard to dismiss even when it’s disappointing.
Part of the disappointment comes in the form of Michael. In Miri’s memory he is a handsome prince, the love of her life, a persistent charmer. However, we also get chapters from his point of view while Miri is held captive. In these chapters he seems hollow and completely ineffective. Much is made of Miri’s father’s convictions or ethics being the reason he waits to pay the ransom to get his daughter back. I never quite understood this. What was he trying to prove and to whom?
Eventually Miri is released, and like a feral animal she runs to a safe, far away spot to heal herself. It is in these moments, in “the after” part of Miri’s story that the book really broke me. Small acts of kindness shatter me and I was brought to tears whenever she let someone care for her.
Once Mireille truly begins her recovery the time flits by and we get the highlights of the intervening years and how Miri puts her life and family back together, there’s even another showdown in Port-au-Prince. I’m a big fan of these kinds of wrap-up epilogues, but the less said about the coincidental, unbelievable ending of this one the better.
Like Mireille, this is a complicated prickly novel. It will make you feel and think complicated prickly things about privilege, race, class, and life outside the United States. Even if the ending of this one is unworthy of the beginning, I still cannot wait to read what Roxane Gay writes next.
So I read this the first half while holding my infant daughter in the middle of the night as she fought off a stomach bug, and the second half the same day as the ucsd shootings. I couldn’t put it down. I was disappointed by some of it. A sort of flat feeling to the writing. Characters that felt like stereotypes. But the more I think about it the more I think this was a novel that was not meant to tell a story. It was meant to make the reader feel a feeling. And it accomplished that in a big, big way. I felt vulnerable and raw afterward in ways I had never really even considered before. The combination of the circumstances during which I read it and the story itself left me aware of myself, my daughter, my motherness, my womanness, my privilege, the things that are stacked against me.
Beth, you are right and have managed to express why I was disappointed and yet still liked the book much better than I have. It is totally a feeling book and while I, thankfully, didn’t have the fraught circumstances you read it in, I too felt things in a big big way. I really can’t wait to read more from Roxane & hope you pass this one on to someone else who needs to feel something in a big way.