May 2 2014

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

Margaret Wappler

web exclusive


There's little relief to be found in Roxane Gay's riveting debut novel, An Untamed State. No air in the madly hot room Mireille Duval Jameson is forced to live in for thirteen harrowing days. No sense of self as her armed kidnappers erase every boundary she tries to preserve. No escape from the polarized economic realities of Port-au-Prince that resulted in her situation in the first place. Mireille, the US-born-and-raised daughter of a self-made Haitian construction magnate, was kidnapped in front of the family estate in Port-au-Prince to extract a $1 million ransom from her wealthy father. But Sebastian Duval, a stern patriarch who grew up in the same impoverished conditions as the kidnappers, is only offering a sliver of that ransom, determined to stand his ground.

Gay, who has emerged in the last few years as a forceful fiction reviewer and Twitter hero of the MFA camp, has published essays on gender, identity, and pop culture for Salon and other outlets. She'll release Bad Feminist, a collection of essays, later this year. An Untamed State finds her visiting the same territory from a different, and terribly intimate, angle. Dedicating the book to "women, the world over," Gay unflinchingly explores the hostility directed at her privileged character. The ragtag group is led by a scarred man named the Commander, who wants to punish Miri for her good fortune. This is how the world's powerless often take power from women, through their most telling vulnerability: the body, by invading it, consuming it, hollowing it, destroying it. An Untamed State is Mireille's story but it is also many women's stories.

Miri's body is also her strength, her mooring to her life before. Married to the Midwestern farm-raised Michael and mother to an infant son, Mireille is leaking milk in the early days of her kidnapping and in physical pain because she cannot breastfeed her baby. It is a fascinating and rare statement about women's complex identity that we see her aching to be a mother while refusing to cry and expose what she sees as weakness to her kidnappers. She's a warrior and a parent; a mother longing to nurture but who can't afford to nurture herself. She is forced to deny her own needs over and over again. The kidnappers are horrific not only because they commit physical violence, but also because they refuse to allow Mireille to cry, to admit pain and fear.

Stubborn, fiery, and prone to swallowing her emotions before her kidnapping, Mireille is a difficult character for the reader to embrace. Her tough, at times dogmatic, viewpoint is even built into the direct and unequivocal prose, which can feel stifling for its lack of nuance. But it's the braver choice for the book to pick a thorny character to handle this ordeal. The world doesn't need to see another woman with a beautiful cry-face, a la Claire Danes or Gwyneth Paltrow, overcoming trauma and learning life lessons. Miri is self-destructive and a fighter, and in some ways that makes her battle during the kidnapping and in the aftermath much harder to watch, at least on the surface.

In one of the book's most unsettling moments, I couldn't help but occasionally agree with the kidnappers when they tell her she could make it easier on herself by not fighting so much. The author knows that agreeing with violent criminals, even momentarily before the self-disgust sets in, is part of the way the book challenges our pre-set notions of what a victim is, and what a victim should or shouldn't do. No woman, whether she's actually suffered it or not, hasn't thought about rape and what she would or wouldn't do to survive it. These are the kinds of merciless questions that haunt the book: What does the choice of fighting or not fighting boil down to but a personal quirk when your entire being is being overpowered anyway? What is choice when you have no central choice? Again, there is no mercy to be found, only shallow reservoirs of survival.

These pre-set ideas, and the stories we tell ourselves about who or what we are, rattle around in Miri's head, too. She refers to her life before with Michael as a fairytale, but we learn from her flashbacks that it was hardly tension-free. The sticking points: Mireille wants Michael to love Haiti the way she does, and Michael feels similarly about his Nebraskan upbringing. To make matters worse, his hard-nosed mother, Lorraine, tries to scare off Mireille with the warning that there aren't many black country wives in Nebraska. Eventually, Gay shows us that Lorraine has far more compassion in her than initially presented.

The book has a few missteps—chapters told from Michael's third-person point of view never quite gel—but overall, there is such a staggering sense of strength, confidence and integrity to Gay's telling that it hardly matters. An Untamed State is a gem, blasted into beauty by the world's harshest conditions. This gripping debut has set the table for many great works to come.

Margaret Wappler is a writer in Los Angeles.

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