A Review of Roxane Gay’s
An Untamed State
By Roxane Gay
New York: Black Cat/Grove, 2014.
368 pages. $17 (paperback)
Mireille Duval-Jameson, the primary narrator and life force of Roxane Gay’s novel An Untamed State, describes her life as divided into the before and the after. In the before, she and her husband Michael and baby Christophe had not yet flown to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to visit her wealthy parents; they had not yet planned to spend a day at the beach there only to be surrounded by angry men in SUVs outside her family’s compound. Mireille had not yet been kidnapped, had not yet been raped and tortured at the hands of a man called the Commander; had not yet endured the cutting, sweat, cigarette burns, and warm breath of other unfamiliar men. She had not yet spent thirteen days demanding that her father pay ransom, knowing he didn’t want to give in and risk his fortune, risk having her released only for a sibling or her mother to be kidnapped next. She had not yet grown a ball of hatred within her, a part of her that would never forgive. Mireille had not yet seen herself split into another self, unreachable, a nobody; no one else understood her truth, the truth of those thirteen days.
That was the before.
Then there’s the after. The return to America, the hazy thoughts of returning to your job, your child, remembering to care enough to feed yourself, to take up the activities of the person you used to be, whomever that was. In the after, you either learn to become an approximation of yourself or you annihilate yourself. Mireille in the after: bruised, empty, conflicted, angry, apathetic, unraveling, un-whole.
An Untamed State is deeply affecting. Roxane Gay dramatizes Mireille’s kidnapping and torture unflinchingly and without melodrama. She isn’t afraid to detail the brutality as told directly by Mireille — for example, “The next two men threw me back on the bed, spread my legs wide, laughed at what little fight I had left, my pathetic efforts to protect myself” (81). Gay doesn’t cut away from these moments but instead gives them shape and weight, drawing the reader into the experience and, more importantly, its effect upon Mireille. We learn on page one that the captivity lasts thirteen days, so the dramatic question is never whether or not the captivity will end but how and how will it have affected her.
In Mireille, Gay creates a protagonist running on contradictions, a woman struggling with competing impulses throughout the book: to flee or endure, to heal or forget, to embrace or let go. She skillfully gives readers access to Mireille’s conflicting thoughts through first-person narration. In the after, Mireille’s fear is still palpable and her dissociation well rendered, often in moments when readers have access to thoughts that differ grandly from her actions (for instance, the many times when she wants to reach out to her husband but instead flinches, commands him to leave, or sits mute on the phone). Mireille’s inability to see what we readers see — this disconnect — can be very moving. Like Michael, and later Michael’s parents, readers often play the role of supporter, maybe protector, of our protagonist. We all move forward with the same question: If, in the after, the real Mireille still lingers somewhere within this damaged woman, when will she resurface? When will Mireille heal? These questions give An Untamed State a strong narrative momentum. The trajectory of Mireille’s recovery or non-recovery drives the second half of the book.
Gay is also skillful at placing readers in the mind of a character who disassociates. In the after, Mireille, terrified of men and confinement, stays with Michael’s parents on their sprawling Nebraska farm. At one point, she believes her husband Michael is the Commander and runs from him into a cornfield. She narrates: “I walked until I no longer felt the throbbing in my feet because the pain had radiated everywhere. It hurt to breathe. I heard the Commander’s men laughing in the rear distance and then I heard him, his lazy drawl explaining what he was going to do to me. ‘No,’ I whispered” (300). She ends up hiding in a wheelbarrow with a pair of wire cutters, ready to cut anyone who nears. Gay creates tension not only in the possibility of bodily danger but, again, in the disconnect — in the reader realizing how far Mireille’s perception differs from reality. In the immediate after, Mireille does not see herself as the same person, doesn’t recognize herself in mirrors, can barely exist in the proximity of men, and lacks appetite because she finally isn’t filled with anyone else. Sometimes Gay captures the unease of her dissolving or disassociating consciousness in a way that reminds me of William Gass’s “The Pedersen Kid,” in which readers experience the disassociation but are too hypnotized by the character’s voice to realize how far the character has gone.
None of this is a picnic for Mireille’s husband. An Untamed State is as much a story of a marriage as a story of kidnapping. Early on, Gay characterizes the marriage as an ideal union marked by Mireille’s sometimes difficult behavior; it’s a loving marriage, though, and despite his occasional frustration, Michael always returns to Mireille. This dynamic is echoed and amplified in the ensuing ordeal and its aftermath. The strength with which Michael holds onto Mireille in the before is just a fraction of the strength he needs to reach her in the after. Also, while the novel closely follows Mireille’s psychological state, it also dips occasionally into Michael’s point of view. In these times the story gains another layer, and we see Michael as conflicted and reaching his own crossroads again and again. In this way, Gay gives readers short reprieves from Mireille’s troubled (untamed) state.
While An Untamed State is at times a brutal novel, it’s also richly detailed and stunning in its capture of a woman’s unraveling mind and her fight for some version of normalcy. Gay imbues the story with feeling and the characters with such a strong attachment to each other that a reader can’t help but be moved.about the author