An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
Black Cat, 2014; 367 pp
Reviewed by Zach VandeZande
There’s a moment toward the end of The Punk Singer, Sini’s Anderson’s compelling documentary of the life of Kathleen Hanna, when Hanna says, "I think there's a certain assumption that when a man tells the truth it's the truth, and when as a woman I go to tell the truth, I feel like I have to negotiate the way I'll be perceived, like I feel like there's always the suspicion around a woman's truth, the idea that you're exaggerating." Her words convicted me as an audience member, as that’s where my head was at several times over the course of her story. I’d been ready, in some small way, to write her story off as one that wasn’t quite in line with reality, even though I’ve admired her for over a decade. I came away from that film ready to question myself anew, to keep questioning, to keep the doubt pointed inward instead of at other people’s stories.
Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State left me grappling with similar thoughts throughout its harrowing narrative. The novel is relentless in its questioning of what we are willing to put up with and why, and especially why we marginalize the things we marginalize. Gay has written a debut novel that echoes and then doubles down on the best stories in her first collection, Ayiti, which was filled with reckonings of the pain women are asked to endure.
The book begins with the violent kidnapping of Mireille, a young mother and lawyer, the daughter of rich Haitians who is visiting home with her American husband. The plot follows her thirteen day ordeal at the hands of her kidnappers, every aspect of which Gay refuses to shy away from, intercut with the heartbreaking and unsettling descriptions of Mireille’s life in “the before.”
One of the things that becomes instantly apparent in the narrative is all of the ways that both postcolonial capitalist ideology and patriarchal values are reducing Mireille to something that is less than who she is—she is alternately an idea, a bargaining chip, a sacrifice, an animal, an object, but never the vibrant and important consciousness that the reader is given from her point of view. In this way Gay has written an indictment of all of Haiti’s sons, whether they are kidnappers or fathers unwilling to pay full price for their daughter’s safety, even as she finds the pitiful child inside each of them.
This is not beach reading. This is an ugly book that portrays the hard inevitabilities of Mireille’s situation. As a reader, I want to call the scenes of rape and torture that take place in the book lurid or exploitative so that I can marginalize them, and Gay seems to be baiting the reader to do just that when she intercuts those scenes with scenes of Mireille and her American husband Michael first meeting and making love, but I know, deep down I know, that I’d be wrong to try to marginalize this book. There’s too much at stake here to look away.
Like all difficult art, An Untamed State left me unsettled. I’m a firm believer that to grow as human beings, it’s important to dwell in the things that make us uncomfortable, the things we don’t quite have an easy way to understand. This book is one of those things for me, as I imagine it will be for most readers. Most Americans like to pretend that injustice only goes so far, a statement that is echoed several times throughout this book, mostly by Michael, whose grief in not being able to protect his wife blinds him in many ways. I, personally, like to pretend injustice only goes so far. I like to pretend that I’m not connected to the human rights abuses that go on in the wider world outside of my dumb little apartment and classrooms and bar conversations. This book rubbed my nose in that complicity, and then made me keenly aware that I was butting in on a kind of private and expansive grief that I’m lucky not to know.
Like the most harrowing parts of Kathleen Hanna’s past, I want An Untamed State to be an inaccurate rendering of reality, an exaggeration—or worse, bad art. But it is neither of those things. It is a well-wrought portrayal of the horrors that some are forced to endure, and the roads they have to travel to find themselves again. It’s a difficult read, but it’s shot through with hope, and strength, and the best stuff people have inside of them. By forcing us to look into darkness, Gay starts to show us a way through. She points us in the direction of grace.