An Untamed State

untamedThe Short Version: Mireielle Duval Jameson is the daughter of a wealthy Haitian businessman – and when she’s kidnapped in broad daylight in front of her husband and son, everyone expects he’ll pay the ransom quickly. Instead, she is held and brutalized for 13 days and the woman who finally finds freedom, when it comes, might not be the same woman who was taken.

The Review: I nearly stopped reading this book after about 60 pages. And although I did finish it over the course of a leisurely Sunday and I did find some things to very much recommend the novel, I think I would’ve been justified in so doing – that is to say, I don’t think I’m any better off for having finished than I would’ve been to put it down and walk away, except in that I finished the novel and saw a couple moments of truly good writing.

Sexual assault is nothing to be taken lightly and Roxane Gay, a survivor herself, is absolutely somebody who could write about it with proper care. That’s what I expected – and I suppose she doesn’t not do that, in a way. But the graphic descriptions of the several sexual assaults that run throughout the book, detailing the various ways in which Mireielle’s body is used by the kidnappers, were just too much for me. I’ve got a pretty strong stomach and am willing to read just about anything for the sake of the story – but this felt excessive and, in fact, detrimental to the story Gay was trying to tell.  Instead of remembering this book for the searing pain that radiates from Mireielle (and her whole family) after her recovery – more on this shortly – I will remember it for being absolutely unflinching every single time sex comes up. This includes, by the way, some of the good sex, the sex between Mireielle and her husband. There’s just a lot of sex here and none of it is sexy, perhaps by association or perhaps just because, well, it’s hard to write about sex and make it sexy. But Mireielle losing her virginity, for example, is a distinctly awkward scene and not in the quirky way that losing-virginity-scenes usually are but instead something rather… out of place, almost.

I’m loathe to be the kind of reader who suggests fixes for problems that I encounter. As a writer, I know I’m guilty of plenty of storytelling flaws and that’s why there are editors: even if I disagree with them (and I do, often), they’re diagnosing something and that’s their job. They say “something feels off” and then they let you fix it, instead of saying “this is how you should fix it.”
That having been said: I think this book would’ve been a more potent document had it excised nearly the entire actual captivity bits. The most interesting story is Mireielle trying to piece herself together after the event and being, for quite a while, unable to do so.  It’s about halfway through the novel that she’s freed and I instantly felt more engaged by the story – and tried to pretend that I didn’t know exactly what happened to her. The imagination is always going to be more powerful if given a few hints and allusions – and knowing what happened to her somehow lessens the potency of watching her struggle on the flipside. It feels too real-life, too (to put it paradoxically) unplanned: we want to know that the author knows, but not have her feel like she must tell us.
Holding something back can be the strongest authorial tool.

But even with that qualm, the back half of the book is actually really quite something. I found that, in the first half with the alternating moments of captivity and flashbacks to Mireielle’s life before, I didn’t really like any of the characters. Mireielle’s Nebraskan husband feels like the cliche of a white guy marrying into a black family, she’s kind of annoying herself, and the various family members are tolerable at best. They were like stock characters out of a Lifetime movie.  But when Mireielle, back in the US after her ordeal, flees Miami and strikes out for places unknown only to end up at Michael’s parents’ place in Nebraska, the characters began to shade in a bit. Lorraine, Michael’s mother-in-law, and Mireielle both develop over the course of the latter’s recovery and their relationship is the most nuanced and interesting in the whole book. Even Michael’s reappearance, struggling to understand what had happened to his wife and believing that he needs to fight in order to save her still… it’s complex and while I think he was being a pig-headed idiot with his “something happened to me too” refrain, it also makes sense: he wants to protect his wife, to fix her, because he loves her so damn much. The fact that he can’t terrifies him. So, yes, he needed a good smack upside the head (and he gets one from both his mother and father) but also Mireielle’s behavior is incomprehensible to me. I don’t mean to belittle it – but rather to say that I literally cannot comprehend how a person would behave under those circumstances. They seem absolutely impossible and while I’d like to think that a person can be a little more sane than she is, I cannot pass judgement. She went through something awful and she deserves as much time as she needs to pass through to the other side.

Rating: 3 out of 5. I really wanted this to be more than it was. Roxane Gay is probably the most famous feminist writer out there today (Bad Feminist is only one facet of the woman’s potency) and one of the smartest minds in pop culture – but I realize that that doesn’t necessarily mean she’s an excellent fiction writer. The writing here is serviceable but not exceptional, the plot predictable in an ultimately disappointing way, and the book’s strength as a novel is undercut by its desire to be as absolutely crystal-effing-clear as possible about the experience of kidnapping and rape. For some, that might be a worthy trade-off: a mediocre novel about a woman’s experience rendered as truthfully as possible might be better than an excellent novel that allows the experience to be hazy, allows for readers of all ages and genders and orientations to map their own understanding onto the circumstances. But in the end, I’d rather the excellent novel than the mediocre one.

An Untamed State
by Roxane Gay
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2 comments

  1. I wonder if the high detailed moments of rape are designed to do exactly what they did to you: make you feel seriously not okay and to feel sensitive to any and all sex scenes as a result. I imagine this is what a sexual assault survivor feels. I remember one essay in which Roxane Gay says that a friend grabbed her hand and started painting her finger nails and that the simple touch freaked her out because NO ONE touches her.

    • I could see that, for sure – and if it is, then holy geez did it work exactly as intended – but I think it still weakens the book a bit as a narrative object. The visceral reaction is there, but it just didn’t work within the context of the book-as-storytelling for me.

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