Toward the final pages of Roxane Gay‘s An Untamed State, the primary narrator, Mireille, admits about her response to the earthquake in Haiti in the wake of her own personal horror of being kidnapped and repeatedly raped and tortured over thirteen days of captivity: “We sent money instead and it was then I felt like a true American” (p. 345).
When Margaret Atwood writes about Canada, she is also writing about the U.S. When Atwood writes about women, she is also writing about men. And in both dualities, Atwood writes about the intersections, Canada/U.S. and woman/man—as Classen and Howes explain:
From Atwood’s perspective, Canada has traditionally occupied, and internalized, the position of the female in relation to the dominant, male land to the south (Atwood 1982: 389), and so the figure of the female is well suited to represent the Canadian character. As Rosemary Sullivan writes in her biography of Atwood, within Canada “national identity and gender were both predicated on second-class status” (Sullivan 1998: 128).
In fact, in many of Atwood’s poems and stories, the context for the exploration of dualism and borders subtly shifts back and forth from the personal or the interpersonal to the national (Hutcheon 1988).
In Gay’s novel, readers find a parallel to Atwood’s dualities as Gay confronts both Haiti and the U.S. through a personal hell experienced by Mireille who personifies some deeply ugly Truths: when poverty and privilege intersect, violence occurs; when males and females intersect, violence occurs; in both dynamics, as Mireille concludes, “Girl children are not safe in a world where there are men” (p. 344).
An Untamed State: Of Mind, Body, and Nation
My entry point to Gay’s writing was “There is No ‘E’ in Zombi Which Means There Can Be No You Or We.” The story reached out from the computer screen and demanded that I find more by Gay to read so I ordered An Untamed State the same day after exploring Gay’s web site.
That first story struck me with Gay’s use of voice, genre manipulation, and tone; I was lost much of the story until the end, which pays off brilliantly.
My experience with the novel confirms my initial attraction to Gay’s gifts, but the novel presents a paradox: The story is so brutal, it is nearly unreadable, unbearable, and the story is so brutal, I never wanted to put the book down until I reached the last word.
I am prone to placing books on my bookshelves in ways that honor how I feel about those books. I will slip An Untamed State beside Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy because at their cores these works are about what Mireille (again at the end of the novel and after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti) proclaims:
There was an earthquake….It was a new sorrow, a fresh break in an already broken place. The tents are still there, providing no shelter. Women are in even more danger. There is no water. There is no hope. My parents survived and for that I was grateful, in spite of myself. My father’s buildings stood strong while the rest of the country fell. I imagine he is proud of his work, these standing monuments of his resolve. (p. 344)
The most powerful motifs of the novel are weaved into the passage above, exhibiting a simplicity that masks the weight the novel carries from the very title itself. “An Untamed State” speaks to Haiti as country, especially as that contrasts with the U.S. and as privilege and poverty are dramatized in Mireille’s parents (their gated estate in Haiti) and Mireille’s captivity once kidnapped, and to the fragility of Mireille’s mental and physical states.
“Forgive me for my father’s sins”
Gay’s narration mixes time and perspectives with both a suddenness and grace that left me as conflicted about the style, structure, and point of view as I was about the content, Mireille’s kidnapping, the repeated scenes of rape and torture, and the tension Gay creates with her characters and her themes. For example, what am I to do when the kidnappers and rapists express valid confrontations about the violence of inequity?
Within the first few pages, the dominant motif is established, as Mireille offers the first flashback embedded in her coming to consciousness in captivity:
We sat on our lanai, illuminated by paper lanterns and candles, all of us drunk on the happiness of too much money and too much food and too much freedom. (p. 10)
This passage echoes for me the opening of Chapter III in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby:
There was music from my neighbor’s house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champaign and the stars. (p. 39)
But in Gay’s novel, the opulence and decadence are framed against Mireille’s story of being grotequely tamed, her nightmare of awareness germinated in her native Haiti: “There are three Haitis—the country Americans know and the country Haitians know and the country I thought I knew” (p. 11).
Also in those first few chapters, I came to recognize that the chapter numbering was tallying—I, II, III, IIII,
IIII …—a subtle technique that reveals the fact of Mireille’s many states of captivity: captive to her father’s privilege and arrogance; captive to her native Haiti; captive to her existence as a woman; captive to her life as a Haitian married to a pale American; captive for 13 days to kidnapping, rape, and torture; and then captive to her history for the entirety of her life.
An Untamed State is a compelling novel and deserves your time if you love to read well crafted stories and characters, but the work is also a brave and piercing spotlight on the violence of this world bred by socioeconomic and gender inequity. Gay focuses those messages, in part, on Mireille’s father:
My father does not understand obstacles, doesn’t believe they exist. He cannot even see obstacles. Failure was never going to be an option. He often says, “There is nothing a man cannot get through if he tries hard enough.”
He built skyscrapers….My father said, “There’s no telling how high a man can reach if he’s willing to look up into the sky and straight into the sun.” (p. 32)
The father’s discourse is steeped in the sort of rugged individualism mythology at the core of the U.S., is paternalistic and chauvinistic, and is ironic in its embracing of a concluding image of self-induced blindness.
As a Haitian embodying the Great American Myths, Mireille’s father embodies the “no excuses” and “grit” ideologies found in current education reform discourse and policies in the U.S.:
Growing up, my father told my siblings and me two things—I demand excellence and never forget you are Haitian first; your ancestors were free because they took control of their fate.. When he came home from work each night, he’d find us in our corners of the house and ask, “How we you excellent today?”…If he disapproved, he’d remove his glasses and rub his forehead, so wearied by our small failures. He would say, “You can be better. You control your fate.”…
It was easy for my father to overlook the country’s painful truths because they did not apply to him, to us. He left the island with nothing and returned with everything—a wife, children, wealth. (pp. 35, 36-37)
In the wake of her father’s arrogant idealism, however, is the living death of Mireille—reduced to a shell of herself, sated only by hunger like a Kafkan nightmare, and left always a captive, mostly of her being a woman and the unfortunate child of privilege in a violently untamed state.
Readers are not left only with these tragedies, although the counterweight to the consequences of the sins of the father don’t quite equal out despite the novel’s final word being “hope.”
Mireille and her mother-in-law form over the course of the novel a compact built on basic human kindness; in fact, the word “kindness” rises to the level of refrain throughout the last third of the novel.
But it is a kindness shared by battered women risen from the ashes of a man’s razed world.
The reader learns of Mireille’s last moments with the Commander, the lead kidnapper who brutalizes her, in the final chapter of the novel when Mireille utters to him, “‘Forgive me for my father’s sins'” (p. 363).
Heavy with this novel, I put it down recognizing that like Tom and Daisy in The Great Gatsby, Mireille’s father, a man of privilege, and Mireille’s captor, a man of poverty, walk away from their carnage, but I fear Mireille’s plea rings louder in my ears than in the ears of either of these men, these sinners.