An Untamed State by Roxane Gay (Black Cat, 2014)
It’s the middle of the day, and I’m having a drink. I need one after finishing An Untamed State. Roxane Gay brought me to tears more times in the reading of her novel than I’ve cried in the last six months. (I don’t know if my dog would concur, but he can’t count, so take my word for it.) Let’s skip the over-used modifiers—heartbreaking, brutal, haunting—and be honest. Here is a story that explains the extent of the awful truth that “Girl children are not safe in a world where there are men.”
In An Untamed State Mirielle and Michael Jameson and their son visit her wealthy parents in Haiti. Mirielle is captured by a gang in the ransom business and, for the next thirteen days, subjected to nightmares of flesh and dehumanizing violence while her husband futilely attempts to convince Mirielle’s father to pay the ransom and return her to safety. The majority of the story is told in first-person from Mirielle’s perspective, with intermittent chapters in the omniscient voice from Michael’s point of view. The novel takes place in Haiti, Miami, and Nebraska. Gay takes special care to note the privilege of her protagonist’s starting point; in effect, she shows us the fairy tale, then dismantles it, and brings her readers to their knees in empathetic protest for Mirielle, the former princess.
Characterization in this novel depends on the protagonist’s point of view, almost exclusively. At first there are many names, many faces. Perhaps it is somewhat difficult to keep track; however, we could read that sense of bewilderment as an emotional foreshadowing of its own. Michael, Mirielle’s Nebraska-born-and-bred husband, does not speak the language and he has no allies to help him find his wife. Michael is lost in a web of negotiation and decorum. Ultimately, however, the names slip away in the same way Mirielle’s former life does. We’re left with a small cohort of the characters who love her most, the people who have made an attempt not to understand, but to accept the trauma she survives.
Gay complicates the idea of personal strength by showing how it functions differently in different contexts. She foreshadows heavily in chapters three, four, and five about Mirielle’s father’s resolute determination, his “ruthlessness.” He’s a self-made man in America but beyond wealthy in the country of his birth—Haiti. He met his wife, Mirielle’s mother in America; they loved each other impenetrably in their own ways. And it is within their family, that the readers see wide variance in love. Gay juxtaposes the great love of Mirielle’s father for her mother with her father’s love for her:
“That night […] my parents spent most of their time sitting with their foreheads touching in their own world. My parents are not warm people. They love hard and deep but you have to work to understand the exact nature of that love, to see it, to feel it. That day was the first time I realized my parents loved each other more than they loved us though I couldn’t know then the price I would pay for that love.”
Sebastien Duval raised his three children to keep stiff upper lips and exceed his aerial expectations. We learn, through Mirielle’s perspective, of the way she (his youngest daughter) was most susceptible to his intolerance of weakness, and coached herself to excel at all things and to be unyielding with her will. All this before she faced death and torture. After she is kidnapped, Mirielle speaks of her father’s stubbornness proudly to her captors, even as she comes to understand it is the very reason she is still imprisoned. At the end of the novel, it is this final question, how could a father abandon his daughter?, that drives the plot. Mirielle and Michael return to Port-au-Prince for one last time. She has been through surgeries, therapy, and hell just to resume a socially normal life, but she returns to ask her father why he waited thirteen days to pay for her and to tell him the horrible truth of her kidnap.
“I wanted to tell him I would never forgive him, that his impossible choice had killed all my love for him, but when I looked into his face, all I saw was an old man who made a terrible, weak choice and had to live with it for what remained of his life. He did not deserve the truth of how I died.
I looked at my father, the man who had been the uncompromising measure for all things in my life for so long. There was still good in me. He did not need to know the truth for me to feel more alive.”
The prose is fast. This is the kind of book you read too quickly, and then pick up again immediately after you’ve finished. I typically avoid such traumatic subject matter, but, in my opinion, Gay treats her readers as tenderly as she can with material of this violent nature. Instead of belaboring the physical torture, she focuses on Mirielle’s internal resolve to supersede injury:
“I made myself forget for as long as I could […] The memory of my life, the weigh of it, threatened to break my body more than any man could. I needed to be no one so I might survive.”
Throughout the novel, the characters’ pains are tempered with this cadence of resolve. Over and over, Mirielle is told to be strong, and this advice takes on a very different tone as we learn what it means to actually face torture with strength. Mirielle undoes who she was and becomes “no one;” she emerges from her prison alive, but “a fucking mess.” As a result, the most emotionally intense parts of this novel occur in the aftermath; the irreparable damage to Mirielle’s body and mind are not clear until we see her in the light of her former home:
“I was the kind of hungry I did not know was possible but in its way, the hunger felt good. It was a comfort to be so empty. I had to hold on to that emptiness.”
It is here, in the uncomfortable and sometimes hopeless space of healing where true love prevails. Her mother-in-law, of all people, is the person who coaxes Mirielle back into the life she once loved.
What surprises me most about this novel, is that it steers us away from the harsh rationale that so often accompanies human trauma and sacrifice. Mirielle’s father says to her, “In impossible circumstances one is faced with impossible choices.” Gay does not end the book with some institutionalized pardon of the “necessary evil” of violence, of rape. Instead she, unrelentingly, shows the reader the bottom line for Mirielle and her family, and what this bottom line says to me, at least, is that one life is too many. Gay is saying that women are used as collateral, universally, and collateral damage is unacceptable.
What have you read lately that shook you to the core?
Wren is in transit today, high above our heads. This week, let’s look out some windows at high altitude… and then write. Don’t have a ticket? Never fear, I’ve collected some window views right here.
Jim Darling, Untitled and Untitled, from Windows series. Oil on canvas. www.jimdarling.com
Andrew Wyeth, Otherworld, 2002. Tempera on canvas. Private collection.
Tim Caynes, Wing 6, 2008. Photograph. Via flickr.
My first encounter with Kate Tempest’s work came not long ago when her song “Lonely Daze” was featured on NPR’s All Songs Considered. Hosts Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton mentioned that Tempest is a poet in addition to being a talented emcee, so I looked up her biography. Tempest’s credits include a handful of albums, including 2014’s brilliant Everybody Down, two collections of shorter poems, and Brand New Ancients, a poem “written to be read out loud,” which won the 2012 Ted Hughes Award for Poetry. (The poem was originally performed in 2012, published in 2013, with the U.S. edition just published in 2015.)
The narrative of the poem focuses on two London families whose lives and fates intersect in the ways ancient stories of gods and humans often do: sex, lust, violence, intimacy, and redemption. Tempest’s project differs from most mythologies, though, in that the gods and humans are one and the same. “In the old days / the myths were the stories we used to explain ourselves,” Tempest explains in the poem’s opening. “But how can we explain the way we hate ourselves?” She goes on:
We are perfect because of our imperfections.
We must stay hopeful;
We must stay patient—
because when they excavate the modern day
they’ll find us: the Brand New Ancients
In many ways, the closest touchstone to Tempest’s project is Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” which is, of course, an odd thing to say of a British poet. Both have long lines and both include the gritty details of daily living:
The flat’s a state, but [Mary] can’t bear to mop
the floor or put the bins out, so she just stares at the TV,
she pours a vodka into a dirty tea cup,
she’s put on weight, she’s miserable,
she knows that she should have a bath and clean up,
but instead she’s getting pissed on her own watching the chat shows.
She puts a pizza in the microwave and eats it off her knees.
She chain-smokes, drinking till she starts to feel quease,
and then when Clive gets home from school,
that’s where he finds her, fast asleep.
The daily grind is not the only similarity to Whitman. Early in Tempest’s poem is a page long mantra that lists all of the gods:
The gods are in the betting shops
the gods are in the caff
the gods are smoking fags out the back
the gods are in the office blocks
the gods are at their desks
the gods are sick of always giving more and getting less
The list goes on and on, reminiscent of the 18th section “Leaves of Grass'” Book Two:
See, ploughmen ploughing farms—see, miners digging mines— see, the numberless factories,
See, mechanics busy at their benches with tools—see from among them superior judges,
philosophs, Presidents, emerge, drest in working dresses […]
Like Whitman, Tempest invokes a range of people and professions, setting them next to one another in a grand display of democracy.
Considering the grand ambition set out at the top of the poem, it does feel like a wasted opportunity to focus on such a small group of people. In all, there are nine main characters and about as many named who make brief appearances:
There was Sam with the squint
and the dog called Darrel,
four legs and a head
sticking out of a fluffy barrel.
There’s Geraldine, she used to be a nurse;
she hangs out with Davey getting drunk all day,
reading yesterday’s papers. These are good people by nature,
they just got worn out faces. Gloria serves them happily […]
The effect of focusing on these nine characters is that they become elevated over the others, contradicting the democratic impulse found earlier in the piece. At their best, the cameo appearances are reminiscent of Nazim Hikmet’s singular novel-in-verse Human Landscapes from My Country, which features, in the course of over 15,000 lines, dozens of varied-length portraits of all kinds of Turkish people during the first half of the 20th Century. Tempest’s poem, by contrast, focuses on working class, probably white people (though, race is never mentioned), who surely don’t represent the whole of England’s diversity.
Despite a missed opportunity or two, Brand New Ancients is an ambitious piece and worth reading more than once, out loud, preferably with friends. Reading, one falls into the rhythm of the text, tumbling from moment to moment watching the lives of these characters unravel, re-ravel, and wrap around one another. Considering Tempest’s output this early in her career, it’s safe to assume there’s more where this came from, hopefully as genre bending and empathetic as Brand New Ancients.
What other writers are pushing the boundaries of genre to create multifaceted, ambitious texts?
Post-AWP greetings, dear writers. As we all recover from the exhilaration/madness/euphoria that is AWP, let’s take a moment of stillness. And then write a few words.
Edward Hopper, Office in a Small City, 1953. Oil on canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York.
Laura den Hertog, Flying High. Oil on canvas. www.lauradenhertog.com
Bastienne Schmidt, Untitled, from Home Stills. Photograph. www.bastienneschmidt.com