A Dark Space With No Exit
By Ryan Joe
Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State is both very easy and very difficult to read. Easy because the novel follows the general outlines of a thriller – the heroine is kidnapped and eventually released – and because Gay’s prose is clear and unadorned, save for the opening sentence.
That candid writing style guides us through the breaking of a woman’s body and mind, and the often excruciating steps she and her loved ones take to begin the slow process toward something approximating recovery.
The destruction happens to a wealthy American-born woman named Mireille, visiting her parents in Haiti. On her way to a beach excursion with her husband Michael and her young son, armed men kidnap her and, after Miri’s father refuses to pay the ransom, rape her repeatedly. At this point, we begin to see the slow dissolution of Miri’s personality, which becomes a necessity for her survival: “There is nothing you cannot do when you are no one.”
The damage extends even after Miri’s captivity. After she’s released, the psychological aftershocks threaten the foundations of her every relationship – especially the one she has with herself. “I whispered my name several times, tried to find a way to fit myself into that name, tried to hide the truth. I as no one, a woman with no name, no family.”
There is also damage to her relationship with her husband who doesn’t understand how to support her, her child whom she fears she’d sully with her touch, her father who failed to pay her ransom quickly, her mother who supported her father’s decision, and the country she once loved as if it were a place in a fairy tale. In the aftermath, Miri’s world – everywhere she goes, whether it’s Haiti or the American Midwest – becomes a place of inescapable hostilities. Every object and interaction blares with explicit dangers.
Gay is a blunt writer. She says exactly what she means, which gives An Untamed State its raw power. There’s an uncomfortable honesty to it – Gay for instance fully acknowledges that there is no true recovery from what Miri went through. Her personality, her relationship with the world and with the people around her, are forever changed.
And Gay slams home her points with the delicacy of a sledgehammer. Freed from captivity, Miri takes shelter in a church as her husband and father arrive: “Michael sat next to me; he was too close. I needed something from him. I needed him to know what to do for me. I tried to think of another name. I knew it well. It was a good name but I couldn’t find a way to say it.”
Later, she attempts to shower: “I would never get clean. There was not enough water.”
And back in the States, Miri comes close to having a dangerous sexual encounter with a stranger named Shannon: “I would let this man with a woman’s name break me again so I might be properly healed.”
Even as Miri the character breaks down, Miri the narrator speaks from a place of complete mental clarity – which sometimes makes An Untamed State feel like an “issue” book, though that’s a a reductive label.
After I finished reading, I thought of other novels that intimately depict the dissolution of a personality: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Joy Williams’ novel The Changeling, Paul Bowles’ novel The Sheltering Sky, and his short story “A Distant Episode.”
It’s been years since I’ve read some of those texts, but certain moments still haunt me today. The “creeping” in the closing moments of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the anguished, manic flow of language at the end of The Changeling, the way Bowles’ protagonists in The Sheltering Sky and “A Distant Episode” gradually lose their holds on reality.
It’s absolutely frightening and astonishing when a writer places you inside the head of an unraveling personality. In An Untamed State, the narration is a little distancing. Yes, we get full understanding of what Miri is going through, but at the same time, it feels like someone explaining it to you. The narrative loses urgency and immediacy.
Finally, I just want to point out that as vividly as Gay depicts Miri’s interiority, she short-shrifts two other major characters: her husband Michael, who minces through the novel like a whipped puppy, and her mother-in-law Lorraine, a reformed racist, who behaves exactly as expected.
There is no more football. The 49ers are dead. May the spirit of what they once were never die.