The body adapts, but the mind has limits.
One of the limits reached by Mireille Duval Jameson, Roxane Gay’s obstinate lead character in her debut novel, An Untamed State, is the harsh realization of how a father can chose principle over blood when his daughter’s very life is within his power to promptly rescue. It is a trauma nearly as rending to her heart as the one done to her body.
While visiting her parents in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Mireille, a lawyer living in Miami with her husband, Michael, and infant son, Christophe, are jumped at gunpoint at the base of the driveway of her father’s gated mansion. In broad daylight before a gaggle of impotent neighbor-witnesses, Mireille is stuffed into an SUV and whisked away.
In a certain, admittedly cynical sense, this has become business as usual in Haiti, which according to our narrator, has surpassed Columbia as the kidnap capital of the world. Soon after her abduction, while locked inside a tiny room in some anonymous tenement building, Mireille runs down the list of the people she’s known who’ve also been abducted—close associates and even remote family members—and of how they’ve been returned unhurt soon after the ransoms have been paid. This is as much to ponder away the time and afford herself some positive reinforcement as it is a nascent survival mechanism kicking.
Depersonalization and disassociation permeate this book. From her father’s unwavering ideology of non-negotiation, to Mireille’s ever-increasing disunity between individuality and a wholesale organic anonymity, survival and sanity hinges on the tenuous switchboarding our minds are capable of under the most trying of situations. However, whereas her father’s principals are merely put to the test, Mireille must literally reprogram her entire life’s outlook in order to survive, starting with the realization that all of her choices now are predicated solely on the whims of men, beginning with Sebastien Duval.
It wasn’t until I was taken from my husband and child that I realized we were all going to pay the price for my father’s dreams.
That she’s unaware of her husband, Michael’s, impotence to do much either during the abduction (understandable, given the weaponry involved) or the negotiations, allows her the initial permissibility to embark upon a process of regression and basal recalibration so thorough that one wonders if simple autonomy can ever be acquired again.
The body holds a certain wisdom the mind does not, she ponders early in her detention. It is a refrain her mind will repeat in various permutations throughout, especially following the horrific gang-rape she suffers after her father has yet again refused to meet her abductor’s one-million-dollar ransom. That Gay utilizes an almost clinically detached tone to convey it—stripping it of all subtlety and emotion in a parallel to Mireille’s own mental process—renders the scene nearly impossible to endure. Such detached style is reflected in all the female characters. This is not a criticism, but a stylistic choice. Not only is overt emotion implicitly suppressed by tacit-to-blatant male pressures, but strength is reinforced through a matter-of-fact processing and defense of motive and action. Mireille’s mother, Fabienne, is cool and assertive in her resolve to stand by her prideful husband’s decisions (until she no longer can during an awkwardly grueling scene where she dresses him down in a room full of friends and family), because this is what the wife of a wealthy man in a nation riddled by poverty is expected to do. Mireille’s own stubbornness in caring for her equally recalcitrant mother-in-law, Lorraine, during her fight with cancer is handled with the reserved, steady pressure that foretells of Lorraine’s inevitable yielding, yet without compromising her dignity.
As powerful an exploration of the depths of feminine perseverance as An Untamed State is, it’s equally as astute about the motives that govern men’s actions. The Commander, the leader of the kidnapping group, justifies his rampant sadism by citing Mireille’s assumed Americanization, specifically of how it has blinded her to her native people’s squalor. TiPierre, one of the Commander’s minions, presumes a decency for forfeiting his share of the ransom to his cohorts so they would no longer assault her, solely so he could have her for himself. Both men are equal practitioners of cognitive dissonance, each capable of the most monstrous of acts while holding steady to righteous ideals of familial responsibility.
Men are strangely moved to preserve their bloodlines, the Commander says of Mireille’s father’s unavoidable capitulation, at least in his mind. TiPierre goes one further by expressing sincere concerns for his son’s future while in bed with Mireille following another rape.
But it’s the two men closest to her that perhaps wound her the most. Her father’s reluctance to compromise his principals all but obliterates her trust in family. As for her husband, Michael, it’s not his inaction that weakens him so much as how bereft he is of his own philosophical system. He’s admittedly been raised in the ideal family situation, replete with love and opportunity, and while his feelings of helplessness are completely understandable, his inability (or disinclination) to wrest the mantle of strength in a situation where clearly the wrong people have control over it fills Mireille with conflicted feelings about his place in her world. That Michael reveals his most childish, self-centered nature after Mireille’s release makes matters worse, teetering at times on the verge of directly blaming his wife for his own inability to find closure. This later provokes his normally soft-spoken father, Glen, to offer the observation regarding his son’s involvement during his mother’s cancer fight: “It makes me sick to say this but thank God we didn’t have to depend on you. Everything would have fallen apart.”
Structurally, An Untamed State is written in two halves, the abduction and her return, each of which alternates between current events of the abduction, confinement, abuse, and with elements of her past life including her parental history, her meeting and courtship with Michael, and her pregnancy—all of which she refers to as the Before. Prison-wall hash-marks are used as chapter headings in lieu of numbers, echoing her prevailing sense of confinement, especially in the latter portion of the book after she has returned home.
If the prevailing theme of the first half is objectification of body and soul, then forgiveness—or rather, it’s dubious possibility given the extreme nature of all offending parties—rules the second half. Given a horrible enough violation, is forgiveness even possible? The question lingers like rot throughout the book; not just Mireille’s forgiveness of her abductors/rapists, but of her father’s violation of trust, and her husband’s selfish coping.
Ultimately, it is Mireille’s journey that struggles at the heart of An Untamed State. It is through her eyes and body that we experience the world. And though she’s the chief protagonist, Gay is very careful not to render her as a hero in the classic sense. Yes, she is strong and willful to be sure, especially early on after she’s been taken. But her ultimate survival becomes less an issue of courage as it is an inborn, animalistic perseverance. A heretofore sense of adaptability the title itself refers to. Several times she asks for death from her tormentors, and when it doesn’t come, she makes the mental adjustments necessary for endurance. There is no moment of grand absolution when the novel’s final moments arrive—a present-day ending scene that is both surprising as it is inexorable given the plight of those in Haiti, followed by a final flashback moment of captivity as powerful as any in the book.
When all is said and done, whatever forgiveness bestowed is hard-won, bitter, grudging, allocated solely, it seems, because clemency itself is as necessary a tool for survival as is detachment.
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