Friday 28 October 2016

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

An Untamed State (2014) seems like a simple novel. The scenes are short, the language neat and supple, the cast and settings leanly described. It tells the story of Mireille Jameson, an American immigration lawyer of Haitian descent, who visits her parents’ Port au Prince mansion for a holiday. She is snatched from her car, kidnapped by a gang and held for nearly a fortnight while her father refuses to pay the ransom. During that fortnight she is gang raped, tortured, starved and tormented in countless ways both physical and psychological. When she is finally released, she must rejoin her family is what is now “the after”, the world of “the living”.

The descriptions of what Mireille is subjected to are unsparing and steady. While the perpetrators exult in the pain and horror of their own actions, the author does not. The true violence of the novel, a violence matched by its artistic sophistication and psychological depth, collects slowly and holistically around the details Roxane Gay gives of Mireille’s life before and afterwards. 

At the beginning of An Untamed State Mireille Jameson is, as she freely says, living out a “fairytale” of triumphantly conventional sexuality, race and class. Married to a handsome, sexy white man, she has taken his surname as her own, is bringing up their son and has nursed his ageing mother through cancer. Mireille’s own mother is a submissive whose chief pleasure and only role is supporting her husband. One generation on, despite her own career Mireille is also a female submissive, a Mrs Mansname devoted to her male partner and male child, unquestioningly caring for her own mother-in-law because that is what a good girl does to help her husband’s family. Mireille worships her father.

In terms of race Mireille is a black American success story with an adorably on-trend mixed race son. She is the well-educated, high-achieving daughter of immigrants from large families, who both survived painfully hardscrabble existences on the edges of the American working world, marginalised, underestimated and discriminated against. Mireille’s father’s great pride is that he has returned to Haiti to establish a lucrative building firm which makes him a wealthy and powerful man. As an immigration lawyer, Mireille does not serve individual men but goes one further and supports The Man – the capitalist American Dream in all its glory, assisting people of all colours and nations, who “build all their hopes on the promise of living in this country.”

Mireille and her husband Michael live a charmed existence “drunk on the happiness of too much money” in Miami. Gay has fun describing their painfully self-conscious dinner parties with friends, “some of whom we like and many of whom we hated”, eating food from recipes in Gourmet and Bon App├ętit magazines and enjoying “pretentious but interesting conversation.” But even in these early scenes of the novel, the paradise-like “before” bathed in the glow of a Miami sunset, Gay hints at the loneliness of being second-generation in a society where classic, crass American ignorance and American arrogance combine to make Mireille unplaceable, “not from the slums or the countryside”. The Haiti known to America is a place of natural disasters, male violence, political corruption and tragic inequality. Mireille rails against this stereotype, until she is kidnapped by it. 

An Untamed State is excellent on place and on the precarious safety of home. A stable and secure sense of home is perilously achieved and cautiously maintained for Americans and Haitians alike. Mireille and Michael have taken their dual income lifestyle and carefully carved a winners’ tale out of the vastness, variety and rabid competitiveness of contemporary America. They live insulated behind high walls, their yards perpetually watered by sprinklers, their only child cared for by a Latina nanny. Their America is a far cry from that of Michael’s parents’ complacent white rural existence or Mireille’s parents’ early urban struggle. Equally, the family’s trips to Haiti do not constitute the easiest of homecomings. Mireille’s father has attained wealth, not been born to it, and he guards it zealously, with pride and arrogance as well as skill and self-control. On the other side of his own high walls, security gates and long driveway is staggering poverty; Mireille’s pleasure in her parents’ country is a source of disgust to Michael, who cannot forget its inequalities. Michael, for his part, behaves boorishly with his in-laws and patronisingly with poor locals, uncomprehending, unworldly and out of his depth in both scenarios. Michael’s unease at the inequality he sees, which Mireille and her family are in denial about, is vindicated by Mireille’s kidnapping and by the wound-up, wounded fury of the men who abuse her. Despite the men’s own extortion and profligacy and their abusive domination of the impoverished streets and people around them, they are obsessed and chagrined by the visible, exceptional wealth of men like Mireille’s father. 

The novel demonstrates that a person’s idea of home is never wholly safe, being dictated by emotional rather than physical factors. After the kidnapping, Mireille loses her sense of Haiti as being home, not because of the perpetrators’ actions but because of her own father’s callousness. With the death of her love for him comes the death of her love for his house, his city, his country. The culmination of Mireille’s experiences and reactions is externalised and expressed in a powerful compound image: that of an earthquake in Haiti. The body of the land has been “split open” just as Mireille has been and the general populace is “hungry, hungering”, just as  Mireille is described as being in the aftermath of the kidnapping. Mireille’s psychological and physical collapse, her family’s emotional collapse and her country’s literal collapse are all conflated into one definitive and catastrophic end of an era and identity, until “I saw no part of myself in the country I once called home.”

An Untamed State offers reality, not retribution, not natural justice, not a final balancing-out of karma. Survival, recovery and the inane language of ‘moving on’ and ‘making peace’ are exchanged for emotional honesty and graphic psychological, not physical, detail. The second half of the novel tolls with Mireille’s assertions of being dead, chained, leashed or caged, of being imprisoned in an underworld. It examines the time ‘afterwards’ without the irritations of romanticism and with its own dark ironies. It might take exceptional strength to survive what Mireille has, but survival doesn’t feel like any kind of triumph in comparison with what has been taken from her. Despite everything that has happened to her, she still lives in a conventional patriarchy in which she is required to be “calm” and “rational”, not “garish” in her anger; she is still required to behave like a good girl who has family duties and must perform as a wife and mother. Despite everything that has happened to her, in the immediate aftermath Michael’s ‘really nice egalitarian kind of guy’ act takes about three days to crumble and reveal a self-absorbed, self-pitying man who resents having to be selflessly considerate to his raped wife and thinks that he himself is the real victim, to whom something bad has been done.

I am not a survivor of kidnapping, torture or gang rape – this is what I did survive and it was subtler and more perverse than the ordeal Gay describes – but some of the trauma effects that Mireille undergoes are recognisable. There is the physical nausea, the crawling skin, the changed appearancethe feeling of being dirty, the sensation of life splitting into Before and After. There is the sizzling, implacable rage and impotence and confusion. There is the craven fear that dogs you night and day. There is the total and utter soul-scraping horror and humiliation and soul-theft that makes a joke of everything you achieve afterwards. An Untamed State shows how literal descriptions of sexual violation and mental and physical torture cannot get close to demonstrating what it does deep inside, how this kind of abuse destroys something which is so fundamental, so privately held and so necessary to the wholeness and dignity of the soul that its loss is a type of murder. There is an astounding scene just a few pages from the end of An Untamed State which reveals the falseness of recovery and self-reclamation, when a victim is so powerfully triggered that the years of the aftermath are instantly undone: “I remembered everything he did to me. The memories filled my body at once, threatened to spread through me like a malignancy, destroying everything I had done to become closer to alive again.” 

An Untamed State is brilliant at revealing the many layers of patriarchy which oppress women (sometimes subtly, sometimes openly and traumatically) by infiltrating every layer of society. Michael’s early courtship of Mireille involves him intruding frattishly on her personal space, cocky and full of sexual entitlement. Their first sexual encounter is crude, a laddish Hollywood director’s idea of an exciting scene. In his assumption of Mireille’s accessibility to him, Michael is not very different from her kidnappers. Then there is the shocking ease with which Mireille’s father allows her to be kept and tortured for days while he upholds some principle about refusing to capitulate to the kidnappers; his idea of himself is more important to him than the real existence of his daughter as a human being. There is the bullying of doctors who want to force Mireille to be examined after her kidnapping. 

The cocky dude who always gets what he wants, the withholding father whose ego and pride are worth more than his daughter’s safety, the sadistic torturer with a knife, the arrogant doctor with no human empathy, the self-pitying rapist who sees himself as a seducer: they all abuse, control, betray or exploit women. Mireille herself is not exempt from the misogyny of the society in which she has been brought up. In the half-light of the novel’s happyish ending she reveals that she and Michael have used a surrogate to have another child; the casual rental and targeted use of another woman’s body is presented without irony as a good solution for an upwardly mobile couple absorbed in their own suffering.

An Untamed State is a novel about Haiti which is a novel about everywhere; a novel about inequality and poverty in one place which is about angry men’s violence in all places; a novel about one family which is a novel about every patriarch who ever lived, from the 1st century to the 21st; a novel about one fortnight of male sexual violence which is about every instance of that endemic abuse which happens all day, every day, everywhere in the world, regardless of the wealth or language or religion or colour or class of the perpetrators. It is for this reason that the book is so powerful in its dedication to “women, the world over.”