An Untamed State

By Roxane Gay


Grove Atlantic
May 2014

Reviewed by Jackie Thomas-Kennedy


In An Untamed State, Roxane Gay's debut novel, Mireille Jameson's life is broken into two phases: "the before," which precedes her kidnapping in Haiti, and "the after," in which she tries to return to normal life. Though she lives in Miami with husband Michael and son Christophe, Miri maintains ties with the country of her parents' birth, even after she's held there for thirteen days. Agreeing to return to Port-au-Prince years after her capture, she claims, "'There's nothing I can't survive'" without a glimmer of triumph. Gay's portrayal of survival-as-burden is part of what makes her novel seethe; this is not a celebration of the ability to overcome. This is a battle cry against the need to overcome. This is a condemnation of violent men—both the physically violent, as Miri's captors are, and the silent violence of her father's overabundant self-regard.

Gay uses predictability to emphasize how vulgar and unimaginative Miri's kidnappers are. The leader of the small gang refers to himself as "the Commander," but our last glimpse of him is of a man running frantically from danger, far from any sense of command. In the house where she's held, Miri eyes his purchases critically. An immigration lawyer from a wealthy Haitian-American family, she has far more sophisticated taste than her kidnappers. "The Commander [. . .] lay on a large bed covered with a red satin bedspread, laughing at something on the television, a big flat screen surrounded by expensive electronics equipment," she says. "[S]elf-proclaimed leaders of men don't seem to have original ideas for spending their money." This observation provides, among other things, a respite from brutal descriptions of nearly incessant assault, but it also enriches Miri's character, even as she tries to detach herself from life in "the before." Miri transforms from the woman she is—"a mother and a wife and a daughter"—to become "no one," an identity that is both shelter and trap. Life as "no one" spares her the need to think of her spouse and child, but when she "need[s] to remember [her] name," she fails: "It was locked somewhere I could not reach."

The kidnapping, of course, provides a measure of suspense—we wonder if Miri's father, Sebastien, will pay the ransom demanded of him. His initial refusals stem from greed and pride: "Always, Sebastien was paying money, small ransoms here and there, the price of doing business in Haiti. But this was too much—a million dollars, such a breathtaking amount of money. It galled him that men who had not worked an honest day in their lives would be so bold as to ask for a lifetime's fortune." Money and resentment dictate the actions of the kidnappers as well. One of these men, TiPierre, tells Miri:

I've always wondered what it would be like to be with someone like you. I see you women, how you wear your designer clothes and your beautiful shoes and your dark sunglasses, your French perfumes. It's like the shit of this place doesn't touch you. You never see me but I am there, watching. You are all so beautiful.

Loathsome TiPierre articulates one of Gay's primary interests: the fear of being unseen.

The novel hinges on the events of the kidnapping, but the desire to escape supersedes all else. Long before the Commander kidnaps Miri, she feels a perpetual need to run. When Michael proposes to her, she gets up and runs "just enough to make [her] heart pound." During her first visit to Michael's family's farm in Nebraska, she goes for a run in the middle of the night. "'I thought you left,'" Michael tells her. Rather than offer reassurance, she responds, "'Where would I go?'" Miri flees from what frightens her and from the things she wants—an instance of the duality to which Gay is frequently drawn.

Miri embodies numerous dualities. In Haiti, she is a privileged woman whose marriage is a triumph ("It was such a coup, my mother told me, finding an American, a white man"). In Nebraska, where she is raised, Miri encounters racism, from the classmates who mock her "wild hair" to her future in-laws. In one of the novel's weaker scenes, Michael's mother, Lorraine, invokes several well-worn phrases of disapproval. "We don't get much of your kind around here," she tells Miri. "I'm sure you're a nice young woman [. . .]. You'd be opening yourself up to a whole lot of trouble if you took things any further with my son." This moment, meant to be filled with tension, falls rather flat; "your kind" and "trouble" do little to suggest that Lorraine is as complex a character as she turns out to be.

It is Lorraine, not Miri's own parents, who takes care of her in "the after." Uncomfortable with her husband and afraid to touch her own son, Miri impulsively drives from Miami to Nebraska. "You are welcome here," Lorraine tells her when she arrives—a significant shift from their initial meeting. Their relationship changes and deepens through acts of physical care. In "the before," Miri nurses her mother-in-law through cancer treatment. In "the after," Lorraine brings an unwilling Miri to a much-needed doctor's appointment. Wisely, Gay writes these scenes without sentimentality, allowing her readers to reflect on what Miri has already said. "Family is one of many things you cannot trust in a country like Haiti," she says; indeed, Sebastien chooses to wait thirteen days to pay for her. We see Sebastian tell his children, "It is only an accident of birth that makes it possible for you to enjoy your lives the way you do." No one in this novel is entitled to safety—such an entitlement doesn't exist.

There are opportunities for revenge against both Sebastien and TiPierre, but Michael and Miri decline to seize them to the fullest extent. Michael seeks help from Miri's cousin Victor, who "run[s] with a gang," and Victor leads him to TiPierre after Miri's return. Michael beats TiPierre somewhat gleefully, but when Victor hands him a gun, he cannot kill the criminal. "I couldn't kill a man in front of his son. I would have but for the child," Michael says. In this admission, we hear an echo of a conversation Miri had with Sebastien: "'It is an amazing thing,' my father once told me after Christophe was born, 'how much a child loves a parent. That kind of love terrifies me.'"

Terrifying as filial love may be for Sebastien, Miri spares him worse terror when she confronts him after her release. Like Michael with TiPierre, she allows herself to deliver some blows—"'You left me to die and that's exactly what happened'"; "'You sacrificed me'"—but ultimately she chooses a form of mercy. "He did not deserve the truth of how I died," Miri muses. "There was still good in me. He did not need to know the truth for me to feel more alive."

It is this restraint, this deep resistance to fatal violence, that sets Miri apart from the world into which she's been thrown. She reclaims her identity in bits and pieces—sometimes by lying in bed at night, reciting simple facts—and by allowing herself to occupy a space of uncertainty. Uncertainty is inescapable for Miri: she is both dead and alive, Haitian and American. Of Haiti, she knows only what it can no longer be for her. "We loved Haiti," she says. "We hated Haiti. We did not understand or know Haiti. Years later, I still did not understand Haiti but I longed for the Haiti of my childhood. When I was kidnapped, I knew I would never find that Haiti ever again." It is clear that Miri is speaking of her parents' home country here, but it is also clear that these statements apply fittingly to Sebastien. After Miri offers Sebastien forgiveness, her mother calls her a "good daughter," a distinction in which Miri takes no pride. One should not have to be a "good daughter," nor to know she can survive anything; she should not think, as Miri does, "you have no idea what I can take." Gay's prose doesn't romanticize such strength; instead, she reminds her readers of the deeply flawed world in which survival is often demanded of the innocent.