I cannot possibly recommend Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State to you, and yet I have no option. It cannot not be read. You must but you shouldn’t read it. Precisely like the subject it tackles – violence against women – it is horrible in its truth and truthful in its horror so you are going to have to face it, even if with all my heart I wish it weren’t so.
The premise is simple and commonplace. Mireille, an American-raised child of wealthy Haitian parents, is kidnapped at gunpoint from the roadway outside her family’s palatial island estate and held for a ransom her father refuses to pay. Those of us who have lived in banana republics, those of us who have been plucked at gunpoint from the streets, know – as does Gay – that it is always the women who pay for the deprivations of poverty. Just as it is women who pay for the privileges of the rich.
And pay Mireille does. In sparse prose that doesn’t spare a single detail, Gay describes the thirteen days during which Mirielle is ceaselessly gang-raped and tortured by eight “young men with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin and strengthened their will right through their bones.” Then, in a seismic shift toward reality in fiction, Gay continues to detail torture upon torture as Mireille attempts to resume her old life post-release with her freshly wrecked worldview. An Untamed State may kick off with the words “Once upon a time,” but there is no happily ever after to be had here.
That said, there is an intersection between happy and torment, between beauty and stain. In ways almost too obvious, and yet on occasion with sublime quietude, Gay refuses to let us forget that we are all beasts in this natural world, that every one of us is but a few unlucky turns or a few wretched choices from being either victim or victimizer. Good brushes up against bad with nary a hair’s width between, and not just when a vicious man is pressing himself against a resistant woman. It happens everywhere: “Corn and soybean stalks as sweet as the ear can hear [rustle alongside] the stink of the pigs and their filth. … Mireille’s bloodline [was] a benevolent pestilence. … She loved him [so] she tried not to consider the satisfaction of his flesh [splitting] beneath her fingernails.”
It is argued in the halls of our country’s most prestigious universities, by people who have devoted their lifetimes to studying such things, that violence against women is too often used as entertainment; that graphic descriptions of crimes against the flesh of women and girls are no more than titillation for the masses; that what we read in books and see on film segues to an acceptance, a tolerance, from which we cannot escape. They say that to depict such violence is to promote it. Of a rape scene in my own novel, I was told by a well-meaning early critic, “You could have told the same story without going there.” My publisher offered me the chance to delete the scene, but I did not. For while I cede the possibility that those gilded-hall roamers may be right, I also believe history has proven that injustices are infrequently righted until they are named. With this book, Gay much more vociferously takes up that charge than I did, and bellows from the bell tower with an assaultive repetition that all is not right in our world.
I honor the guts it takes to bellow so loudly, just as I honor the nerves of steel it must have taken to live with this story for the time it took to write the book. As for me, I could hardly tolerate the story for the time it took to read it. And yet I couldn’t put it down.
Gay is an exceptional writer. So good, she scares me. Her book is a nightmare not to be missed.