I finished the book yesterday during a long afternoon spent in bed recovering from my illness. It was an especially fitting setting. The Great Fire is full of languid afternoons and young men beset by obscure diseases and weary from the war. I enjoyed the setting; the sense of war nearby, war recently ended and perhaps soon to be reignited. It was like a less bleary version of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises it also reminded me a lot of the film Casablanca, but maybe just because I happened to watch it around when I started reading the book. The book revolves around a couple of former soldiers, Aldred Leith and Peter Exley, who have been cast far and wide, to Japan and Hong Kong respectively, in the aftermath of World War II. They are surrounded on all sides by others, women and older folks, whose lives have been similarly touched by the war, and all of whom seem to be searching in vain for normalcy in the aftermath of shattering conflict. The central drama of the book concerns a budding love affair between Leith and a student of his, Helen Driscoll. Helen’s dull and menacing parents as well as the vast age difference between Aldred and Helen set up what turns out to be a fairly filmic love story. The chief drama for the reader lies both in wending one’s way through Hazzard’s elliptical, lyrical prose and in wondering whether or not the May – December romance will ever be consummated.
In 1804, while the America was finalizing the Louisiana Purchase from France, Haiti became the first independent black nation in the world. Because it had come into being as a result of a slave revolt, it was immediately rebuffed by France, its colonial overlord, Britain, and the United States, all of which thought that this small nation on the western half of one island in the Caribbean sea could jeopardize the worldwide trading and plundering of black flesh by inciting more slave revolts throughout the colonial world. The country was left to fend for itself, unable to prosper because of its uneasy relations with the world’s superpowers. And so it went for the next 200 years, as more than 40 men, mostly gents de colours, the mixed-race descendants of French colonialists and African Slaves, ruled Haiti with varying degrees of brutal repression, occasional genocides, and financial corruption.
Roxane Gay’s new novel An Untamed State takes place mostly in 2008, in the wake of this terrible history, but its narrative is defined by it. The book begins with one of those set-piece action sequences that later gets taught to writing students. The heroine of the story, Mireille Duval, a Haitian-American woman on vacation with her family, is kidnapped by a gang of men outside the gates of her wealthy father’s compound in Port-au-Prince. She is stolen from her husband and her still-suckling child, and is taken to a stash house in a slum called Bel Air. This event sets up the broad structure of the novel. Mireille and the reader understand the story in the context of the Before, the During, and the After, the tripartite narrative serving both literary and psychological purposes. The Before sections, which are interwoven into the present narrative, allow Gay to introduce the backstory of Mireille and her husband’s courtship, as well as long passages about her parents’ immigrant journey, her struggles as a non-American black in the United States, and her privileged life in Miami prior to her capture. The During, which I will get into more later, depicts her suffering at the hands of her captors. The After depicts Mireille’s slow, fitful journey back to herself after having been so rudely forced and hurt.
We are told that Mireille survives her ordeal with the kidnappers in the first few pages. In a formal stroke of genius, Gay does not make survival and escape the central tensions at the heart of the book. Having done so would have trained the reader to focus on this outcome, to see its eventual occurrence as a salve for the horrors that preceded it. Instead, Gay turns the novel into a kind of violent meditation, a ruthless, unrelenting demolition of our ideas about rape, evil, and storytelling. The central question of An Untamed State is not whether Mireille will get away from her captors at some point, the question is whether she will be able to mentally escape her captivity and whether her escaping means anything in the context of the larger issues that led to her kidnapping in the first place.
This structural, historical framing is necessary to the way in which the book is told. Mireille tells her story in the form of a fairy tale, the first words of the book being “Once upon a time.” In a way, the plot could be retold as the story of a princess stolen from her prince charming and kingly father by bad men and her later escape to return to her family. At the same time that Gay echoes the tropes of fairy tales, she actively subverts them by including an unflinching account of what is usually glossed over in fairy tales. The book makes vivid and real and present the torture and rape that Mireille endures in captivity, and examines the cultural, historical, and political factors that have produced men who kidnap and rape their own countrywomen.
The most unsettling undercurrent of the novel is that at no time does Gay allow us to fully disengage from either Mireille or her captors’ humanity. Even as she is being gang raped, even as one of the kidnappers punches her repeatedly, even as their commander acts out his sadistic fetishes on her, Gay does not allow us to simply write them off as monsters. It’s understood early on, by the presence of professional hostage negotiators, by the banality with which the residents of Bel Air treat Mirielle, by the language used around the kidnapping, that this way of life is not just common in Haiti, it is endemic. One of the kidnappers talks to Mireille in detail about his impoverished childhood as restavek, essentially a domestic slave, and about his own infant child that he hopes will not grow up to do what his father does. He then proceeds to rape her repeatedly over the course of 13 days. The commander, the most cartoonishly villainous of the captors, waxes confusedly about the economic inequality in Haiti, how Mireille’s father can have so much when the rest of them have so little. His rambling, half-baked speechifying takes places in between sessions of his cutting into Mireille’s flesh for his own pleasure and amusement. These are evil men, but Gay makes certain that we never forget that they are men, made of the same hope and fury and flesh as us.
The narrative, its investigation of a systematic problem through an individual story, recalls the slave narratives that we were produced before and after the American Civil War. It calls to mind especially Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, published in 1861. In Jacobs’s book, the threat and reality of sexual violence are made explicit as well as the structural and economic conditions that create and uphold the institution of slavery. Jacobs recalls the impossible choices that one had to make in the time of slavery: taking a white lover to avoid being raped by one’s owner, abandoning one’s family and children in order to breathe one breath of free air. Jacobs shows us that in the moral cesspool that was Antebellum America, notions of good had to be subject to unforgiving realities. In Gay’s book, too, these realities are made clear. In a scene late in the book, Mireille’s father tries to explain why he did not pay her ransom sooner and, thereby, save her from the torture she went through. He explains that his best friend also once had a family member kidnapped and he paid; but the kidnappers came back and kidnapped another relative, and another, and another, until the man was ruined. Her father said that he did not know whether she would be returned even if he paid or whether they would go after the rest of his family. He says to Mireille “in impossible circumstances one is faced with impossible choices.”
This moral complexity, its denial of easy schematics, turns An Untamed State into something more than good fiction, which it is, and arrives at something approximating, in a larger sense, truth. The scene that comes back to me like quicksilver, in the most unguarded moments, in the most hostile of places, is a scene at the very end of the book, but that occurs in the chronological middle. Word has come through that Sebastian had finally paid a ransom, and that Mireille will be released soon. Before letting her go, the commander takes her into his bedroom to “enjoy her one last time.” In his room, already the place of so many violations, Mireille, having been so fully unmoored by her kidnappers, doesn’t fight, doesn’t resist. She describes the scene in an anesthetic, matter-of-fact voice that is punctuated, after every sentence, with the words “I died.” Its placement at the end of the book suggests that we are to be mindful that just because Mireille is eventually set free and restores some semblance of herself, the person she once was died in a stash house in Port-au-Prince, in the country of her forefathers who were a free and proud people. The scene seems to say that nothing has changed, that this is the world. I can’t ever forget it, neither does this beautiful, devastating book want me to.