Roxane Gay doesn’t make it easy to recommend her riveting first novel. Set in modern-day Haiti, “An Untamed State” is the story of an American lawyer who’s kidnapped while visiting her rich parents in Port-au-Prince. For more than 200 pages, she’s beaten, burned, sliced and gang-raped. Owing to the power of Gay’s prose, the immediacy of the narrator’s voice and the graphic nature of this ordeal, it’s some of the most emotionally exhausting material I’ve ever read.
I have serious reservations about the over-representation of violence. In this country, it seems to inspire a lot less consternation than the over-representation of sex, but that’s for another day on the couch. Ever since the second President Bush squandered a century of moral progress by making torture stylish again, it seems impossible to watch television without seeing someone getting flayed, drilled or sawed. A few years ago, thrillers about women being tortured to death were showing up so frequently in Book World that we set down a quiet moratorium for a few months. We just needed a chance to catch our breath, wipe down the floor and reflect on what it means to critique and even praise depictions of sexualized brutality.
The issue came up in all its complexity last fall while I was serving on the jury for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. One of the finalists, Bob Shacochis’s “The Woman Who Lost Her Soul” — which also takes place largely in Haiti — is a spectacular exploration of the spiritual and psychological damage of American foreign policy, but it inscribes that damage most vividly on the mind and body of a young woman. To what degree does even the most reproving representation of sexual abuse participate in the visceral thrill and habituate us to such treatment?
That question is not easy to resolve — nor is it irrelevant to Gay, a strikingly fresh cultural critic who will publish a collection of essays in August titled “Bad Feminist.” As a Haitian American, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, she’s deeply interested in how values are created — and by whom. Now, in “An Untamed State,” she considers questions of class, parental responsibility and especially sex as a weapon of terror in a fantastically exciting novel. There’s just no getting around the fact that the story is horrible, hypnotic and perfectly constructed to frustrate any search for comfort or resolution.
The narrator, a young mother named Mireille, knows that she’s a curiosity to her American friends: “a Haitian who is not from the slums or the countryside, a Haitian who has enjoyed a life of privilege.” That privilege makes her just as odd to her Haitian countrymen, who live in unrelenting poverty outside the walls of her parents’ lavish compound. Critically, her father is not a member of the corrupt Haitian aristocracy; he’s a hardworking man who came to the United States with nothing, made his fortune as a builder and returned home to create “the largest, most successful firm in the country.” But such distinctions between deserved and undeserved wealth are irrelevant to the men who, in the novel’s opening pages, rip Mireille away from her baby and husband and demand $1 million for her release.
At first, Mireille imagines that she’s merely being inconvenienced. “Kidnapping was a business transaction,” she thinks, “one requiring intense negotiation and, eventually, compromise, but I would be safe. I would be returned to those I love, relatively unharmed. There was ample precedent for hope.”
Her calm is short-lived. The story burns along with one terrifying scene after another. Mireille learns that “there’s no one you can trust in a country run through with anger.” We move from her ordeal at the hands of a gang of insatiable rapists to her parents’ house. There her husband, brilliantly depicted in all his mingled pride and panic, is shocked to learn that his imperious father-in-law has no intention of giving in to the kidnappers’ demands.
Gay may be working in territory many American readers know through the lyrical stories of Edwidge Danticat, but her style is wholly her own: direct, bracing and propulsive. Periodically, she suspends this crisis by flashing back to Mireille’s courtship and marriage in the States. It’s the sort of intermittent relief that can feel both frustrating and wholly necessary as we charge through these pages.
What responsibilities do the fantastically rich have to their countrymen who have no running water, no food, no health care? Mireille has seen the wretched people surrounding her father’s luxury sedan. She has some vague sense that many low-paid servants must toil so that her family can enjoy “the comfortable lunacy of . . . a beautiful party on a perfectly groomed beach in the middle of a land of starving people.” Given this crushing inequality, it’s easy to imagine “An Untamed State” pleading for the moral innocence of desperately poor people who have no options except crime and extortion. Indeed, in the opening paragraph, Mireille tells us, “I was kidnapped by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin and strengthened their will right through their bones.”
But the boundless savagery of Mireille’s kidnappers soon makes any kind of sociological apology for their behavior sound obscene. Despite the beatings she receives for talking back, she shreds her captors’ pompous class-warfare cant, refusing to let them imagine that the injustices they’ve suffered absolve them. We’re left not with the tidy explanations of Karl Marx, but the fathomless mystery of evil and what it wreaks on one woman.
Betrayed by her country and her father — even by the very principles of her fairy-tale life — Mireille must find some way to survive the unsurvivable. “I was becoming,” she tells us, “a woman who could be disgusted by nothing.” Forced into an untamed state of her own, she can get through this trauma only by forgetting her family. “One by one, I tried to erase each of these memories,” she says. Then her identity drains away, too, and she regards herself as dead — beyond any further pain. But what future does that leave for her if she’s ever released?
That’s the aching challenge that hangs over this smart, searing novel.
Charles reviews book for The Washington Post every Wednesday. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
AN UNTAMED STATE
By Roxane Gay
Black Cat. 370 pp. Paperback, $16