An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

Okay, that’s it. I quit. I am never reading another Roxane Gay book again. While I appreciated Hunger, every other book of hers has felt unfinished (Ayiti) or been a rambling, diary-like incoherent mess (Bad Feminist). Since I stopped reading An Untamed State at 41%, this is going to be a brief review. Here is the synopsis from Goodreads:

Mireille Duval Jameson is living a fairy tale. The strong-willed youngest daughter of one of Haiti’s richest sons, she has an adoring husband, a precocious infant son, by all appearances a perfect life. The fairy tale ends one day when Mireille is kidnapped in broad daylight by a gang of heavily armed men, in front of her father’s Port au Prince estate. Held captive by a man who calls himself The Commander, Mireille waits for her father to pay her ransom. As it becomes clear her father intends to resist the kidnappers, Mireille must endure the torments of a man who resents everything she represents.

Eventually, Roxane Gay publicly discussed on her own gang rape when she was a young teen. She is open and frank about it in Hunger. Similarly, Mireille in An Untamed State is kidnapped and gang raped over and over and over. The rape and sexual assault scenes are graphic, involving sadistic methods designed to break Mireille down and “teach her a lesson” for being so mouthy while she’s held hostage.

I read to 41% because I kept thinking that I shouldn’t turn away from painful things. The world is full of horrors I can’t imagine, and perhaps reading about them will make me more understanding, I guess? WRONG. What led me to immediately quit reading was a scene involving breast milk. All I could think was Gay wanted to see her readers squirm, because she certainly gives no insight into the human condition.

The truly gross part of An Untamed State is that it shifts from the present (Mireille held hostage and raped constantly) to the past when she met her future husband. Those scenes are just as uncomfortable. Mireille and Michael fight all the time, but also have hot, wild sex constantly, too. Though Michael seems like the perfect father and husband in the present, in the past he low-key stalks Mireille. Whenever she gets angry, she literally runs away and then comes back to tell Michael, “I’m difficult to love.” Roxane Gay does a lot of telling in her character development; nothing indicates why Mireille would be unlovable. No one seemed like a real person — not Mireille or Michael, not her captors nor her father, not even her baby, who doesn’t cry when the kidnappers bust out the window in the car and extract his mother.

I know that a theme of the novel is privilege. Mireille’s family is wealthy on an island of obscene poverty. The kidnappers point this out to their hostage, who has vehemently denied that Haiti is just about poverty. When she and her future-husband, Michael, visit Haiti, they stay in a gated community or in resorts. When he notes the extreme suffering of regular Haitians, Mireille blows up at him for not loving Haiti, which she feels means he can’t love her. I don’t think Mireille understands anything about the home of her parents.

I felt there was something Gay was doing with sex and rape that mirrored what she tried to say about poverty and suffering in Haiti. I’m sitting in my safe apartment, reading the violence repeatedly enacted upon a woman far away from me. Likewise, Mireille’s family sit in their mansion in Port-au-Prince, but see the dying, suffering masses constantly — from the safety of their home, which is removed from the misery via a gate. However, I see no purpose to this parallel other than to make me feel guilty. Gay’s manipulative use of pathos is so prominent it reeks.

One fact I was constantly aware of as I read An Untamed State: I would recommend this book to literally no one. Whether you believe in content/trigger warnings or not, I would be irresponsible to not note the sheer amount of graphic sexual violence. On top of that, the characterization is poorly done. Please keep in mind that I stopped at 41%, so my review is not of the complete novel. However, I wash my hands of this author.

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42 comments

  1. I haven’t read this and don’t have plans to. I know what I can handle and what I can’t. As I get older it seems like I can handle less and less! So I understand your need to DNF. I have enjoyed her nonfiction (especialyl Hunger) but I don’t think I’m as interested in her fiction. And that’s okay. We can’t read everything!

  2. I’ve not read anything by Gay as yet, so I can’t comment on her particular approach, but this certainly sounds like a frustrating reading experience. Tackling brutal subject matter is fine, but it needs to be carried by emotional depth and believable characters, or else it can start to feel hollow and gratuitous.

    • I think the most emotionally manipulative part about this book is that the author IS a victim or brutal sexual assault, so criticizing it, such as saying much of the novel reads as gratuitous, feels like I’m criticizing the author’s experience, or belittling what she personally feels as the victim of sexual assault.

      It reminds me of when I was in creative writing classes and people would defend their own stories when a peer said a scene was unbelievable by saying a situation really happened the way they wrote it in the story. You can’t write nonfiction and have readers engage with it through fiction eyes.

      • Yes, that’s an excellent point! I’ve often seen books praised more for their subject matter than for their execution; as though people are worried their critique will look like they’re being insensitive. As a reader, it’s a pressure I have felt myself on occasion, but it’s an important distinction to make.

        • YES!! You said this perfectly, Callum. It sounds like I’m tooting my own horn, but I actually had a few readers thank me for my negative review of Reading Lolita in Tehran. So many folks didn’t like the execution of the book but did not want to sound like they believe women in Tehran didn’t risk their lives to learn.

          • Thanks! I’m totally with you. Great intentions don’t necessarily equal a great book, and readers should feel free to call out poor execution or representation no matter how sensitive the subject matter.

  3. I think rape victims find it hard not to be defined by their rape, and perhaps that’s part of what Gay is dealing with here. And I wonder too if her thesis is that this is a metaphor for modern day America. Gay is an influential writer, I think I’d better seek out one of her works and see for myself. But maybe not this one!

    • She was a popular small-press writer for a long time, building a devoted fan base in places like The Rumpus and HTML Giant, and then she exploded onto the scene with some folks to support her built in. I always try to remember that when I think about how people love her work and ignore the glaring issues.

  4. Wow this sounds very heavy and even reading some of what you described was way too graphic. If I said this last week forgive me but I think there is a way to share hard topics like this without being so graphic and grusome. I might read Hunger but I don’t think I’d ever pick this up. I don’t blame you for giving up.

  5. I’ve never read anything by Gay and that definitely won’t be changing now. I try not to avoid reading about things just because they’re hard (especially when they’re true) but I can’t deal with gratuitous sexual violence.

    • She was part of the small-press community for so long that when she broke into the mainstream, she already had a built-in fan base that wanted her to succeed. I see writers on Goodreads, people I’ve met or know casually through my time in an MFA writing program, who praise every single book that comes out by a small-press writer. There are no gradations, just “BEST BOOK EVER!!!!” and expressions like “cleaved me in two.” Erm, wut.

    • The more I read comments people are leaving, the more I think about the ways An Untamed State could have been different. Why not describe what the woman is thinking instead of what is happening? Why not use 3rd-person point of view to get into the minds of the kidnappers and really make a point about poverty in Haiti? I don’t think describing every act is the only way to discuss the topic, which I hadn’t realized until I started talking to all of you.

      • I read a book a few years ago which ended with the main point-of-view character (3rd person) raping his girlfriend in what was clearly an attempt to exert power over someone. It was very difficult to read, but it was an extremely effective way to demonstrate the themes of the novel about power and powerlessness, and also the way that violence brutalises people. (I didn’t actually like the book overall, but I recognise that it was well-written). That was an effective way to discuss the topic without being as graphic.

  6. I appreciate Roxane Gay’s observations about culture and society in her nonfiction work, but I don’t think I’m going to read her novel. As I’ve mentioned before, I focus on sexual violence (and other forms of discrimination) in my “day job,” and I prefer to avoid that topic in the books I read. I write about those topics (in a non-graphic way) because it helps me process it, but I can’t read it, especially when it’s graphic.

    • I’m about 50% done with A Case of First Impression and noticed that you share that Lyla WAS having sex with her abuser — and that is enough. I have an imagination and can fill in all the things that likely happened to make her a girl fawning over an older, attentive man and becoming a sobbing mess afraid of the police.

      • Yeah, I didn’t think it was necessary to give the details of the abuse. I’m hoping readers will understand the coercive nature of the relationship and develop some sympathy for Lyla, who is based on a fairly unsympathetic Pride and Prejudice character (people who want a “pure” Pride and Prejudice retelling might not like this). She may have been “old enough” in the early 19th century, but really, she’s just a kid (even if the law in most states draw the line at 16 even now). Far too many of my cases* deal with kids her age, and the negative impact of a “relationship” with an older person can last a lifetime. Thanks for reading it. I’m glad you got beyond 41%!

        *My practice involves civil cases, not criminal ones. However, I read a lot of criminal trial transcripts dealing with these types of issues because my organization files amicus briefs in those cases at the appellate level.

        • Oh, I should add that in Pride and Prejudice, she’s even younger than her contemporary counterpart in my book. The law would’ve been more complicated to portray in the novel if she’d been 15 at the time of the abuse. Still, my version of Lydia is young.

          • I’m reading a book called Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell aloud to my husband, and we just finished a chapter in which the main character, who has just turned 16, chooses to have sex with a man who is close to 40 because she needs a place to stay for the winter. We had a VERY long conversation about it, and I’m pleased by how much the book has us discussing back and forth.

  7. In response to some of the responses above: while I understand that Gay’s approach is likely to be offputting to a lot of readers (and while I admit that I haven’t read An Untamed State), I don’t think we get to decide how Gay, or any other writer, ought to have depicted sexual assault. I get the impulse to say “there’s no need to be graphic”, or even to say “you can be graphic but I would like some sympathetic characters to root my interest in this novel”–but I think there’s something to be said for not providing those characters as an actual authorial choice. Rape isn’t something that only happens to likeable people, or that only ever happens once per victim; the strong demand amongst readers for a redemptive quality to stories like this one can, if catered to, result in some fairly dishonest art.

    Of course, none of this means that you, GTL, have to like what Gay does in this novel. But I don’t think it ought to be dismissed as unrecommendable to anyone at all.

    • Hi, Elle. Given that you almost never visit this blog, I’m not sure what to think about you randomly popping up in my comments to scold me for not recommending a book. The fact that this is a book review blog, which means my purpose is to recommend or not recommend a book, suggests to me that you likely keep a book diary at Elle Thinks instead of a review site, which Grab the Lapels is. And I don’t think it’s wise for you to come here and tell me to not recommend a book that you’ve never read. You’re welcome to read all the scenes in which a woman is raped, gang raped, raped with a loaded gun, molested, and has her breast milk consumed directly from her body by a rapist right after he rapes her, and then tell me for what reasons you would recommend An Untamed State to someone you know. In the meantime, you sound like a know-it-all.

      • Cool, you’re allowed to think that. I do visit this blog pretty frequently – I just don’t comment – and I’m not scolding you; I’m sorry that it came across as though I was. It wasn’t personal. I just thought it was worth putting across an alternative point of view, which is what being part of a book review community is – at least to me – all about. Anyway, thanks for your considered reply.

  8. Although this is not in any way to convince you to read on, my own experience of reading this book and the reason that I have recommended it on occasion, is that the powerful and unique part of the story is actually the latter bit. And I believe that the way the story plays out could explain why the characterization feels thin at the beginning (but, also IMO she’s not playing for character there, I think she’s playing for pacing, and she definitely secured my interest, just in the first chapter alone). Without entering spoilery territory, that’s all I can say, that there is an argument for that approach from a crafting perspective, given the story arc.

    But. I also wonder about that because I haven’t yet found evidence of that kind of crafting in the short and non-fiction that I’ve read by her. She seems much more concerned with content than crafting, and I’m most satisfied when I find both. Although I do understand some of the appeal that she holds for a lot of readers, I’ve not felt the connection to her work that others find. FWIW, a book that I finished recently, Womanish: A Grown Black Woman Speaks on Love and Life by Lisa McLarin, scratched both itches for me. It’s going to be on my list of favourites for the year, I suspect: smart and challenging, well-written and consistent.

    • I agree with you: Gay’s work feels like a vehicle to get her voice out there instead of something crafted. I think that also applies to her nonfiction, like Bad Feminist, which wanders around with no thesis, but definitely gets a lot of opinions down on the page.

      • *nods* That’s the book of hers which I found so disappointing. Both within single essays and between/across the collection, I longed for more attention to shape and structure. But, you’re quite right: lots of opinions, and perhaps that is liberating for a lot of readers, discovering the points of alignment with her views, so that’s all the satisfaction they need?

  9. I’ve found coming late to this and reading through the comments very interesting. It is so difficult when someone has terrible experiences and a valid thing to say but still puts off good and thoughtful readers by the way they present it. There’s uncomfortable reading where there’s a point to be made and learning to be had, and there’s uncomfortable reading that just seems to be there to make the reader uncomfortable, but without any resolution. I’m glad processing the comments helped in your thoughts about your reaction to the book – “I don’t think describing every act is the only way to discuss the topic, which I hadn’t realized until I started talking to all of you.” and I think you’ve done a careful and nuanced job at explaining why you DNFd and why you don’t recommend it, with plenty of examples.

    • Thank you so much, Liz! Currently, I am reading Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin. I read a passage that said some white men took Deborah into a field and did things to her that made her bleed and made her cry. Now, I get that the passage is about a rape, likely a gang rape, which is the same thing readers get in An Untamed State. However, it isn’t described in detail. While both authors make me deeply feel for the victim, one author did so in a tasteful way while the other veered into what some might even call pornography.

  10. Hoo boy, I’m late to this comment party I see! This clearly struck a chord with many people based on all the comments, which is a sign of a wonderful post and review, so good on ya Melanie. Your reasons for DNFing are reasonable, and now I know I could also not tolerate reading this book, it’s too gratuitous, and I need to protect myself from that sometimes. I’ve never read any of Gay’s work, not sure if I’ll start. I’m probably more likely to read a work of fiction by her though…

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