An Untamed State
by Roxane Gay
First things first: yes, this is a picture of my dog Henry posed next to the book in question. He will probably be a regular on the site since I’d like to have some visual interest and a plain old book cover isn’t all that exciting. And I’m not above cheap gimmicks to drive my readership. On to the book.
I happened to be reading An Untamed State (given to me by a bookish friend – thank you, bookish friend!) in the days following Bowe Bergdahl’s release by the Taliban. While many of the circumstances in this fictional story are very different from his, this novel gave me an elevated appreciation for what Bergdahl’s re-entry might be like. Some people find it strange and suspicious that in the two weeks since his release, Sergeant Bergdahl has yet to speak with his family, but after having spent a little bit of time inside the mind of this novel’s protagonist, that decision seems like a very wise one for Bergdahl.
An Untamed State is the story of a Haitian American woman who is kidnapped while visiting her affluent parents in Haiti. It’s not giving anything away to reveal that the first half of the book details her 13-day imprisonment and the second half tracks her experience after her release.
Before my friend sent me the book, I’d read about it and was intrigued, primarily because its author, Roxane Gay, is the Essays Editor of The Rumpus. That said, I probably wouldn’t have run right out to buy this book on my own accord, as the subject matter is pretty grim and even Gay has said that there were times when she freaked herself out by the sexual violence she was creating on the page. But here’s the thing – and this is coming from an extremely squeamish person – the sexual violence and torturous conditions are rough material, but they’re handled so well that not only does Gay avoid alienating the reader, she’s managed to write a true page-turner. I found myself ripping through the book with that ever-desirable sense of wanting to know what happens next. And by creating characters and plot that are so compelling and so well paced, Gay also offers a deeper understanding of how trauma changes a person’s brain.
There are other fascinating aspects of this book I could mention, notably the conditions in Haiti that drive kidnapping to the status of an industry, but for me, ultimately this book was about trauma. And because of that, I will say this: Roxane Gay has spoken publicly about a rape she experienced as a teenager and her consequent dependency on food as a coping mechanism. Every time I hear one of these stories, it reinforces the notion that despite our national obsession with obesity, we’re still not really talking about trauma as one of the root causes. Even though the Centers for Disease Control and others are studying this correlation, it still hasn’t made the more mainstream discussion.
So back to Bowe Bergdahl for a second. To me, his situation looks like a hybrid of the Amanda Knox and Swift Boat fiascos (people misinterpreting cultural signifiers + right wing gutting) but what do I know? Not much. I’m judging what I see on the surface. Roxane Gay and her first novel are reminders that unless we really understand where someone comes from and the things they’ve experienced, judgment isn’t going to lead to solutions.
Up Next: A much more light-hearted (I promise!) post on Thrive by Arianna Huffington, modern day Greek goddess.