“An Untamed State” – A Review


This is a beautiful book that has to do, in part, about the contradictions of Western living, and how those who are privileged try to pretend not to see their complicity in allowing those who live in destitution continue as they are. That is not the only theme of contradiction this novel speaks to, just one of its most powerful. But it is a difficult contradiction to navigate. For those of the privileged – or even people like me, who aren’t exactly “privileged” but still, thanks to the support of my family, live in a studio in a safe neighborhood and always have clean, running water etc. and other amenities which so many of us take for granted – how do we wrestle with our good fortune when so many suffer? Because obviously nobody is going to choose to become one of the “destitute.”

Or should we? I don’t know…. it’s books like this which make me wonder whether socialism or something like that isn’t such a bad thing after all… But what some of this boils down to is this: there are contradictions in all parts of our lives that our irreconcilable but that we simple must learn to live with, because world experience is painted in shades of gray… with each, often-overlapping field of our lives not easily (I know this is obvious!) assigned to different, labelled categories. 

The brief plot summary is this: a privileged American woman of Hatian heritage is kidnapped while visiting her home country, where her parents live, and held ransom for 13 brutal days. See below for publisher’s summary.

I haven’t read Roxane Gay’s nonfiction nor, obviously, do I know much about her personal life, but I sincerely hope she is doing something to use her own privilege to better the lives of the majority of people in this world who don’t enjoy the degrees, middle class (or likely upper middle class) lifestyle, audience, etc., that she does. I am, mostly, of the “have nots” and it’s difficult to read books with themes like this but see  authors lucky enough to get published and gain a wide audience continue existing in their own little insular, privileged circle. How can they write about themes like the ones addressed in this book but continue living isolated in their little academic & publishing universe? There are many such authors. Hopefully Ms. Gay is not one of them.

For me the book was also about how much noise there is in this world and how hard it is sometimes to filter things out. Well, at least for me — it’s very hard for me to filter out all the information constantly coming at me and not feel guilt over what I do have, even though what I have isn’t much.

Finally, another thing that went through my mind as I read this was how unfair it is that some people get to leave a mark when they die and so many, many more people don’t, simply by dint of their poverty and place in this world and life. In western society we’re led to believe that the great artists we know of today are known as such simply because they possess some ineffable, special, incapsulable magic talent. Well sure, yes, that’s part of it but a lot of what makes someone go down in life as a “great artist” is just pure f–ing luck and privilege. Most people in the world don’t have the luxury to give expression to the passions and talents raging inside. Or even if they do find a way to give voice – they never get an audience. It’s just not fair. And then there are millions more who may not be “artists per se,” but who live their lives with such beauty, kindness, hard work – and a multitude of other, small gestures – that make their way of living a form of art in and of itself. Think of all the millions of dead who lived in poverty and who were extraordinary people possessing who knows what inside of them, and who did numerous things for others, despite their constant struggle just to survive each day –  but who died without anybody ever getting to have a glimpse of the beauty in the way they lived their life because they were poor and had to spend their days just fighting to survive. They were artists but were invisible purely by dint of the circumstances they were born into.

At any rate, Roxane Gay is surely eminently talented if she could spur me to ponder some of these things. I of course recommend this book but it is NOT easy reading and I do not recommend it for anybody who is experiencing PTSD, or still occasionally is at risk for being triggered to the symptoms associated with it, as it could prompt flashbacks, etc. Among other things, the book includes scenes describing graphic physical and sexual abuse.

Publisher’s summary It is about “…A woman kidnapped for ransom, her captivity as her father refuses to pay and her husband fights for her release over thirteen days, and her struggle to come to terms with the ordeal in its aftermath. …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.”

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