As I may have mentioned before, I hate reading books at the last minute for events. When I’d catch an event coordinator continuously finishing up a book right before an event started, I’d say, “You need to triage. Move on to something further out in the schedule.” This was especially true for us in the pre-internet days, as it was much more difficult to post-promote events. Were you going to use limited space in a print mailing to talk about how great the event was the customer missed? But now we can send out event photos, or take a day to blog event recaps, and share with our customers anything from the author’s book recommendations to amusing questions, to just that the author was really great and you’d best mark your calendar next time they* visit.
And that was certainly the case for Roxane Gay. I knew we had something special. The profile in Poets and Writers was fascinating. Our recommendation from Sharon was very positive, as were advance reviews. She had folks like Edwidge Danticat and Tayari Jones and Jami Attenberg and Tom Perrotta cheering her on, and honestly, I don’t care if they were friends or writing profs or sisters—I was going to listen.
So, stuck in the middle of An Untamed State, I introduced the author last week. I’ve usually read the book or realized I’m not going to read the book, but being stuck in the middle is the worst. Before I’ve started a novel, spoilers are a trade-off. Yes, they might give something away, but they also might convince me to read a book I might otherwise skip. But once I’ve started, I don’t need the extra push. The only reason spoilers help me at that point is if I’m having trouble understanding a plot point, but that wasn’t the case here.
I wound up spending my next day off (yes, it happens occasionally, how else am I supposed to read?) finishing An Untamed State. I thought it was great, and I'm not alone. Jim Carmin in The (Minneapolis) Star Tribune wrote: "Roxane Gay’s debut novel, “An Untamed State, is a bold yet troubling book because of its disturbing, graphic telling of the events that follow the kidnapping of a young Haitian mother. But if one can wrestle through the brutal agony that appears on so many of its pages, it’s a terrific read."
Nolan Feeney in Time magazine: "Gay’s writing is simple and direct, but never cold or sterile. She directly confronts complex issues of identity and privilege, but it’s always accessible and insightful." And Holly Bass in The New York Times Book Review compares Gay's tale to a sort of modern fairy tale, one that reminds us that Sleeping Beauty was accosted by a passing stranger and that Snow White's mother hoped to eat her stepdaughter's organs. She calls An Untamed State "a fairy tale in this vein, its complex and fragile moral arrived at through great pain and high cost."
It was pretty obvious. Mireille Jamison was kidnapped while visiting her family in Haiti and her father wasn’t going to pay. He was going to negotiate and be tough, as if he didn’t, his fear is (spoiler) he would end up like his friend, who had his whole fortune ransomed away, one kidnapper at a time. So Mireille (or Miri) was at the mercy of this gang of thugs, kids almost, all armed with guns in their waistband, and angry at being rebuffed, they were going to have their way with her.
And the story is brutal. It’s not so bad at first, because Gay pretty much knew that we needed time to acclimate to the awful situation. But there’s no question that this book contains some horrific sexual violence, and if I’m going to recommend it to book clubs, and I am, it’s going to come with a bit of a warning. As Gay said to me (I’m paraphrasing), she leads you to a dark place and slowly brings you back. Yes, it does get better, but that doesn’t make it any less scary.
This is a story of Miri’s account, but it’s more like Emma Donoghue’s Room than Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, in that it’s also the story of the aftermath—the destroyed relationships with her husband Michael and her father Sebastien. We get just enough about Sebastien, a self-made construction magnate who returned to his homeland after a career in the States, and Michael, a farm boy from Nebraska turned engineer, to account for the decisions they made. And of course we get the details of Miri’s former life, particularly Michael and Miri’s courtship and her strong relationship with her sister Mona.
The thing to be clear is that kidnapping is not specific to Haiti. It’s a situation in many countries in the world, ones with disturbingly large inequities in wealth and opportunity, access to weapons, and an ineffective government. Italy and Columbia are two other prime examples of countries that went through waves of kidnapping.
One other interesting side note was hearing Alan Weisman speak about his book Countdown. Unchecked birth rates are one of the reasons that many of these countries have these problems. We’ve got countries around the world with shockingly high youth unemployment rates. So why are all the economists worrying about declining birth rates in Europe and Japan. It’s definitely the best thing to happen to our world, and what they are really worrying about is the ensuing rising wages that would come with these changes. Keep the birth rate up and you keep wages down. But get the birth rate voluntarily down (we’re not talking about anything forced—we’re talking about policies like access to birth control and educating women) and we’ll probably calm a lot of the world’s conflicts, which will be a boon to liberals and conservatives both.
An Untamed State is quite the tour de force for a first novel, a portrait of a woman broken to the point of no return, and her very slow journey to healing. So how could she have another project in the works, particularly because she’s also teaching, most recently at Eastern Illinois, but soon to be at the creative writing program at Purdue University? I think it’s fitting that she’s at West Lafayette, as the book as both Sebastien and Michael are engineers, and while we should be absolutely clear that this novel is completely fictional, Roxane Gay’s father is also an engineer. He’s said to be enthusiastic about her new posting.
Yes, there’s a book of essays coming too, Bad Feminist, to be released by Harper Perennial in August. Gay’s almost better known for her nonfiction work, so there’s been a lot of buzz about this, and with Leslie Jamison’s book of essays becoming a national bestseller, I suspect her publisher is stoked.
Oh, and she's also featured in The New Black, a neo-noir anthology.
We’re also stoked because Gay’s new teaching gig is a few hours closer to Milwaukee. I can’t promise she’ll come back, but if she does, take note and meet us back at Boswell for a fine literary evening, mixed with a little Channing Tatum love.
*”They”, of course, is the new politically correct way to say “he or she.” Yes, I know it’s a plural pronoun. Doesn’t matter.