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An Untamed State
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BOOK 31: An Untamed State

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Rachel | 111 comments Mod
HEY GUYS I am so sorry I'm posting this thread so late. This somehow managed to slip all three of our minds and I'm not confident I would have remembered at any point this evening so THANKS CHELSEA for saving the day!

Alright, now onto business. Here's the discussion thread for An Untamed State by Roxane Gay. Discussion day is technically today, Sunday, but since it's already evening we'll probably end up carrying this into tomorrow or later this week, so that's cool.

Also, as a result of our recent participation poll, we've decided to forgo discussion questions and see how this goes. Asking and answering questions is still encouraged from you guys if there's anything in particular you'd like to discuss, otherwise, talk about whatever floats your boat.


Rachel | 111 comments Mod
alright, to atone for my sin of forgetting about the discussion yesterday I will go first.

okay I WILL BE HONEST GUYS I really hated this book. a solid 1-star read from me. I'd never read any roxane gay but I had really high expectations because of her reputation for feminism, but this was........ not good. I've actually read a lot since I finished this book so apologies if I forget any specifics, but my main complaints essentially boiled down to:

- I thought the prose was terrible, it was very melodramatic and had a very annoying staccato rhythm, it actually reminded me a bit of the first #iconic paragraph of my immortal lmao. and the dialogue was so cringe-y!!!

- I thought michael and miri's relationship was very immature. I'm okay with reading about people who I don't find personally likable, but there were so few redeeming qualities to them that I just could not bring myself to care at all. I also didn't think anyone in this novel acted like a real human being at any point. like, miri is kidnapped and she sings to annoy her captors...?? I found myself rolling my eyes a lot more than I wanted to.

- the gratuitous rape scenes were just too much for me. I honestly don't understand what purpose those served. it felt uncomfortably voyeuristic, and shocking from a feminist writer. this is the kind of thing I expect from game of thrones.

- the way race relations were handled..... I didn't get half as much nuance or insight here as what I expected from this novel. my main complaint here is michael's mother: at the beginning of the novel she's an unapologetic racist and at the end she becomes the hero?? does she overcome her racism or is mireille just ~an exceptional black girl~?? I found this whole element kind of tasteless. also the depictions of haiti in general as this corrupt and lawless place which is 'untamed' in contrast to the US...? kidnapping is a huge problem in haiti, but I felt like gay's exploration of this subject managed to malign the culture of the entire country.

- the scene with mireille seeing the commander in that restaurant in miami at the end...?? does anyone have any insight about what exactly we were supposed to take away from this?

things I did like:

- I thought gay's unsparing depiction of ptsd was excellent for how she encapsulated the messiness of the healing process. there was a line toward the end that mireille's therapist says to her about how she's never going to be the same person she was before, and I've never seen that particular painful truth discussed in a novel before so I thought that was good to include.

- I think there was something else maybe but I can't remember.

IDK, this was just such an important book, subject-wise, that I really wanted and expected a lot from it. roxane gay did not deliver. maybe she's one of these writers who's more suited to nonfiction than to novels. I'm willing to give some of her nonfiction a chance at some point, but I think I'm going to keep away from her fiction in the future.

Chelsea | 42 comments Mod
I also fall into the camp of people who really didn't enjoy this book. I'd probably give it a 1.5 stars (although when it's that low I'm not sure the half stars really matter). I've done some reading since so forgive me if my memory is off at all.

Like Rachel, I had real issues with the prose of this book. I suspect the staccato feeling in the writing is meant to create a mirrored sense of panic and anxiety in the reader as the main character is going through during her kidnapping since the prose is (slightly) better through the glimpses we get of Miri's history with Michael and her family. For me, this technique really did not work and just came across as choppy and poorly written though. Similarly, I found a lot of the dialogue to be over-the-top and it didn't have the feel of conversations that I could imagine real people having.

One of my issues with this novel was that I never felt like I connected to the characters and many of them felt like shallow cliches. At best I felt pity, and there were a few moments I didn't hate. Oddly enough, although it does disturb me that the mother-in-law is fairly blatantly racist earlier in the novel, I did enjoy their relationship later in the book, where she seems to be the only one to have even a basic idea of what Miri went through and how broken she is as a result. That might be more of a reflection on how childish and dense I found Michael to be and how much I didn't believe in his relationship with Miri though. With the mother-in-law, there didn't seem to be a transition between these two sides, so are we supposed to take it that all of that history goes away because Miri stays by her side when she's sick and looks after her?

I had problems with the relationship between Michael and Miri as well. I agree with Rachel that the relationship seemed really immature and I hated how Miri pushed him away without even giving him a chance to have a say in their relationship. In the part of the book covering the aftermath of the kidnapping though I found Michael the more irritating party. Does he really not put two and two together to figure out that his wife has been raped, or does he expect her to just be over it immediately?

I felt like the pacing of the book was a little off as well. The novel really thrusts the reader immediately into the kidnapping (I think within the first two or three pages? correct me if I'm wrong about this). I understand that the author does give glimpses of Miri through the memories of her life 'before', and that the situation and what she endures immediately predisposes the reader to feel sympathy towards Miri, but to be honest I would have preferred a few chapters I think to set the scene and really give us a glimpse of her family and how happy she is to be with them before tearing the family apart.

I'm someone who hates graphic violence when it's gratuitous and in this case it definitely felt gratuitous. I ragequit game of thrones initially over the excessive rape and treatment of the female characters and honestly this felt along those lines and I expected more from a female writer.

I also thought the scene with the commander in the restaurant was completely unnecessary and even broke with whatever tenuous grasp on reality the novel had before because it just seemed like such a wildly unlikely coincidence meeting.

Perhaps this makes me a bitter horrible person but even though I understood why it's supposed to be a nice moment that she doesn't tell her father everything and says she forgives him even though she doesn't, there's definitely a part of me that wishes she had just cut him off and refused to speak to him ever again.

To end on a more positive note, or perhaps to talk about wasted potential, the scenes I actually found interesting and wanted more of her were generally the ones where Miri's perspective is on the immigrant Haitian-American experience. I would much rather have read a book just filled with these sorts of observations and stories than what we ultimately got, so I thought it was a shame that she didn't stick to those observations. I generally thought the ptsd was handled well too, although again the lack of characters who felt like three-dimensional people held back from this. Ultimately, the subject matter of An Untamed State was important but the execution was really poor and left me disappointed.

Lady H (fyoosha) | 18 comments There were things I liked about this book and there were things I hated about this book. Overall, I thought the author did best when she was writing about the immigrant experience. The kidnapping felt superfluous to the book; I would have enjoyed this a hell of a lot more if it had just been an exploration of one woman's relationship to her motherland and her marriage to a white husband. Or, hell, keep the kidnapping, but make it an exploration of classism rather than just rape and torture. Ugh, this book could have been 10x better. At least it was a quick read. Overall I would definitely not recommend it.

The Good:

The immigrant experience: As the child of immigrants myself, as someone who has spent my life being shuttled between two cities, I identified with so much of what Mireille describes. Being foreign in America and the motherland, seeing two motherlands, feeling relief at being back in America but resenting non-natives who feel the same way...even going to the airport with huge, unwieldy suitcases that Americans can only stare at! During these scenes I basically felt like the book was speaking to me. I wish there had been more of this. I wish this had been the entire book.

The relationships between women: The relationship between Mireille and her sister is...well, it's said to be a significant part of their lives. I honestly didn't see too much of that going on; the author does a lot of telling and not showing. Still, this was nice to see. The other relationship that really hit home was the one between Mireille and her mother-in-law but I gotta tell you...I would have appreciated this relationship a lot more had the mother-in-law not been an unabashed racist. And then there's Mireille's complicated relationship with her mother and various other women.

The representation of PTSD and trauma: I've never had PTSD or experienced any sort of trauma, thankfully, but...the way the author described it here just felt right. The emptiness, the wanting to be so light that you can't feel yourself, the out of body sensation, the divide of a before and an after, what the therapist said, about never really being okay again like before. ...all of it rang true.

The Bad:

The writing: The writing is terrible. It's...it's just terrible. It's very abrupt; my friend described it as "staccato" and that is very accurate. None of the writing flows together; the sentences are all separate entities. And then the dialogue. Oh, lord, the dialogue! Why is this dialogue so terrible? Is it meant to sound so overdramatic and unrealistic?

The gratuitous sexual violence: Okay, so...this was my biggest problem with this novel. It could partly be because I didn't realize there would be sexual violence, but also...it was just so gratuitous. If I wanted to read torture porn I would go read torture porn. I do not need multiple detailed descriptions of rape scenes to know a character is being raped. These scenes are described in almost loving detail; it's disturbing. I mean, I get that this is an artistic choice, that some would say the description is the only way to really get a sense of how broken Mireille becomes but...no. I understand that point of view, but I completely disagree with it. There are ways to write rape scenes that don't sound like erotica. This was pure pulp.

Michael and his family: Like I mentioned above...Michael's mother is blatantly racist. Not even racist in that subtle coded way white people sometimes have, but just like...unabashedly racist. Which would have been fine, if only Lorraine didn't then become Mireille's savior in the second half of the book. I don't know what I'm supposed to have gotten from the development of their relationship, exactly. Is Lorraine still racist? Is she seeing Mireille as the "exceptional" POC different from the others? Is it just supposed to be part of her brash personality? I don't know, and it was never addressed, neither by the narrative nor the characters. The whole thing had a very White Savior-y vibe too, like, Mireille escapes savage Haiti and runs to the safety of lily-white Nebraska. Like, why wouldn't Mireille go to her sister for comfort? I don't get it.

And Michael...at times he kinda reminded me of Danny from The Mindy Show, whose racism is very casual but still potent (to me, anyway). And then, at the end of the book, he is just...I don't know if he's dense or pretending to be dense. I don't know. But he was frustrating to watch, utterly infuriating when he said that he "went through something too." I don't know if he didn't realize his wife had been gang raped multiple times or if he was in denial or if he knew and just dealt with it wrong. Again, the narrative never really addressed just how much he was aware of, but...either way he doesn't come out looking very good.

The ending: I won't post spoilers, but you'll know what I'm talking about, the second-to-last chapter. Basically my reaction was: really? It was just...so tacked on and unnecessary and utterly pointless and felt like it was thrown in there so that the last chapter could be written, and it really disturbs me that the last chapter was an extremely detailed account of the last time Mireille was raped. Plus it just leaves the reader - and Mireille - with zero closure. It was the literal worst way to end the book.

Dawn Hathaway As far as the writing goes, staccato is a good word to use. This technique could have been used to an advantage, because the flow (or lack thereof) could have been used to demonstrate panic, fear, and a heightened emotional state. I don't think there was enough distinction between the kid napping scenes and the flashbacks for that to be true. The dialogue also leaves a lot to be desired, as you guys have said.

I agree with what has been said about the violence and how it's depicted. There's a way to do it with nuance, and an opportunity to interrogate the subject matter. That was not done here. I also rage quit on GoT for the same reason.

I actually liked the depiction of Miri's relationship with her mother-in-law, not because it was a good one, but because it was a very real one. I absolutely think Lorraine was still racist (in a more complicated way, but still racist) and saw Miri as the "exceptional POC. Unfortunately that is a reality for older people with conservative ideologies, which may evolve to an extent, but probably not far enough in their lifetimes. In this way I think race relations are nuanced somewhat because we see Lorraine in the process of reconciling her ideology with her understanding of Miri as her daughter. Granted, there's not much commentary, but it's a real facet of society, and a real experience for people in interracial marriages.

I sympathized with Michael when it seemed like he was thrust into an outsider role within Miri's family while she was kidnapped, but his expectation that she would be ok immediately after her return was completely unrealistic. His casual racism was also pervasive throughout the novel.

I think the scene with the commander in Miami was an attempt to show that there were no consequences - in the end the "bad guy" got what he wanted in the end. Which, yes, that in itself I can follow, but the fact that Miri ended up face to face with him out of all the people in Miami? Unrealistic that it would happen, for one, and I didn't believe her reaction for a second.

I would be interested to see what Roxane Gay's nonfiction is like. I've heard good things about her works on feminism. I did pick up Difficult Women - her collection of short stories. It's hit or miss. Overall, I would rate it higher than An Untamed State, because her use of intense shock value elements comes across better in short fiction, but a lot of the same issues come up.

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