Some stories are uncomfortable because they shed a light on the unbearable pain surrounding events sanitized and packaged as entertainment today. On Law and Order: SVU and other crime TV shows, victims come at us like the soup of the day, boiling up then bussed off the table by the end of the episode.
As a lover of all things true crime and mystery, I’m not trying to shame anyone for loving Olivia. But I do get a sort of slaughter fatigue, from women always starring in the role of victim in crime stories, the dead bodies on the table always being female, lipstick smeared and hair messed and nails long enough to catch just a bit of their attacker’s skin.
There are plenty of ways to step outside of that stereotype, the story of a bad man hurting a poor woman. Chelsea Cain does it fabulously in all her series—in her Archie Lowell series, Lowell obsesses over the female serial killer he’s put away. In her newer release, One Kick, a child kidnapped and used in vids for a pedophile sex ring becomes a socially awkward, over-trained crime fighter, hunting the ring which took her years earlier. In the English drama The Fall, a man is still killing women, but he’s hunted by a woman his superior, maybe superior to all men around her, who flaunts gender norms at every turn but doesn’t shy from using them to bait and catch the killer.
But another way of smashing the stereotype is leaning full in, like a twisty Sheryl Sandberg. This seems to be Roxane Gay’s approach, as her debut novel An Untamed State leans full in to the experience of a woman who is raped and tortured and used by men as a thing in her novel. Gay explains in an interview with NPR:
‘I think it should be unreadable or unwatchable when you talk about sexual violence,’ Gay says. ‘So I tried to write to that point of unreadability, where you have to look away. It’s not that I wanted to traumatize the reader, but I wanted to be true to the story as I felt it needed to be told. And so I stared the violence down instead of writing around it. I made myself cry a couple of times, but then I would step back and remind myself that it was a novel.’
Gay shines a light on the ugliness that many crime fictions must gloss over in order to keep their readers, she focuses on an aftermath that rebels against simple mourning or healing. Like Alice Sebold’s astonishing, exhausting memoir Lucky, in which the author recounts being beaten and raped as a college freshman, these are things women don’t discuss in popular media. So many of our stories build upon women as victims, but we don’t expect those victims to speak.
An Untamed State gives voice to a victim of atrocious crimes, Mirielle, a woman living in two worlds since childhood. Her father lives as a king in Haiti, behind high walls in a fortress with servants. She lives in Florida with her baby son Christophe and her sweet Midwestern husband Michael. Michael, as an American to the core, is shocked by the obvious disparity of wealth on display in Haiti when they visit Mirielle’s parents. Gay is a child of this divide herself, as she is a first-generation Haitian American.
And then, on a visit to Haiti with child and son, exiting the high walls which her parents live behind, kidnappers take Mirielle. And then, the book gets hard to read. And it doesn’t get easier. Mirielle’s father, a stubborn man, hesitates in paying her ransom and the kidnappers torture and abuse Mirielle unendingly. And the novel doesn’t end with the Mirielle’s safe return, it journeys through an exhausting and painful aftermath.
Gay writes with a frenzied realism, an honesty, that kept me flipping pages desperate for Mirielle to be rescued, for her to heal, even though at every turn she did the exact opposite of what I thought she should do, the steps I wanted my fictional character to take to heal. This was the anti-SVU, stepping out of molds at every turn.
I cried while reading An Untamed State, and I tried to read it in the morning rather than at night, as it is really that upsetting. But, as Gay said, a book about gang rape, a book about torture, should be this upsetting. This is closer to the reality of what we spin into digestible fictional bits, from torture porn like Saw to those dead women posed with deer antlers in True Detective. This book is a reality check of human suffering.
- The Tournament of Books – An Untamed State battles Station Eleven today! And it is SUCH an upset!
- THE TROUBLE WITH PRINCE CHARMING OR HE WHO TRESPASSED AGAINST US (therumpus.net)
- PECULIAR BENEFITS (therumpus.net)
- Haiti Noir 2: The Classics – this collection includes the short story which Gay turned An Untamed State
- Ayiti – this collection from Gay is all inspired by Haiti, and includes poems, fiction, and nonfiction