Monday, December 22, 2014

Great expectations: happily or tragically ever after?

I'm currently reading the novel, An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay. Before this, I read an essay collection, Bad Feminist, by the same author. In an essay entitled, "The Smooth Surfaces of Idyll," she talks about her interpretation of Untamed (which came out the same year as the essay collection) as a kind of fairy tale:
"My in its own way about fairy tales. The story follows a woman who was living a fairy tale and then she is kidnapped and her fairy tale ends.... In the novel, Mireille Duval's  [the protagonist's] happy ending comes all the way apart and then I had to figure out how to put the pieces back together, how to get my characters back to something resembling happiness."
--p122 (Kindle edition). In: Roxane Gay. Bad Feminist. New York, NY: HarperCollins; 2014.
In fact, Part I of the novel is called "Happily Ever After." That got me thinking about happy endings and...well...not-so-happy endings, and how the reader sort of gets a sense from the beginning whether the book will end (a) with some kind of redemption or rebirth, (b) a major tragedy, or (c) a little of both.

My prediction so far (slightly less than halfway through the book): option C
Okay, this is sort of a cheat because the quote above alludes to "something resembling happiness," but I think it will be interesting to write down my experience-to-date as a reader in the middle of the book, and then check back in to talk about how the ending unfolds--tragically, happily, or somewhere in between. Here's where I am so far in gauging this in plot, setting, and character:

1. Plot/conflict
The basic premise of the novel is this: Mireille (a Haitian-American woman from Miami) is taken from her husband Michael and son Christophe and held for ransom while vacationing at her parents' estate in Port-au-Prince. So from the start, we've got tragedy--the best outcome for Mireille is to be returned after suffering brutal abuses, and the worst is to be killed--either way, Mireille's fairy-tale life with her husband and son is shattered. It tells us upfront that there will be no neat endings.

Further, Mireille's battle is not only with her kidnappers, but also with her father, Sebastien, a proud, hard-working businessman who refuses to pay the million-dollar ransom because (a) it means losing the wealth that represents his conquest over a lifetime of poverty and injustice, and (b) he genuinely believes that showing weakness makes him and his family more vulnerable. In phone negotiations with the kidnappers, he tells his daughter to "Stay strong" rather than promising to negotiate her release at any cost. Because family is the central theme of this novel--from the history of her own parents' romance to Mireille's courtship with Michael--this represents, in some ways, the ultimate betrayal. Again, these tragic events point to no good--the best outcome here is a troubled, if not destroyed, father-daughter relationship.

2. Time/setting/structure
However, with that being said, it's made clear that Mireille will survive--physically, at least. First, the author establishes upfront that kidnappings are commonplace in Haiti and that Mireille knows many relatives and acquaintances who have survived the experience and been returned to their families. Generally, it seems that perpetrators are more concerned with getting their money than killing their victims. More directly, Mireille herself indicates an end to the ordeal as she narrates, mentioning her "thirteen days of captivity" and structures her story by referring to "the before" and "the after" of this trauma, as in: "In the before I took the sanctity of my body for granted. In the after my body was nothing."

3. Character/relationships
The rest of the indicators come more from character. Make no mistake--Mireille is strong. Although she isn't able to escape or hurt her tormentors in any physical way, she resists them from the beginning. When she refuses to relieve herself in the presence of a guard, the man tells her she should be more thankful, and she responds, "I'm not going to thank you for a damn thing let alone taking a piss." When her kidnapper orders her to beg Sebastien, via the phone, to save her life, she says only, "I am fine and being treated as well as can be expected..." Her resistance continues, both directly and indirectly, despite being repeatedly assaulted, raped, and tortured, and despite the humiliation of her father's "indifference."

Also woven into Mireille's narrative are her memories of her romance with her husband Michael. She remembers the many challenges to their coming together--some have to do with his being very different from her (raised on a farm, wears "Republican" clothing, oozes Mid-western charm and innocence), but most have to do with the obstacles Mireille overcomes to let Michael into her life--"I do not love easy," she says--obstacles that go to the very core of her identity and body. These include a disastrous trip to Michael's childhood farm (where Mireille plainly does not fit), an equally disastrous, earlier trip to Haiti (Mireille takes Michael's ambivalence to the country as a rejection of her culture), and an earlier miscarriage (which Mireille chooses never to tell Michael about). Through each episode, Michael eventually responds--to Mireille's surprise--with love and acceptance. The resulting portrait of the marriage is of a profound and hard-earned partnership. If this book is about the ways in which love is tested and the way love tests one's personal narratives, then Mireille's inner strength and the strength of her marriage seem capable of achieving some kind of rebirth.

And finally...
Another reason why I feel that the ending will include rebirth and/or redemption is that the novel's antagonists (primarily the kidnappers, and secondarily, Sebastien) are not without their humanity. Mireille gives a complex portrait of her father and, to some extent, of her captors. These are men desperately clawing for the last shreds of dignity, manhood, and salvation they can reach. Mireille's situation--and her body--are literally and figuratively dominated by these men, but in some ways, they are living in a far more illusory fairy-tale than she, especially her father. The redemption of the novel may be at the cost of destroying these harmful fantasies--and the relationships that hang on them--but perhaps sparing Mireille and the life she has built with her husband.

This is my thought process at this stage of the novel--this may turn out to have been a horrible idea, where I end up looking stupid--but I guess we shall see. Stay tuned for spoiler alerts! and whether I was on the right track or not.

No comments:

Post a Comment