Monday, December 29, 2014

Not so happily ever after

From ghostmothwords
So I finished reading An Untamed State by Roxane Gay--and yep, you guessed it, this post will contain spoilers!!! In an earlier post, I talked about how Gay talks about her writing process for this novel as a fairy tale that dissolves into a not-so-happily-ever-after place. That got me thinking about how novels teach you what kind of ending to expect as you read them: (a) happy, (b) tragic, or (c) somewhere in between. I opted for C on this one--partly because I cheated (I read some of the author's commentary beforehand), and partly because that's how it read. The "signs" I honed in on were:
1. If your protagonist (Mireille) is kidnapped from her family and betrayed by her father from the start, there are no happy endings, period.
2. Mireille's narration refers to both the "before" and "after" the kidnapping. It's clear she will come out alive, if not completely whole. Death is (arguably) the ultimate tragedy, so there's still room for rebirth.
3. Mireille's strength of character--her toughness and resilience read like someone can endure and perhaps even overcome.
4. Support characters--Mireille's husband, Michael, is loyal, loving, and strong--he makes mistakes but, overall, he represents a future worth living for, as does Mireille's young son.
The trajectory of the novel and how it ends seems to bear all these out. 

Here's what happens next: 

Mireille's kidnappers do, in fact, release her, once her father finally decides to pay the ransom (after 13 days!). The second half of the novel ("Part II: Once Upon a Time") deals with the emotional aftermath of Mireille's ordeal and her struggle to reorient herself to the former "fairy tale" of her life. During her captivity, she has learned to think of herself as a disembodied no one and now has difficulty reconciling this no one to her previous identity as daughter, wife, mother. In the aftermath, she is unable to talk about what happened to her and is both physically and emotionally unable to hold her son. This leads to numerous conflicts with her husband, as Mireille literally flees their home once they return to Miami, driving across the country in her car. Michael initially fails to provide the support she needs, but his mother, Lorraine, steps in and gives Mireille the space, time, and understanding required to begin the healing process. Eventually, Mireille is able to tell her story to Lorraine and to Michael, and is fully reunited with her husband and son. She resumes her life, has another child (via a surrogate), and, eventually, grants her father forgiveness. In a word, then, there is a sort of rebirth--albeit at the cost of the death of a former self.

So what's it all about? 

I've been thinking about how the whole idea of tragedy vs happy vs bittersweet ending not only give the reader something to hold on to and to anticipate, but also informs our understanding of what a story (and life) is all about. What's the point? Well, if Mireille's story had turned out to be a happy one, it would have been a great example of overcoming terrible circumstances, but it wouldn't be quite true to Mireille's point of view. Much of her story seems to be about how "surviving" violence can be a deathless death, and that captivity may continue long after the prisoner is released from his or her cage. 

And if Mireille's story had turned out to be an utterly tragic one, it might also have mis-delivered on another provocative aspect of this story--the way in which Mireille resists her aggressors at every turn--both physically and verbally; likewise, she resists her family's attempts to minimize the impact of this violence. She demands to be heard, and ultimately she is, by her mother-in-law, her husband, and, to some extent, her father.

Persephone, from becauseilovesand
The final mix of tragedy and rebirth seems to represent the experience of the book as a whole--that violence is cyclical, both in time (Mireille returns to Haiti in the violent, albeit natural, aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake), and in the psyche (Mireille continues to feel like two people--her "before" and "after" selves).  In fact, in the novel's final chapter, Mireille encapsulates her experience in a way that could apply to the "mixed" ending as well, through the tale of Hades and Persephone: Hades (god of the underworld) steals Persephone to be his wife, but Persephone's mother Demeter forbids the earth to bear fruit in retaliation. The compromise: Hades releases Persephone, but only after he forces her to eat the seeds of a pomegranate, which doom her to return to the underworld for six months each year. Persephone is ransomed to a complicated future--both free and not free--just like Mireille.

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