#tobyreads: Trauma, Daily Routine, and Decisive Observations


Reading the first few pages of Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State, the reader might get a certain set of expectations; its narrator, Mireille, begins to recount the moment in which she was kidnapped from outside of her family’s home in Haiti. Her voice in these passages is lucid, controlled; that it’s at a remove, that it’s being told from an unspecified moment in the future, offers the prospect of rescue, the idea that her abduction will be a temporary condition.

One of the things that makes An Untamed State so impressive, then, is how it  slowly undercuts all of these things. As was pointed out in a discussion between Gay and Sari Botton earlier this week, Mireille is not an unreliable narrator; her descriptions, whether of her life in the United States or of her marriage or of the men who took her, are precise and meticulous. Without losing this precision, however, Gay also shows how the experience has traumatized Mireille — how that sureness can be turned in on itself, rendering perceptions flawed, and conveying the lasting horror of her experience. The way the book’s dynamics — of class, nationality, and race — shift throughout is also impressive. While the plot’s urgency makes for a bracing read, it also poses questions that linger.

From there, I moved to Lee Rourke’s The Canal, in which a man dedicates his life to, well, contemplating the canal in front of him. Sometimes he stares over at the office buildings where he once worked; sometimes he is menaced by a group of local teens. And there are halting attempts at connection with a woman who seems to be occupying herself with a similar routine. Slowly, variations emerge, along with deeper histories: the narrator’s, his occasional companion’s. And threats to this almost meditative way of life turn up as well, from the aforementioned teens to the change inherent in any city. Slowly, what had been a quiet, borderline-absurdist work became more and more unsettling, as the characters moved from archetypal to deeply specific. It, too, is a work that remains stuck in my mind.

Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me is a short collection of nonfiction that neatly spans her areas of expertise. The title essay moves from the experience described therein — specifically, a man seemingly unable to recognize that Solnit was the author of the book he was telling her about — to chart out the larger consequences of that phenomenon. Elsewhere, she discusses art, violence against women, and the works of Virginia Woolf, among other topics. I’m glad to see these pieces collected in one volume; I also suspect that they might make for a good overview of Solnit’s work to someone less familiar with her writings.

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