Roxane Gay and her Difficult Women

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In Roxane Gay’s newest release, women self destruct and mourn and rejoice, sometimes all at once. Gay writes an antidote to centuries of male dominated short fiction.

Let’s start with this: The stories in Difficult Women, by Roxane Gay, are not for or about the faint of heart. These stories shouldn’t be read in one sitting. These stories shouldn’t be picked up for a quick read on a plane. No one should read these stories with a mug of steaming chamomile on a snowy day. These stories should be read slowly, carefully, gently, when the reader has the emotional stamina to handle them. Because these stories are frightening, accurate, confusing and messy. This is a good thing.

These stories drift from the surreal to the hyper real, each sub-genre defined by its proximity to reality.  The more unusual stories drag into sharper focus how surreal even the realism is, how bizarre the very act of existing has become for women. Water, All its Weight is about a girl followed around by water and the toll this takes on her life. The last sentence of this story is utterly fantastic.

Requiem for  a Glass Heart is the subverted story of the phrase ‘people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,’ narrated by a flesh and blood man married to a glass woman who has given him a glass child. The Mark of Cain is about a woman in a relationship of sorts with two twin brothers. Gay is reminiscent of Aimee Bender as she constructs metaphors about the emotional labor women do.

Roxane Gay, Screenshot via TEDTalks

The sexual politics of the book are intense. Some of Gay’s more masochistic characters delight in violent, punishing sex. Others are subjected to violent, punishing sex. It is hard to gauge exactly what kind of statement Gay is making about the sexual predilections of these difficult women, and maybe that is the point. The recurring theme of sex as punishment makes for a fascinating, disturbing read. In one of the book’s standouts, Break All the Way Down, a mourning woman shacks up with a violent boyfriend in the hopes he will destroy her. In Baby Arm, the main character tells her lover to hate her more. In the exceptionally brutal Strange Gods, the ugliness of the narrator’s past seeps into her present.

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In Roxane Gay’s stories, there is no one female experience. There are no bullet points that constitute a difficult woman. The women here are ugly and complex and self hating and destructive and fat, just like men, only men are more easily allowed to be.

Gay’s women mourn their lack of freedoms in different ways. They don’t emerge from the standard author’s toolbox of established female characters. They are not so much difficult women as women leading difficult lives. Infidelity appears again and again in these stories, sometimes as a heartbreak, sometimes as an understood relationship requisite. The male characters, even in their more solicitous moments, shove and push and yell. In FLORIDA, La Negra Blanca and Best Features, the notion of the female body is handled. These women do not come to accept their bodies so much as reach a troubled impasse with them. The women acknowledge that these bodies are what they have to live in, for good or for worse.

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This isn’t to say that the book isn’t enjoyable. None of the stories ever overstay their welcome. The stories are weighty but they do not marinate in despair. They are practical before they are tragic. From the postdoc student in North Country to the traumatized sisters of I Will Follow You, these stories sting and comfort with harsh familiarity, serving as representation of the beleaguered, difficult women of the world.  Gay’s characters linger at the boundaries of permissiveness and they know exactly who they are and what they aren’t allowed to do. Then, occasionally, never, rarely, constantly, they do it anyway.