Anyone familiar with Roxane Gay’s work — particularly her best-selling essay collection, “Bad Feminist,” or her scalding debut novel, “An Untamed State” — will not be surprised by the territory she travels in her new story collection, “Difficult Women.” Racial tension, gender conflict and class disparity push and pull at her stories. But Gay takes rewarding risks in form, placing traditional narratives about failed relationships alongside inventive stories that dive into surrealism. One, for instance, involves a glass wife. “He is a flesh-and-blood man,” she writes, “going about the business of living with his glass wife and glass child, their glass furniture and glass lives.” At times, her controlled prose breaks into hypnotic lyricism, such as the haunting repetition of a hard-working line: “I am a knife.”
Gay is a renowned cultural critic and woman of ideas — and the real gift to readers in “Difficult Women” is her ability to marry her well-known intellectual concerns with good storytelling. The book explores the lives of women who, because of sex, race, class or demeanor have been silenced or deemed “difficult”: weary maids fending off advances, Latina aerobics instructors in gated communities, victims of assault, sex workers, a black engineer tired of patronizing co-workers. We glimpse the slights and economic hardships these women endure and see how emotional damage manifests itself into hardened personalities and complicated relationships. We come to understand why a woman might choose being “difficult” over a life spent being appealing.
Sex and sexual trauma run like a current through the collection. Women are driven to infidelity by unmet needs, forged and damaged by past encounters. In the opening story, “I Will Follow You,” two sisters become forever bound to one another after falling into the hands of a predator and are unable to find safe and meaningful relationships in adulthood. In “La Negra Blanca” a Sartre-reading woman of mixed race pays for college by stripping and endures a violent rape, chalking it up to an “occupational hazard.” When pressed to go to the police, she demurs, pleading fatigue one imagines is not just of the moment, but lifelong. “She is beyond tired,” Gay writes. “She is empty and she wants quiet. She wants quiet.”
Gay allows her female characters to own their primal appetites, and she gives the sexual relationship between characters significant weight: What, after all, is more revealing than one’s preferences and perversions, the way one treats the body of another? Her restrained and forthright style allows her to write sensual scenes with efficacy, grit and authority, such as one that takes place in a dim trailer, with a beautiful older woman who greets the protagonist “wearing a silky robe that she let fall open.”
Gay excels in her allowance for human complexity. Trauma gives way to unusual pleasure, and healing might be found through more pain or submission. “I marvel at her creativity and her cruelty,” one character says of another in the story “Baby Arm,” “and how much she loves me.” A daughter aware her father is cheating hopes her mother is having an affair as well “with the guy from the hardware store or one of the deacons from church.” A brothel thrives within a posh gated community in Florida, populated by defiant “therapists” who “sit on the large lanai behind the spa in negligees,” with voices “deep and velvety in the way of women who know things.”
One of the book’s greatest achievements is Gay’s psychological acuity in the creation of female characters who are teeming with dissonance and appealing self-awareness. One woman, accused of being loose, avoids real love because she has “already learned the dangers of sincerity.” Another, in “The Mark of Cain,” pretends not to know that her husband and his twin switch places in her bed. “I am the kind of woman who doesn’t mind indulging the deception,” she tells the reader. Later, they will drink wine and “practice being normal.” These knowing women realize that “normal” lives are performative.
Readers long used to male-dominated grit lit and sexual violence directed toward women in movies and books may find the inverse of these tropes surprising — like the all-out female slugfest in the basement of a shopping mall, or a daughter who sleeps with her dead father’s mistress. Men are portrayed as hapless virgins, and some leave women “intrigued but vaguely unsatisfied.” A priest, after an extramarital tryst, attempts to “clean himself with thin paper towels and foamy dollops of industrial soap.” There is an invitation, throughout this book, to interrogate our assumptions about the lives and motives of others.
The book itself is dedicated to “difficult women,” whom, Gay writes, “should be celebrated for their very nature.” It is possible that, as in reality, the difficulty these characters face allows them to become expansive, weary but wise. Damaged, difficult women can be strong and possess real agency over their so-called “bad” decisions. In a dark and modern way, this collection celebrates the post-traumatic enlightenment of women.
Megan Mayhew Bergman is the author of the collections “Birds of a Lesser Paradise” and “Almost Famous Women” and a forthcoming novel, “The Exhibition.”
On Feb. 11 at 7:30 p.m., Roxane Gay and Viet Thanh Nguyen will discuss their work at St. Paul’s Church, 4900 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20008. For tickets and more information, call Politics & Prose Bookstore at 202-364-1919 or visit politics-prose.com.
By Roxane Gay
Grove/Atlantic. 256 pp. $25