By Katy Goodwin-Bates
Roxane Gay’s short story collection might be better titled (It’s) Difficult (to be) Women; the protagonists of her short fiction are often in bad marriages, restricted in their home lives and suffering from past tragedies. These eponymous women would be reductively grouped together as “difficult” by society, rather than having their stories understood, and this is Gay’s point – nowhere is this better exemplified than in the story that lends its name to the collection, in which Gay satirically categorises women and their behaviors.
What Happens When a Crazy Woman Snaps
She is sitting at her desk, working late, when her boss hulks his way into her office, sitting too close, on the edge of her desk, taking up space in the way men do. He stares down her blouse and it’s the presumption in the way he doesn’t hide his interest that makes her hold the sharp letter opener in the cool palm of her hand. (Difficult Women)
Marriage features heavily as an idea that threatens more often than it nurtures. The protagonist of The Mark of Cain describes being married to a man but yearning for the identical twin with whom he swaps places, while a throwaway line in Florida, alluding to “a rare species in the wealthy enclave – a first wife” suggests that women are dispensable. Infidelity is a regular interjection, like in Bone Density, in which a husband and wife engage in tit-for-tat extramarital relations while violently manipulating each other.
More positive representations of relationships do appear, with Gay’s loveliest writing reserved for love surviving the worst adversity. Break All the Way Down is almost too raw a portrayal of a woman drowning in the grief of losing a child, her trauma manifesting in desperation to physically hurt. While many of the stories here are brutal, this is the one which came closest to breaking my heart, with Gay’s supreme mastery of the short form exposing her characters’ intense suffering. The idea of the loss of a child recurs throughout, always shown as the worst agony possible; it may be difficult being a woman, but to be one of these women borders on unimaginable.
How perhaps epitomises Difficult Women; at its heart is a woman working two unsatisfying jobs to support her husband and extended family, with a backdrop of abuse and gradually emerging love for another woman, the latter of which provides an uplifting conclusion in a collection which usually offers respite at the conclusion of suffering. As in other stories, like I Will Follow You, total escape represents the only means of survival; survival, in fact, is another important theme in Gay’s writing, with her women showing gargantuan but quiet determination to overcome.
Two years ago, Hanna said she was going on vacation with Laura downstate and instead drove to Marquette and had her tubes tied. She wasn’t going to end up like her mother with too many children in a too-small house with too little to eat. Despite her best efforts, however, she has found herself living in a too-small house with too many people and too little to eat. It is a bitter pill to swallow. (How)
While gritty and harrowing realism dominates, there are rare and fascinating diversions into something more fantastical. Water, All Its Weight presents a woman doomed by her unwitting and uncontrollable ability to create water, making her a hit on her desert honeymoon but less popular in her family home, while Requiem for a Glass Heart features a woman made of glass, rendering her a source of erotic fascination to her husband; metaphorically, I was left pondering whether this odd condition was intended to represent the transparency of and subsequent ease of ignoring a woman, or the seemingly opposite qualities of hardness and fragility – an opposition at the root of so many of these narratives. Other instances of magical realism include I Am a Knife and the strangely beautiful The Sacrifice of Darkness, in which one man’s selfish act has dramatic consequences for his community and family. This story provides the reader with one of the few desirable relationships on display in Difficult Women and will, I think, cement its position as one of my favourite short stories with subsequent readings.
Gay’s always uncompromising juxtaposition of the brutal and the delicate makes this collection a stylistic tour de force, although there are some elements of repetition which begin to grate, like the continual spreading of thighs and dysphemistic references to met. Certain tropes recur dizzyingly often, like twin sisters and lost children; these hold the diverse narratives together but do render the recalling of each unique plot-line rather problematic. Perhaps this is deliberate, serving to emphasise the universal crises which drive even the most magical of Gay’s tales.
Just before reading Difficult Women, I was deluding myself with the notion that I could write a short story collection; like many fiction obsessives, I feel like I have a great book (or at least a mediocre one) inside me, longing to emerge. Unfortunately for me, although luckily for the world in general, Difficult Women forced me to abandon this notion like an unexploded bomb and run away from it at speed, because Gay is intimidatingly accomplished with the short story form. There isn’t a dud story here; every one evokes emotion, involvement and often a devastating final response. I read Difficult Women a few weeks before writing this review, and revisiting my notes has been like listening to a wonderful album whose charms the listener has gradually forgotten; I am reminded of just how powerful and unflinching these narratives are, and how very, very vital.