Difficult Women


Roxane Gay is one of those public intellectuals who
has come to represent a school of thought: in her
case, a 21st-century intersectional feminism that's
friendly to lipstick but against body shaming; fond
of pop culture but strongly critical of its exclusionary
tendencies. She is known for her fierce stance
against violence towards women, and against the
way fictional representations tend to normalise or
even excuse it. But in her new short story collection,
she is in danger of suggesting that women can find
abuse both cathartic and sexually satisfying.
Gay is a writer of formidable charm and intellect,
with a knack for intriguing premises. She is especially
masterful at writing striking openings: "My husband
is not a kind man and with him, I am not a
good person"; "The stone-thrower lives in a glass
house with his glass family"; "My husband is a
hunter. I am a knife". In many stories, this strength
is sustained and magnified. "Requiem for a Glass
Heart" develops into a beautiful allegory on human
frailty. Another gem is "North Country", about a
young academic at an isolated college who starts a
relationship with a working-class local; it's meticulous
in tone and detail, understated and exquisite.
Where there are flaws in individual stories, they
are those one would expect from someone who is
by temperament a popular writer. Gay's language
is powerful but sometimes careless, which can result
in Fifty Shades prose, like this passage from
"Noble Things": "From the beginning, they had
shared something strong, something beyond anything
they had ever known … Parker loved her
edge, how she could never be tamed." The dialogue
can also be mechanical. In "La Negra
Blanca", a woman being sexually harassed by her
boss states baldly, "I need this job", before submitting
to his advances; he then says to her, "Do you
need a Daddy?" by which point the reader is cringing
for the wrong reasons. But we're generally carried
past these clumsy details by the force of Gay's
narrative voice.
The abuser is always a cartoonish, leering, violent
pig who not only lacks good qualities; he lacks
any other qualities
A peculiarity of short-story collections is that any
preoccupation of the author stands out, as story
after story returns to it. Here, violence against
women appears in roughly half the stories. This is
not unexpected; what is surprising is how it is portrayed.
The abuser is always a cartoonish, leering,
violent pig who not only lacks any good qualities; he
lacks any other qualities. His only feelings are belligerent
insecurity and bestial lust. His female partner
feels nothing for him – not even fear or guilt. But
all too often, she's with him voluntarily because she
wants to be beaten. Here is the culmination of a typical
scene: "He clasped my throat and squeezed
harder and harder, leaving his mark … I waited for
him to punish me, and when he did, it was perfect
relief." To be clear, this is a sex scene. In Difficult
Women, abuse only occurs in the context of sex.
Even in the stories that don't deal with abuse,
sex is most satisfying to women when it leaves
bruises. Occasionally, the bruising is mutual: "They
wanted to hurt each other as much as they loved
each other." More often, she alone is left with "fresh
bruises spreading across my back, down my ass,
between my thighs". If a man is gentle, his partner
chides him with, "You don't have to be soft with me."
Long story cut short, she's asking for it.
There are only two instances in which Gay's
protagonists don't appreciate violent treatment in
any way. First, thankfully, the stories involving
abuse of children. And in the story "La Negra
Blanca", a woman who is raped is simply traumatised,
as one would expect; but the story focuses
so intently on the man's vile, racist sexuality and
lingers so much over physical details that it still
leaves an ambiguous taste. The one treatment of
abuse that fully succeeds is in the final story, "Savage
Gods", where the protagonist's masochism is
deeply explored, and revealed to be a response to
early sexual trauma. Here, the heroine's psychology
is utterly convincing, and the leering pig-like
characters feel magnified by emotion rather than
unrealistically caricatured. This demonstrates that
Gay's complex investment in this issue can produce
fascinating results. But in most of the stories,
the handling feels self-indulgent, even exploitative;
it produces a torrid heat, but sheds no light.