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.