Sometimes, the titular characters of Roxane Gay’s searing short story collection “Difficult Women” settle. They equivocate. They struggle to believe they deserve better than the hand they’ve been dealt — and that hand, they play with a kind of practiced carelessness. They love hard and wrong. Whether wealthy or wanting, the men around them are often violent, stupid, and craven, a cross to bear. These are lives on the edge of flames or tears.
“She was the kind of woman who didn’t expect much from life,” a young woman observes of her feckless father’s mistress in the story “In the Event of My Father’s Death,” and it’s a line applicable to many of the women in these saturnine stories. Yet while it is an unkind truth, Gay, acclaimed for her book of essays, “Bad Feminist,” does not pass judgment. In these bittersweet lives, Gay finds fierce tenacity that bends but doesn’t always break.
The great James Baldwin once said, “You want to write a sentence as clean as a bone. That is the goal.” In “Difficult Women,” Gay achieves that goal. Her writing is unfussy, well matched to the women and men she’s created, and she finds a distinct rhythm both elegant and plainspoken. This makes even uncommon situations relatable, as in “La Negra Blanca.” Working as a stripper to pay for college, a young woman named Sarah must also contend with a rich, aggressive customer eager to play out his rap-lyric-fueled fantasies. She’s every woman working at a miserable job in pursuit of a better life. As Gay writes, “Sarah hates the smell of ones and fives but can live with the stink of bigger bills.”
When the story takes a disturbing turn, Gay doesn’t flinch in portraying sexual violence, also prevalent in her novel, “An Untamed State.” Though these 21 stories have appeared in various other publications, as a collection “Difficult Women” arrives at a time when many critics and viewers are debating the gratuitous use of rape as a plot device on television shows like HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and “Westworld.” Does depicting sexual assault, they ask, within forms of entertainment glorify it and propagate rape culture?
Gay, herself a sexual assault survivor, presents rape from the viewpoint of the victim, not the perpetrator. Much of what she writes has less to do with the act itself than how girls and women find the strength to survive it, and the places within themselves that remain untouchable by their assailants. That’s certainly the case in the unnerving “I Will Follow You,” which shifts from the present to a past when two young sisters were kidnapped, imprisoned in a home, and repeatedly raped by a stranger. At its core, it’s about endurance, and one sister’s need to protect, at all costs, her younger sibling.
Because Gay is such a vivid writer, her stories have a remarkable visual sweep. She puts her readers there: in a cheap Reno motel listening to the vulgar soundtrack of a couple reunited after a long separation; at a funeral, where a widow sits stone faced refusing to give onlookers the satisfaction of watching her confront her husband’s overwrought mistress. Says the widow’s daughter, “She was going to mourn my father with a dignity he never possessed in life.”
Dignity is what prevails among these characters. Gay’s women are complicated, broken in places, and misdirected. They do their best with what they have, and even when it falls short, Gay never looks down on their choices. Perhaps because she is a native Nebraskan who now lives in Indiana, Gay has empathy for those in what those on this nation’s coasts derisively call “the flyover states.” Post-election, it’s hard not to imagine these people as part of Donald Trump’s base, but Gay would never be that reductive.
In “Difficult Women,” Gay gives these often-overlooked lives color and meaning. From a ramshackle Michigan trailer park to the affluence and ennui of a gated community in Florida — and myriad points in between — Gay writes of chances missed and unexpected joy, love gone awry or resurrected, and the slivers of hope that keep these fascinating women alive.
By Roxane Gay
Grove, 272 pp., $25
Renee Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.