I started to read the first short story in Roxane Gay’s Difficult Women out loud during a road trip. When I realized that we were about to find out what happened to two little kidnapped girls, I said, “I can’t read this anymore” and we rode in silence. I had read An Untamed State last spring, horrified and compelled through its captivity narrative while I tried to stay warm in a sleeping bag in a very cold cabin — so I knew where the story was probably heading. In the car, one of my friends said she didn’t think the writing needed to get that raw, to go so close to the heart of a nightmare, and I noticed myself feeling defensive. I wanted to read on, I just wanted to do it alone. It is possible that many of the stories in Difficult Women are best read in a sleeping bag in freezing a cold cabin in the woods with an oversized box full of Cheez-Its nearby.
We are often watching the characters in this book right before a bruise appears. Similar elements resurface throughout: devotion, twins, the Upper Peninsula, hunting, exercise, violent sex, race, academia, sex work, the loss of a child. When I saw Pedro Almodovàr’s new film, Julieta, today, I realized that, while he uses a different palette and landscape, his films circle around a similar set of difficulties; in fact, a similar set of difficult women. The beauty of Gay’s collection, like Almodovàr’s filmography, is seeing the same themes approached over and over again by the same imagination in such a variety of ways.
I imagine that a lot of people come to Gay hoping that her writing, like her Twitter feed, will be their best friend. The thing is, with this book, like any good friendship, you have to wade into some very troubling waters before you get that particular kind of camaraderie. I didn’t start writing down lines that made me laugh out loud until about halfway through. Like, “’Are you from Detroit?’ I have been asked this twenty-three times since moving to the area.” And, “My feet are bare. A cat jumps into my lap. I scream.” I also appreciated this moment: “The next time I talk to Tate I will tell her she is the man of my dreams.” I mean, this is what me and my glass of wine found funny. You do you.
Personally, I am a big fan of realism, and some of the scenarios here felt archetypal to me, like the Grimm Fairy Tale version of an America most of us don’t want to look at. Some of the stories are downright fantasy, exploring situations like sunlessness, a second civil war and a cloud that literally (I almost wrote clitorally; maybe next time) follows a woman around wherever she goes. Because many of these experiments in humanness are on the sinister side, I found myself getting angry at some characters. Eventually I noticed that what I was annoyed at was the prospect of ugliness more generally — theirs, mine, Gay’s. And well: I had to sit with that. Sound familiar, America?
I wondered if some of the stories were kind of like cacti in the desert — fending off people who are here for the lush lawns and the rosebushes. “I will stab you,” she is saying (in fact, that is probably, accidentally, a direct quote) — but then all of the sudden she bathes you with this onslaught of ruddy charm. Here’s another line I liked: “Some people called him my dissertation advisor, which he was.” The characters go from being unlikeable to bursting forth with so much richness and warmth, they are achingly beautiful and the world makes nothing but sense. By “North Country,” I was in love.
This collection reminded me a lot of Miranda July’s first book, No One Belongs Here More Than You. Some stories feel like blueprints and some feel like fully realized feature films. There is a peeping tom kink throughout. Some moments feel othering or cynical. But love and grief are at the heart of every story’s central question. And as with July’s work, especially The First Bad Man — which I also read, titillated and horrified, while swaddled in a sleeping bag in a freezing cold cabin — Gay is far more honest than most about the weird ways we actually solve for love. The necessary ugliness in getting there.