Roxane Gay is working on a graphic novel, has released a striking, stunning memoir and there’s also this volume of short stories. A busy year. Yet another. All on the back of being a public intellectual with a mega-popular book of essays and other, earlier fiction. There are speaking engagements, podcast-appearances, she’s seemingly almost – already – the equivalent to the book-world of Bob Dylan with his Never-ending Tour. New material appears – but the appearances are about the journey and the body of work as much as they’re ever about publicity and promotion.
The short stories that make up Difficult Women are confronting. They’re brilliantly written. Gay’s knack for tackling large, deep topics and making it instantly relatable extends over to her fiction here.
I read these stories convinced that Gay is about observation rather than judgement. Someone else will perhaps read them differently. There’s a lot of violence – often implied, or psychological but just as often it’s physical, described in detail on the page. There are familiar – recurring – themes. Pleasure from pain, as means of escape, there’s a tough-read around sexual harassment and a type of ‘compliance’ – but shouldn’t it always be a tough read, rather than just in today’s newsworthy rushes? Of course. And that’s what’s to be hugely admired about Gay’s works of fiction here. In that sense it reminded me of Seconds of Pleasure by Neil LaBute. Very different writers, no doubt with very different worldviews and experiences, but there’s a commonality in the presenting of awful truths, the lack of judgement, the casual observation of cruel deeds.
Gay is a brilliant strategist – for here are stories that don’t judge, bound in a volume with a judgment-statement as title. Is it ironic? Well that’s up to you I guess…
She’s also brilliant at starting with a zinger – or an intriguing opening sentence. You’re hooked. She creates daring premises and then takes you down deeply into weird, grim, perfectly realised scenarios.
The woman that’s dating an identical twin – she knows they’ve ‘swapped’, both had a turn with her. She doesn’t mind. Or the story that starts, “My husband is a hunter. I am a knife” She places a stone-thrower in a glass house. We’re told they have a glass family too. And when the abuse isn’t just emotional it is rough. Tough to read at times. But intriguing, thoughtful. She’s a complex crafter – the quirk of Miranda July, the skill of Angela Carter.
I loved this book.
You might hate it.
I’m sure either response is valid. And each would be the one the writer of these stories is after. For to read these and feel…nothing…I think in Roxane Gay’s world it would be that that would seem the ultimate sin.