In her new story collection, “Difficult Women,” Roxane Gay creates portraits of women haunted by grief, violence and even love. Gay appears Feb. 22 at Seattle Arts & Lectures.
by Roxane Gay
Grove Press, 260 pp., $25
The heroines of Roxane Gay’s new short-story collection, “Difficult Women,” seem utterly exposed, shivering naked before us; it’s writing that seems to cut to the bone.
In “I Will Follow You,” a drifting young woman’s closeness to her sister is gradually revealed: the two of them are forever connected by an unspeakably horrific experience. The narrator of “All the Way Down,” a mother who has lost her child, describes how she went out in search of a man who would hit her, so she could “use one hurt to cover another.” “Baby Arm” tells of a young woman who meets up with a secret fight club at a tawdry strip mall, made up of “girls who keep their ugly beneath the skin where it belongs.”
Gay, an Indiana-based author whose works include the novel “An Untamed State,” the best-selling essay collection “Bad Feminist” and an irresistibly stream-of-consciousness Twitter feed, has published most of these stories previously; many were written during her days as a graduate student. (Gay has a Ph.D. from Michigan Tech, and a number of these stories take place in the chilly North Country, described by one heroine as “the edge of the world.”)
The author of “Difficult Women” will appear at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 22, at Seattle Arts & Lectures. Tickets are $20-$80. More information at lectures.org, or call 206-621-2230.
In their range you sense a writer trying things out: a one-paragraph story that barely fills two pages but nonetheless creates a world (“Open Marriage”); forays into magic realism (“I Am a Knife,” “Requiem for a Glass Heart”) and fantasy (“The Sacrifice of Darkness”); and the title story, an icily tongue-in-cheek guide to different types of “difficult” — loose women, frigid women, crazy women, mothers, dead girls. (“What a Loose Woman Sees in the Mirror: Nothing. She doesn’t look. She doesn’t need to. She knows exactly who she is.”)
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You might recognize many of these women, through Gay’s way of painting glistening little pictures with words. A daughter notices how, on her father’s mistress, “Hard living had taken up residence in her features.” A Midwesterner transplanted to a wealthy Florida subdivision observes that the women of her new neighborhood look alike, “lean and darkly tan, their faces narrow with hungered discipline.” A woman married to a twin (twins are a theme in this book) wears dark makeup because her husband “wants me to look the way I did the night we met in a bar, drunk and numb, looking for trouble before it found us.”
Though Gay can be hilariously funny in her other works, that humor isn’t much present here; this dark collection, with its literally and emotionally bruised narrators, isn’t one that you’ll want to read in one sitting. But these stories of sisters and mothers and daughters and lovers are haunting, and their quiet voices linger. Like the cover image — a heart made up of broken shards of glass — they draw you in, even as they might draw blood.
“For the first time Laura feels something unfamiliar in her throat,” we read, in “How,” of a woman long in love with her unhappily married best friend. “It makes her a little sick to her stomach. She thinks it might be hope.”