When Roxane Gay picks up a label, she’ll play with it, rip it apart a little, break it down, and finally embrace it. She did it in 2014 with her essay collection, Bad Feminist, which explored what it means to be a committed feminist who also likes to dance to “Blurred Lines,” who is not beholden to an ideological purity. And now she’s doing it again in her new short story collection, Difficult Women.
A difficult woman, in these stories, is usually a woman who has been hurt, typically by living under the patriarchy and under white supremacy. The injuries vary, ranging in scope from the blunt force of unimaginable trauma to the death-by-a-thousand-papercuts of daily microaggressions.
In “I Will Follow You,” the difficult woman was kidnapped by a child molester when she was 10 years old. In “La Negra Blanca,” she’s a mixed-race med student who moonlights as a stripper and is constantly fetishized by men who think of her as a white girl with a black girl’s ass. In “Best Features,” she’s a fat woman who is quietly furious at how worthless the world considers her to be.
In the title story, Gay devotes herself to finding specificity in the abstraction of difficult woman archetypes. The loose woman likes men whose job titles end in the letters er. The frigid woman runs long distance so that she can feel the power of her body. The crazy woman just wants to pick up her briefcase from her one-night stand’s apartment, which is why she’s blowing up his phone with texts. The world has hurt these women, and so they act out: They are loud, they are angry, they take up space, they are unreasonable, they are difficult.
Not all of Gay’s difficult women are as compelling at the rest. “Requiem for a Glass Heart” — which centers on a woman made of glass who marries a stone thrower and lives in a glass house — has a lovely and evocative concept but ties itself into knots when it tries to ground the idea of a glass family in anything approaching realism. So many of the book’s difficult women are caught in unhappy marriages and find release by having rough, adulterous sex that as well-rendered as each individual portrait might be, taken as a whole, they tend to blur.
But every short story collection has highs and lows. And the highs in Difficult Women are pretty damn high. Taken together, the stories celebrate the condition of being difficult in the face of a world that is determined to hurt you. Because it is only the dead girls, Gay concludes in the title story, who are never called difficult.