For the 1891 edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde included a preface addressing the personal criticism his work had received. “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all,” he wrote.
For Roxane Gay, the acclaimed essayist and commentator, things might not be that simple. Gay is wildly talented and her first short story collection, Difficult Women, is frequently very good. Some concepts are wonderful. “I Will Follow You”, in which two grown sisters find ways to manage their need to never be apart, is powerful and original. “North Country”, about an engineer, Katie, who has moved to freezing Michigan for her postdoc, is a wonderful story of everyday racism and sexism. When she’s offered a tenured position, her boss “says the department really needs someone like me. He says, ‘You kill two birds with one stone, Katie.’ I contemplate placing his head in the compression-testing machine and the sound it would make.”
Even these stories, though, don’t unfold at their natural pace. Gay rushes to tell us everything about her characters because she doesn’t want us to miss anything, in case the moral escapes us. She focuses on the trauma not the character, and in this way some stories are driven by their sensationalist shock value. Also, themes and plot point frequently repeat: there are lost babies, appalling rapes and their aftermaths, much about hunting as an analogy, and a few good men – and one woman – drawing metaphorical and literal baths for the cruelly treated.
Fortunately, Gay also frequently delivers glorious sentences, a deep understanding of human motivation and courage. She explores the side of human nature that many writers choose not to see. She makes everything a little darker than would be comfortable.
None of the women in the collection deserve to be labelled “difficult”, which is one of Gay’s points. Their behaviour is due to horrific things that have been done to them – labels, as always, mislead us. Accordingly it would be a mistake to assume that Gay’s highest goal for her fiction is the service of capital-L Literature. Being a very good writer with something important to say, rather than a great writer who lets her art speak for itself, is no small achievement. As it stands, though, the weight of the message is tied around the ankles of her characters. Few of these stories soar in the way they could. LS
Corsair, 224pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 28, 2017 as "Roxane Gay, Difficult Women".
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