I should say first off that I don't generally love short story collections. I like individual stories okay, and I loved many of Gay's, but I get short story fatigue after a while.
I did, in fact, love many of Gay's title characters, even if they may be perceived as "difficult." I bookmarked 13 passages. Let's see if I get bookmark fatigue after a while.
Any member of educational institutions wishing to photocopy part or all of the work for classroom use, or anthology, should send inquiries to Grove Atlantic [postal and email addresses].
For better results, ask your local expert on fair use in education. Hint: start with your librarian.
The first story, I Will Follow You is about inseparable sisters and their love affairs. We learn the reason for their closeness, which if you know Gay's work at all, you won't consider their having been raped repeatedly as children a spoiler. In Gay's world, between men, even greetings are fraught.
They hugged, pounding each other's backs in the violent way men show affections.
Though one of the sisters has managed to find a home with a back pounder, they both remain permanently deaf and dumb, all but destroyed. Their attacker reaches out for mercy, adding a rending facet to the story's title.
Many of the stories have to do with rape and abuse, as do many of Gay's previous writings, notably An Untamed State. I think of her writing and processing and never getting mercy herself.
The title story describes various difficult women--loose, frigid, crazy, mothers and then finally girls, dead ones. This is the story that flattened me. I thought at first Gay was judging, especially the frigid woman, who I think is the most likely to be hated by the voting public, but she isn't, of course. That's not how she rolls. She loves all of her women and sympathizes with them, even a mother who doesn't find her child as easty to love as animals.
I won't quote the last paragraph, the one about dead girls, but it killed me a little dead myself because in the world Gay creates death is the only release.
In North Country, our protagonist is an engineering professor in the Upper Peninsula, of whom all the locals inquire, "Are you from Detroit?" So yes, race is a thing. (Not all of Gay's protagonists are Black, and few (none?) are overtly described by their race or ethnicity unless they're white (!), but one might glean that this one is.) As an engineering professor, she is regularly in all-male company--the rest of the faculty (a chemist who hits on her relentlessly) and her students. The latter group "crush their perfect cylinders and roar with delight each time the concrete shatters and the air is filled with a fine dust. There's a lot to love about breaking things." Since I'm a digital humanities student now, I wonder what a word counting or topic modeling project would show about violence in Gay's writings.
Although there is a lot of pain and violence in her work, what I love about Gay is her generosity toward her troubled subjects and even toward herself and her unorthodox loves. As I wrote in my review of Bad Feminist, "That’s the heart of many of the essays, I think, that the things we love are never perfect." Same goes for these stories, but reversed--imperfect people are lovable.
In Break All the Way Down, a mother is broken and behaving badly--abusing herself and her husband trying to compound her deepest pain. When she learns the worst, she makes "a wild, messy scene" and is proud of having done so. I don't know why that pride in being a mess touches me so. Unfortunately the character turns her violence inward, seeking physical violence against herself.
One character after another is tortured, so maybe that's why my eventual fatigue. An Untamed State is unrelenting, too, but maybe it being one narrative makes the horror easier to take, in that it doesn't extend to so many people. There's a lot of
I relax, enjoy how my chest constricts beneath the weight of is body, like I'm suffocating.
and taking pleasure in pain, which I'm not knocking in principle. Just, in these repeating scenarious, it doesn't sound like kink.
Every story has a sentence like that, so full of meaning and pain. The last one I noted goes like this:
I learned the word deciduous in the sixth grade. It is one of the few pieces of knowledge I retained because I love the meaning of the word, how the deciduous trees get rid of those things they no longer need, those things that have fulfilled their purpose.
Or maybe that one is joyful. I, too, love getting rid of things I no longer need. It makes me feel clean and functional, on track.
So, read this book of stories, but maybe don't try to do it all at once. It comes out in January. (Thank you NetGalley.)