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Sex makes a comeback in two books of short stories



By Roxane Gay

Grove Press

260 pages, $25


By Ottessa Moshfegh

Penguin Press

294 pages, $26

Sex is back in all its glory and contradiction – its power to hallow, its potential to harm -- in two unusual new story collections featuring individuals who, for good or ill, simply don’t fit the norm.

Ottessa Moshfegh’s “Homesick for Another World” also revives the potty speak of childhood, and its fascination with the revolting, while Roxane Gay’s “Difficult Women” includes what we hope is not a prophetic tale wherein a country-dividing Presidential election causes a second secession of the South:

“There was anger and then there were petitions and then terrible decisions were made – demands for secession, refusals from Washington, rising tensions, a war to bring secession about, the wall erected, everything going to hell on only one side of the wall…It all happened so fast, it hardly seemed real, until the war began and it was too real and then the war ended and nothing had been saved, which was always the case when foolish men made foolish, prideful decisions …”

In these senses, the stories in “Difficult Women” and “Homesick for Another World” are both edgy and bold. But they are also witty, nuanced and extraordinarily affecting.

Princesses kiss frogs here, and vice versa, and -- although the outcomes of these mostly contemporary encounters are varied -- they are never dull. Gay herself describes this zeitgeist in the dedication to her 21 stories: “For difficult women, who should be celebrated for their very nature.”

If you are new to Gay, as I was, you can expect the unexpected starting with the first story in the collection, “I Will Follow You.” This tale, of two sisters on a visit to the estranged husband of one, begins lightly, then turns, almost imperceptibly, toward the dark, going from banter about the girls always sticking together, like conjoined twins, to the terror of the day when, at 10 and 11, they were abducted by a man who kept them for six weeks:

“On the first day back at school,” the younger of two recalls, “I walked out of the classroom, Mrs. Sewell calling after me. I went to Carolina’s classroom and sat on the floor next to her desk, resting my head against her thigh … My sister was the only place that made any sense.”

Abuse is a leitmotif in other of Gay’s stories as well, along with race, class, gender and sexual identity – each with a tale, or three, to tell. In the amusing “FLORIDA,” a small series of vignettes set in a gated community, we meet not only Marcy (“The other wives were quietly fascinated by Marcy in that she was a rare species in the wealthy enclave – a first wife.”) but also Caridad, a fitness instructor at the country club. (“The ladies in her classes loved to speak to Caridad in broken Spanish, to show her they were comfortable with her ethnicity despite the paleness of their skin and the wealth of their husbands.”)

In Gay’s title story, “Difficult Women,” we are presented with a menu of “loose,” “frigid” and “crazy” women – each with a different, hilarious but tragic perspective on life. Gay sums everything up succinctly here, as in the listing “Where a Frigid Woman Goes at Night”:

“There are places for people with secrets and she has secrets. … She goes to the places for people with secrets and there she waits.”

Gay’s affinity for the mysterious is perhaps most obvious in her captivating “Requiem for a Glass Heart,” a love-and-lust metaphor about a man, “the stone thrower,” who is married to a glass woman and therefore “sees too much and loves too carefully” thus requiring a meaty “flesh and bones” mistress for “those moments when he does not have to see too much or love too carefully.”

There is also the woman in “The Mark of Cain” whose husband has an identical twin: “Sometimes they switch places for days at a time. They think I don’t know. I am the kind of woman who does not mind indulging the deception.”

Each piece here is distinct. Gay is of Haitian heritage and her “La Negra Blanca” is a standout, featuring a stripper, Sarah/Sierra, and William, the scion of a Southern plantation family – who responds violently when he realizes the blonde, green-eyed Sarah/Sierra has an African American mother: “William loves black women but he’s wealthy and his wealth has history. He doesn’t have what it takes to go there …”

“Break All the Way Down” is an illicit romp -- until we learn what terrible happening has prompted the promiscuous behavior of the story’s female protagonist. “North Country” is a wonderful Michigan story about a structural engineer from Nebraska, an African American and the only woman in her work cohort, who meets a farmer named Magnus whose home may be a rusting trailer but whose heart -- and love making – erase the hurt of the rest of the world.

Gay is an experience, each of her tales eye-opening – and memorable – while Moshfegh’s 14 stories are most often cynical, sharp-edged, contrary. No one in “Homesick for Another World” – Moshfegh’s first collection -- is comfortable in his or her own skin although Moshfegh offers small carrots of hope.

“On a good day, every small thing is enchanting,” says the protagonist of the “The Surrogate,” a clever tale about a young woman whose professional life echoes her personal life in that both require her to pretend. Except on a good day when she is able to “hear only the wind in the trees, and my devils hatching their sacral plans, fusing all the shattered pieces together into a blanket of ice. I have found that it’s under that ice that I feel I am just another normal person. In the dark and cold, I am at ‘peace.’”

Moshfegh’s opening story “Bettering Myself” starts with the announcement: “My classroom was on the first floor, next to the nuns’ lounge. I used their bathroom to puke in the mornings.” With that, the tale of another young woman, an alcoholic high school teacher, is off and running, a piece of wit and rumination -- and the noble intentions of an alcoholic that flourish or wither, depending on how soon she can get to one of her favorite bars.

Most of the seven deadly sins are involved in Moshfegh’s pieces, along with the yin/yang of repulsion and attraction. In a strange story, “Malibu,” a nephew spends time with an uncle whose colostomy bag and sedentary habits alarm the nephew: “All he did was watch TV or talk on the phone or eat…I’m not saying he was an idiot. He was just like me: anything good made him want to die. That’s a characteristic some smart people have.”

No one is satisfied here. A woman lives with a boyfriend she hates. A man dislikes his wife till she dies. Shame, loathing and excess are ways of life. Moshfegh, who is half Iranian, half Croatian, has said, “I love my characters but I don’t like them.”

Neither, apparently, do they, one of them telling us, after returning to a cabin he hadn’t visited since childhood, “Twenty years later, I still felt that the good things, the things I wanted, belonged to someone else.”

Karen Brady is a former News columnist








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