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Roxane Gay dramatizes sexual abuse without being exploitative.

Difficult Women

By Roxane Gay

Grove Press, 260 pages, $36.50

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A Plea for Constant Motion

By Paul Carlucci

House of Anansi Press, 304 pages, $19.95

Roxane Gay, the acclaimed American essayist and novelist, charges from the gate in her debut collection of short fiction. The opening story, I Will Follow You, focuses on a pair of sisters who, as preadolescents, were kidnapped and repeatedly raped by a sadistic pedophile. Although the author mercifully spares her readers the details of the abuse, this has the paradoxical effect of making the situation appear that much more harrowing, as ample space is left to fill in the blanks. It's a clever tactic, which allows Gay to dramatize the situation without being exploitative, while at the same time implicating readers by forcing them to interrogate their own responses to the narrative elisions. It's also a challenge: These are the places I'm going to take you, Gay seems to be saying. Are you prepared?

The approach is typical of the author, who in her essays has always shown herself keen to provoke, and to eviscerate unexamined assumptions. The confrontational aspect carries over into her fiction. "You don't have to be soft with me," says Kate, the structural engineer at the centre of North Country, articulating a sentiment that courses throughout numerous stories in Difficult Women. "No one can hurt like a girl," says a character in a different story; the speaker in this case is a member of a female fight club who shares a bond so intimate with the story's narrator she is allowed to eavesdrop on the latter in bed with her boyfriend.

Provocation operates on different levels in this collection. First on the level of theme – the presentation of female sexual desire, both masochistic and otherwise, is vigorous and forthright, the language refreshingly frank and graphic – then on the level of technique. Gay intersperses more traditionally "well-made" stories with those that employ less familiar tropes and tactics. The title story comprises a compendium of attributes that demarcate various types of difficult women (the last two categories are "Mothers" and "Dead Girls"), while Open Marriage and A Pat form a pair of microfictions that resemble parables. I Am a Knife includes a surreal birthing scene, and Requiem for a Glass Heart passes right over into allegory.

While the willingness to embrace heterodox approaches is admirable, Gay's fiction is too frequently constrained by her essayistic impulses. The tendency to explain what would be better left implied is on display here, as in La Negra Blanca, where an affluent white man's racial confusion and animus is reduced to bland exposition: "William sublimates his desires by listening to rap music." Elsewhere, obviousness or heavy-handedness results in a diminution of a given story's total effect. The Mark of Cain, about a woman who allows both her husband and his twin brother into her bed, ends on a note that is over-the-top and hokey. In Requiem for a Glass Heart, a man known only as "the stone thrower" falls in love with a literal glass woman, who reciprocates because he "was the first man who did not see through her."

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If Difficult Women falters on the level of technique, the sophomore collection from Ottawa-based author Paul Carlucci is more assured in this regard. The final section of the final story in A Plea for Constant Motion features the unnamed protagonist burying a dog that has been mauled to death. This occurs in what is flagged as an "epilogue," a somewhat unusual designation for a piece of short fiction. As a summary moment, however, it feels appropriate, not just to the story in which it appears, but the volume as a whole. The story, which takes place in Zambia and features an alienating second-person narration, has a dreamlike quality to it, accompanied by descriptions of actual dreams involving, among other things, the protagonist chewing through a woman's throat with his teeth.

This latter image, tinged with Grand Guignol horror, is accentuated by the throwaway description of the dream-woman whimpering "listlessly"; the insouciance of the adverb shocks the reader in the same manner that the image startles the protagonist awake. It's a paradoxical word choice that highlights the author's precision with language, and his tendency to blur the lines between naturalism and a presentation that frequently verges into the surreal. The manipulation of tone within and across stories in A Plea for Constant Motion is enhanced by an overall structure that is carefully and deliberately constructed.

The book is broken up into three separate sections. The first features a half-dozen stories set in Canada, all of which combine kitchen-sink realism with flashes of absurdity or outré elements (the vermin-devouring snake in These Rats Have a Job To Do, for example, or the ex-teacher forced to dress up as a giant burger by his repulsive fast-food restaurant boss in Burger Life Fitness). The final section comprises five stories set (for the most part) in Africa – Zambia and Ghana, predominantly – and focused on the travails of various expats in different contexts.

Bridging these two sections is Dream of a Better Self, a standalone tale that adopts the mode of dystopian speculative fiction overlaid with fantastical elements (the civilization-shattering catastrophe is precipitated by the manifestation of utopian doppelgangers appearing out of mirrors and other reflective surfaces). Stylistically, the story represents an intriguing departure from the surrounding pieces, while appearing as a kind of thematic apotheosis: its title is representative of what the characters throughout the book collectively strive for, and its postapocalyptic setting is an exaggerated reflection of the obstacles that are constantly thrown in the way.

The book's three parts – two acts and an intermission – reflect and refract one another on a macro level: the class conflicts between upper-crust coastal dwellers and their interior B.C. counterparts in Even Still, or the similarly abrasive dismissal of stuck-up Torontonians by the working-class east Hamilton labourers in Rag, are counterpointed by the cultural discordances that accrue to the white interlopers in Africa over the course of the latter stories.

While the thematic coherence rescues the collection from appearing overdetermined, the Africa-set stories lose momentum as compared with those that preceded them, culminating in the penultimate piece, Way Down the Mercy Hole. That story, which begins in Canada before shifting to Zambia following the violent death of the protagonist's mother, strains too much at its narrative reins; the first half of the story feels superfluous, and its retreat to a Canadian setting is jarring in the context of the surrounding material. Still, if Carlucci occasionally overplays his hand (a key character in the opening story is forced to bear the heavily symbolic name Joy), there is nevertheless much to appreciate in this tough and challenging collection.

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Steven W. Beattie is reviews editor at Quill & Quire and writes a monthly column on short stories for The Globe and Mail.

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