Off the Shelf: Roxane Gay, Mitski, and the Invisible Weight

Off the Shelf: Roxane Gay, Mitski, and the Invisible Weight

This piece is part of Off the Shelf, a column where I recommend a book based on an album that I love. Throughout my life, I’ve turned to music for many things: comfort, inspiration, catharsis, guidance. I want to turn to literature for the same, but am often overwhelmed by where to begin. So I’m encouraging myself to read more, and bringing you along with me. In each installment of “Off the Shelf,” I’ll pair an album with a book: a novel, poetry collection, memoir, recipe book, you name it. These aren’t meant to be exact complements. My choices might be guided by similarities in themes or tone, but will aim to illuminate the complexities of each work, and hopefully inspire you to discover a new favorite read (and maybe even album!) in the process.

Roxane Gay is an expert at writing about seemingly mundane tasks with astonishing insight. A woman walks down the street “not too fast and not too slow. She doesn’t want to attract any attention.” She holds her keys like a “dull claw” between her fingers, stares straight ahead when men make lewd comments. This description captures a brief and ordinary moment in time—a woman’s walk home—but it exposes a mountain of unseen considerations that this woman must constantly juggle. The passage appears in Roxane Gay’s Difficult Women, a collection of short stories, each revolving around a woman tired from the weight of cultural expectations, personal loss, and living in a constant state of vigilance. 

Difficult Women was published in 2017. After the release of her debut novel An Untamed Stated and breakout essay collection Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay had already become a household name. The short story collection Difficult Women allows Gay to flex her fiction writing, which is as sharp, smart, and hilarious as her essays on feminism, pop culture, and race. Each story is a brief but poignant vignette that peers into the life of a different woman, ranging from a Baltimore sex worker to a grieving structural engineer. While many of the stories stay grounded in vivid realism, Gay seamlessly slips in surreal imagery to expose aspects of the everday that typically go unseen.

Gay’s voice is singular. I’ve yet to find another writer who can confront the heavy topics of sex, race, and politics with as much grace and blunt wit. But reading Difficult Women, I was reminded of another artist who captures the invisible weight that women carry: Mitski, and her 2018 album Be the Cowboy.

Like Gay, Mitski plays with the slippery boundaries between fact and fiction. Be the Cowboy is Mitski’s fifth album, and marks a dramatic shift in the musician’s narrative voice. With her first four albums, Mitski built a fierce following around her deeply personal emotionally vulnerable songwriting. 2014’s Bury Me At Makeout Creek, and later, 2016’s Puberty 2, struck a chord with fans, especially young listeners who connected with Mitski’s carefully orchestrated accounts of heartache and the messy, painful process of coming to terms with your own identity. Mitski built a following that demanded her to expose more and more of herself in her art, but made a conscious decision with Be the Cowboy to distance her personal life from her work by creating a cast of fictional characters to star in her songs.

Throughout her book, Gay defines creates her own cast of “difficult women.” The book’s titular story examines a handful of the categories that a “difficult woman” may fall into: loose women, frigid women, crazy women, and mothers. A loose woman refuses genuine romantic connection after learning the “dangers of sincerity,” and a frigid woman wakes up at 5 a.m. each morning to run “until her body feels like it might fall apart.” The crazy woman attends therapy, but is told she is “too pretty to have real problems.” The mother watches wildlife documentaries with her son, and in scenes of mothers protecting their cubs, “wishes she could feel that way about her own child, whom she likes well enough.” All of these women are crashing against the edges of their identity, one always defined relationally, of being too much or not enough. 

Mitski also employs this idea of a relational identity in the song “Me and My Husband.” The song takes this idea to the extreme, creating a caricature of a docile wife contorting herself to please her husband. The song begins with a sigh: a brief glimpse into the crushing exhaustion this woman feels from sacrificing her own happiness for her husband’s. This breath is quickly concealed with a cheery synth line reminiscent of the grandiose arrangements of Burt Bacharach. “I steal a few breaths from the world for a minute,” the protagonist sings, “And then I’ll be nothing forever.” But in the end, she decides it’s worth it—it’s worth becoming “nothing forever” to patch up her relationship, and the song bursts into an explosive chorus as she sings, “But me and my husband / We are doing better.”

Like the narrator of “Me and My Husband,” many of Difficult Women’s protagonists struggle to separate their conceptions of love and affection from violence and loss. In “North Country,” Kate, a structural engineer, moves to Michigan’s remote Upper Peninsula for a postdoctoral position at the Michigan Institute of Technology. We learn that Kate is mourning the loss of her stillborn baby and the affair that the baby’s father was having with his lab assistant. When she hits it off with Magnus, a rugged hunter who lives in a modest trailer, Kate pushes his affection away. She can’t trust a relationship that seems so simple, with a man so earnest to show his affection that he teaches her to milk a cow and kills a buck for her, and she worries what he would think of the grief that hangs over her past.

So many of the characters in these two works have fallen in love with a war of their own. In “A Pearl,” Mistki sings “Sorry, I can’t take your touch / It’s just that I fell in love with a war / And nobody told me it ended.” They become tangled in a sense of pain or loss—losing a child, surviving sexual abuse, being betrayed by a loved one—and can no longer separate that pain from their conception of love.

Both Difficult Women and Be the Cowboy are expository portraits into the lives of modern women, but what allows them to transcend from simple stories to powerful cultural critiques is their interplay between the real and surreal. 

Gay’s prose is blunt and unadorned. She packs powerful images into short but weighty sentences, and her works focus on seemingly unassuming characters: the trainer of your zumba class, the twin sisters who live down the street, the woman working in the cubicle next to you. But as her stories progress, Gay weaves in startling imagery that brings her characters into a surreal realm. Water follows Bianca everywhere she goes, dripping on her neck as she runs on a treadmill and creates swollen, wet stains above her bed. A stone thrower lives in a glass house with his glass wife, whom he discovered at work one day in his quarry. Through these images, Gay gives a physical presence to the invisible burdens that haunt these women—the expectations, judgments, and grief that they carry, unnoticed by those around them.

Mitski also uses surreal elements in Be the Cowboy, separating her own world from that of her characters. While Mitski reveals elements of herself in her songs, she remains hyperaware of her presentation as both the subject of her work and the medium through which it reaches its audience. The album artwork for Be the Cowboy shows Mitski in a bathing cap, her eyes swiveled towards the camera as a hand holds a pair of tweezers to her perfectly made-up face. 

My first time seeing Mitski in concert was  at First Avenue in October 2018 during her Be the Cowboy tour. I was eager to hear my favorite songs from Bury Me At Makeout Creek and to sing along to “Townie” with the crowd: “I want a love that falls as fast as a body from the balcony.” But I was also curious how Mitski would bring her new, character-filled songs to the stage.

Mitski stepped into First Ave wearing kneepads and a simple black dress, looking more like a modern dancer or amateur ice skater than an adored indie rockstar. I soon realized what the kneepads were for as she flung herself around the stage in calculated choreography. Her hands followed the motion of the swirling lights projected behind her in “Washing Machine Heart.” She waved her forearms back and forth, channeling the precision of an air marshal guiding a plane down the jetway. Her knees banged against the stage and she pulled out a folding chair as a prop for her robotic dance.

Everything about Mitski’s performance was controlled. There was little stage banter—the star shared no stories about life on the road and cracked no jokes with the audience. This premeditated performance created a barrier between Mitski Miyawaki, the person, and Mitski, the artist. During her hour onstage, she was a channel for her songs and their many characters. After years of divulging more and more of herself in her music, her performance seemed to say: this is it, this is all you’re allowed to see of me.

Audiences often demand complete transparency from artists, especially women. We want constant social media updates and play-by-play updates on our favorite musicians’ love lives. With Difficult Women and Be the Cowboy, Roxane Gay and Mitski take a deliberate step back. They use fiction and surrealism to draw a line between themselves and their art while still telling incredibly personal and emotionally vulnerable stories. And, through their characters, they show what a burden it is to not have the privilege of this barrier, to have every crevice of yourself pried open by others.