The Women Aren't What's Difficult in David Plante's 'Difficult Women'

Some readers, might find this an enigmatic examination of a man's relationship to several women who all "mysteriously" resemble his mother. The rest of us, however...

Difficult Women is a difficult book. But David Plante's tryptic biography isn't difficult because it's hard to read. Quite the opposite. It's a quick read with straightforward language and an easy-to-follow narrative. The difficulty with this text rests with its author's baffling motive and infuriating lack of self-awareness.


David Plante
(New York Review of Books)
September 2017

But I was warned. In his introduction to this most recent edition, editor Scott Spencer clearly articulates the difficulties readers will have with Plante's biographies of the women with whom he spent so much time:

Part of the allure of Difficult Women is trying to puzzle out what motivated Plante's exposure of his friends and himself.

What Spencer describes as an alluring puzzle other critics call a betrayal of trust, an affront, with one critic even vowing never to read another word written by Plante because of his “disloyal, improper, unkind, and pitiless" treatment of his subjects—his so-called friends. The New York Times book review even referred to the text as “literary treachery". Unlike other critics, however, Spencer seems rather taken with the writer's moxie, and chooses to praise Plante's decisions not to self-edit: “the writer never seems to bring himself up short, never tells himself I better not say that." Perhaps he should have. Plante clearly never heard the old doggerel that “discretion is the better part of valor". Certainly no readers of Difficult Women will accuse the author of being discreet.

Plante's subjects and friends are the titular “difficult women"—Jean Rhys, Sonia Orwell, and Germaine Greer. He dedicates a section to each one, detailing their shortcomings, and recounting embarrassing, often unflattering, anecdotes. In Rhys' section, this is mostly mixing drinks for the senile old woman while she tells confusing stories that border on racist rants and struggles to use the toilet. His accounting of Orwell was mostly that she was a backstabbing bully, while Greer, Plante would have us believe, just steamrolled right over him with her demands for his attention, time, and property. The ugly portraits he paints of these women makes it hard to understand why he is even spending time with them. The author's self-portrait is as a doormat.

These difficulties are recounted in painful, microscopic detail. Plante's examinations of the foibles of his “friends" is akin to looking at one's self in the harsh lighting and magnifying mirror of a dermatologist so that instead of seeing a whole face, your attention is uncomfortably focused on the blemishes, clogged pores, and ugly pocks of the skin -- free of its humanizing features. Why anyone would want to study his friends in this clinical way is a mystery. Perhaps Plante hoped to uncover a truth about himself? If so, he never tells the reader what that might be.

The book's fourth section contains a rather strange glossary of terms relating to all three women, which might be the weirdest feature of the text. It was as though he had extra notes on the women but couldn't bring himself to simply toss them in the garbage so he made a “difficult dictionary". The entries are common words like babies, clothes, and friends, presented alphabetically with a short descriptor that gives a slightly different meaning for each woman. But they don't really make any sense, and it isn't clear why the information couldn't have simply been integrated into the main narratives. Here's the first entry:

abortion In Jean's day it was called “an illegal operation." She writes in her autobiography, that after the operation. . . my predominant feeling was intense relief. . .The abortion is entirely personal, and she does not give it much thought.
Sonia, I believe, sees abortion as an of course.
Germaine sees abortion as a political as well as a personal issue. She has thought out the issue very carefully and articulates her thoughts carefully.

The definition goes on from there, but I think you get the idea. Don't even get me started on the useless intensifier of that last sentence: is it carefully or very carefully? Based on what Plante tells us about Germaine's shoot-from-the-hip approach to discourse, I'm guessing it's neither.

While there's very little crossover in the timeline or narrative between the three sections, the consistency of Plante's presence with each of the women in turn is well-placed and well-paced, and each woman appears occasionally as a background character in the others' sections.

In fact, the one consistent feature of this gossip column of a book is the consistency of Plante himself. He's consistently an awkward bathroom rug of a man who seems to believe that his omnipresent discomfort is the fault of the company he keeps. This is perhaps what bothered me about the book more than anything else: Plante's inability to disengage from, as Spencer says, women who “bully" him and take responsibility for his own happiness. At multiple points in the stories, I wanted to reach through the pages, shake Plante by his shoulders, and tell him to get his ass to a goddamned Al Anon meeting, maybe even therapy. Reading a copy of Codependent No More might be a good idea for him, too.

Some readers, like Spencer, might find the book an enigmatic examination of a man's relationship to several women who all “mysteriously" resemble his mother. To me, however, it read like the first few chapters of an autobiography that abruptly ends before the author actually experiences any personal awakening.

The author's total lack of self-understanding is the major downfall of Difficult Women. The moral of the story is never reached. Every unflattering anecdote about Rhys's excessive drinking, every brush off from Orwell, even the recurring awkwardness of being naked with Greer could have been justified, and Plante vindicated as an author and a friend, if only he would have had a personal epiphany at the end. Even a teensie weensie little confession of his own failings in the relationships would have done the trick. Honestly, I read all the way to the end because I was just certain he would come out as gay before it was all over. Disappointingly, it was just Plante talking out of school about his friends. I'd like to think Germaine (being the only one still alive) had the good sense to slap him upside his head just a little bit. Or maybe she knows something we don't. Perhaps she could write a sequel.

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