MARCH 27, 2019
WHORE. IT WAS the word that triggered a million tweets, the closing line of Kristen Roupenian’s short story sensation “Cat Person.” The accusation was singular, sent via fictional text from Robert to Margot, but it seemed to have come from a misogynist Muse. Robert became a symbol for how coercion can masquerade as benign loneliness; Margot, for how a reluctant “yes” is not allowed to become a “no.” In a different year, these archetypes might not have secured the story second place in The New Yorker most-read rankings, but this was 2017 and the dawn of #MeToo. Landing first on that list was Ronan Farrow’s chilling reportage on the women sexually assaulted and harassed by Harvey Weinstein; a second article on the case came in at number four. “Cat Person” was close but not too close to the other stories affiliated with #MeToo. Neither personal history nor polemic nor news exposé, it was a fiction laced with ambiguity, even pathos, and its pithy ending hit just the right note — Whore.
That epigram helped secure Roupenian her $1.2 million book deal, but the resultant collection, You Know You Want This: “Cat Person” and Other Stories has little in common with the tale advertised in its subtitle. In terms of genre, aesthetics, and even gender politics, “Cat Person” is the exception, not the rule. Indeed, the collection’s first story, “Bad Boy,” announces its distance with aplomb. In a grim first-person plural, a deviant couple recounts how their bum-of-a-friend starts crashing on their couch after a bad breakup. Realizing he can overhear their nightly escapades, the couple starts fantasizing, then teasing, then after a deluge of alcohol, goading him to watch. “Friend” soon becomes a euphemism for sex-slave, as the narratorial “we” imposes elaborate rules and punishments, then loses “our fucking shit” (and sex-drive) when he flees. Finding him back with the girlfriend, they ruthlessly collect themselves and order she be stopped. Read: Strangled. Clearly, we’ve left the psychological realism of “Cat Person” far behind, as well as its well-bounded, hashtag-able ethics of consent. We’ve entered a murkier realm of libertinism and pseudo-horror, one where the eponymous “Bad Boy” comes off as both predator and prey. Sex remains Roupenian’s preferred site to explore human villainy, but the evil has grown more Manichaean — and it’s distributed across gender lines.
The subsequent 11 stories stay near, if never quite reaching, that high watermark of relational violence. They swerve across genres, from the grimmer-than-Grimm fairy tale “The Mirror, the Bucket, and the Old Thigh Bone” to the medical case history “The Matchbox Sign.” Their literary influences are eclectic — traces of Stephen King, Carmen Maria Machado, and Ray Bradbury have been noted — and the results will confound many readers. Some lambaste its “desire to seem shocking,” but they are missing the game being played. For shock is not simply a by-product of horror or fantasy; it’s a device used to signal these storytelling modes. Judgment, be it aesthetic or ethical, can only begin in a second stage, after that genre is established, its internal logic clearly defined. If “Cat Person” lays claim to realism and “Bad Boy” to the Sadean libertine, “Sardines” wanders into magical realism, recounting how a singing birthday candle helps an adolescent retaliate against her frenemies and father’s new girlfriend. “Scarred,” meanwhile, plunges into fantasy, with a grimoire that demands the protagonist draw blood, then tears, then an organ from her spell-shackled man-slave.
The villains, you’ll notice, are quite often women, and this is where murky aesthetics starts to make for murky gender politics. Without epigrams like Whore to clearly vindicate or condemn these characters’ machinations, the line between victim and perpetrator starts to blur. And without the framework of realism, a strange power imbalance crops up: more often than not, men are assigned the role of pathetic mortal, while women receive that of the supernatural femme fatale. In those cases, unlike in “Cat Person,” readers could find a discomfiting dose of sympathy elicited for the Roberts of the world.
Take the collection’s concluding story, “Biter.” Its eponymous heroine Ellie spends the tale equivocating on whether to chomp or not on her elfin co-worker Corey Allen. When he makes a sexual pass, Ellie sees an opening and pounces. Her overeager jaws accidentally maul him, but since he’s been groping the other women in the office, Ellie unexpectedly ends up a hero. Instead of staying put to reap the glory, however, she quickly moves onto her next job and next assailant/assailee. “There was one in every office,” writes Roupenian — one man ready to grope, and thus ready for Ellie’s teeth to strike without fear of repercussion. In recalling the way the “Cat Person” reaction split along gender lines, Roupenian quipped “the story threatened to become the blue-dress/white-dress moment of the #MeToo era.” With “Biter,” the litmus test could give more unsettling results. Some will see Ellie as literary scaffolding to unveil the ubiquitous nature of workplace harassment. Others will find warning of how disfiguring deviance can get an ethical free pass. Roupenian’s tone throws a wrench in the whole ordeal: the ending to “Biter,” that image of a vampiric Ellie nonchalantly rotating through office jobs, is crisp enough to be funny. It stands in stark contrast to that final word of “Cat Person”; there, the range of reactions did not include laughter.
Some readers will forgo these more finicky cases by focusing on the collection’s longest tale, “The Good Guy,” which shares the clear-cut aesthetics and gender politics of “Cat Person.” Here too, we have a man, Ted, for whom sex is violence: at 35, his only way to stay stimulated is “to pretend that his dick was a knife, and the woman he was fucking was stabbing herself with it.” The rest of the story is told in retrospect, after his ex-girlfriend qua fantasy-stabbing-victim Angela cracks his head open with a glass tumbler. We learn, through a tale of two women, Rachel and Anna, about Ted’s gradual realization that his sheen of meek “goodness” can be wielded to entrap women. This is sentimental education at its most despicable — and thus most welcome to readers seeking more variants of “Cat Person.” They’ll find refuge also in “Death Wish,” another strictly realist story, and notably the other one Roupenian penned after her 2017 rise to fame.
Isolating these “Cat Person” derivations, however, doesn’t quite do justice to a collection so committed to scampering across genres, and to showcasing evil in both male and female forms. In its more fantastical moments, You Know You Want This reminded me of a similarly daring experiment penned over a century before: Vernon Lee’s collection Hauntings. Most famous for her art criticism and travel writing, Lee was long maligned as the shrill sister to fin-de-siècle male aesthetes like Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, and Henry James. Virginia Woolf compared her to a “garrulous baby”; Bernard Berenson claimed she “showed a lack of self-control.” The same will perhaps be said of Roupenian. But Lee’s example shows how excess can be an asset in the supernatural domain.
Because for all its eccentricities, You Know You Want This remains tethered to recognizable lands, to text messages and New Year’s champagne and westward moves to San Francisco. It opens a space for readers to sympathize with the “scarred” as well as the scarrer, the bitten as well as the “biter.” Hauntings, on the other hand, takes cognitive estrangement as its premise. In “Amour Dure,” a Polish scholar becomes obsessed with a 16th-century femme fatale; in “A Wicked Voice,” a Norwegian composer can’t stop hearing the trillings of an 18th-century castrato. Lee’s images can be just as gruesome as Roupenian’s, her characters just as diabolical, but her worlds are so self-contained, and so unorthodox, that they evade our affective intrusions and ethical scalpels.
Henry James pinpointed the power of such world-building in a letter to Lee: “[T]he ingenious tales […] are there,” he wrote, “diffused through my intellectual being and within reach of my introspective — or introactive — hand. (My organism will strike you as mixed, as well as my metaphor — and what I mainly mean is that I possess the eminently psychical stories as well as the material volume.)”
For me, Roupenian’s best stories are the ones capable of total diffusion, those like “Sardines” and “The Mirror, the Bucket, and the Old Thigh Bone,” which define their own outlandish worlds, then lie there, waiting coyly for our act of possession.
Yet it was identification, that close sibling of possession, that drove “Cat Person” to stardom, and at points You Know You Want This seems crafted to repeat the effect. By eschewing explicit references to race, class, and even sometimes sexuality, the stories seem aimed to encourage as much reader-recognition as possible. It’s a technique that can backfire. Though the genders of the “We” in “Bad Boy” are technically ambiguous, the collection feature just a single explicitly queer character: Kath in “The Boy in the Pool.” The story is woven with her latent attraction to childhood friend and bride-to-be Taylor, and it culminates with both a boy and a girl in a pool: Kath pushes Taylor in. But those details are swathed in the most hetero of hetero plots: a bachelorette party struggling to compete with the bachelors’ Vegas debauchery. I couldn’t help but think how the last New Yorker story to create such a sensation was Annie Proulx’s 1997 “Brokeback Mountain.” In 2019, queer desire might merit more than one poolside shove.
So, while the collection’s title may be tonally appropriate — flippant and flirting with danger — many readers may find themselves wanting something else. Those who sought Cat People, a set of realist tales whose feminism can be hash-tagged and tweeted with ease, will find it both aesthetically and ethically disappointing. So too will those who crave more engagement with the diverse forms cruelty takes when refracted through the prisms of identity.
Roupenian is undoubtedly capable of tackling intersectional issues head-on. After graduating from Barnard College, she spent two years with the Peace Corps in Kenya, an experience that informs the story “The Night Runner.” While teaching Public Health, she learned Swahili and discovered the literary magazine Kwani? that would become the topic of her English PhD dissertation at Harvard. That background has remained oddly absent in the discussion around her fiction, but it seems relevant that Roupenian once taught tutorials entitled “How to Write About Africa” and “The New Global Novel.” Engaging more fully with those questions would be a worthwhile direction for her fiction: a zone still ethically daring but requiring more circumspection, and more craft. Such work might not have the same self-evident market-value as Roupenian’s upcoming HBO series, but sometimes, as she knows only too well, readers might need to be told what they want.