The last time I can remember a short story in the New Yorker being as enthusiastically talked-about as Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person” was when Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain” was published by the magazine in 1997. That autumn it seemed that every literary gathering had to reserve at least 15 minutes to rhapsodizing over the story. At present, “Cat Person” has been dominating my feeds to a degree that a New Yorker story never has before, and of course because this is the age of social media, countless people have also found countless sententious reasons to dislike it.
Both “Brokeback Mountain” and “Cat Person” are about coupling, but unlike Proulx’s story, Roupenian’s is utterly unromantic. Proulx wrote about how two people who love and desire each other deeply can end up separated, while Roupenian—a relative unknown—describes how two people who don’t know or seemingly even really like each other can end up in bed. It describes a truly miserable sexual encounter from the point of view of a young woman, Margot, who realizes late in the game that she would rather not be participating at all. After she finally summons the nerve to reject Robert—or rather, when a friend does it for her via text—the story ends on a poisonously bitter note.
Like so many great short stories, “Cat Person” is about a failure of communication and like so many stillborn romances, the relationship between Margot and Robert is no relationship at all, but two imaginary constructs colliding with each other until they fall apart. As with Sally Rooney’s 2017 debut novel Conversations With Friends, the story depicts the way texting supplants more organic methods of getting to know someone. In Roupenian’s story, Margot and Robert, after three very brief meetings, conduct a bantering, rom-com courtship on their cellphones during the winter break of her sophomore year. When they finally spend an evening together, it’s instantly obvious that they have no real connection, but Margot agrees to a nightcap largely because “she’d had such high expectations for him over the break and it didn’t seem fair that things had fallen apart so quickly.” It isn’t until after they’ve had terrible sex that Margot doesn’t want but doesn’t know how to get out of without seeming “spoiled and capricious,” that she gets an inkling of the elaborate and erroneous fantasy that Robert has concocted about her.
Much of the online appreciation for “Cat Person” testifies to how “relatable” and painfully “real” it is in its meticulous charting of the fluctuation of Margot’s feelings as the evening progresses and one piece of information after another shifts her view of Robert. There’s even a subset of social-media discussion of the story in which readers argue about its genre: Some apparently thought it was nonfiction or some kind of personal essay and others are bemused or disgusted about the former group’s inability to distinguish the difference. As Roupenian told the New Yorker’s fiction editor, Deborah Treisman, in an interview, Margot doesn’t really know anything at all about Robert, and only receives incontrovertible evidence of his character in the story’s last line.* Seen through her unseasoned eyes, he is nearly a blank. This has prompted at least one impressive Twitter thread that builds a profile of Robert as an isolate whose understanding of relationships is based entirely on a “combination of romantic idealization found in movies, anime and the like, and the objectification and violence found in porn,” a theory at least partially supported by the fact that his cats (never seen, and perhaps nonexistent) are named after the pets of the celebrated horror manga artist Junji Ito.
Ours is an age where the reductive aesthetics of the broadsheet prevail, so it’s inevitable that some readers view “Cat Person” as weighing in on a timely issue and offering up lessons, the way personal essays are so often inclined to do. It’s easy to get into the habit of thinking that every imaginative literary work must be made to carry an unambiguous moral. But adamant takes on the rights and wrongs of gender relations are a dime a dozen. “Cat Person” has galvanized its readers precisely because it refuses to be so tendentious, even if their response to it might be the immediate urge to fit it to the procrustean bed of their personal convictions. The story’s power comes from the way it allows for the oceanic complexity of the encounter between Margot and Robert, which feels like both a perennial confusion between human beings and very much a product of its times. Even Robert’s last, nasty text to Margot could be read as an aberration, the heat-of-the-moment lashing out of a lonely, stunted person, genuinely bewildered by a rejection he doesn’t understand. Some of the readers who mistook the story for an essay or “thinkpiece” say they overlooked the New Yorker’s “Fiction” heading because, following a shared link, they read it on their phones. Margot could have told them how much you miss when the window you’re looking through is so small.
*Correction, Dec. 11, 2017: This post originally misspelled Deborah Treisman’s last name.