When Kristen Roupenian’s short story “Cat Person” became a viral sensation in 2017 and the second-most-read article the New Yorker published that year, Roupenian seemed poised to step into a literary role pioneered by Mary McCarthy: the author of slightly shocking, painfully honest, highly relatable short fiction about the sexual and romantic lives of contemporary young women. McCarthy’s story “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Suit,” published in the Partisan Review in 1941, thrilled and scandalized a generation of readers by depicting a brainy, McCarthy-esque character who meets an older businessman on a train; she starts out condescending to him then ends up having a drunken, ambivalent one-night-stand with him. (George Plimpton, who was a teenager at the time, recalled that at Exeter, the story “made almost as much an impression as Pearl Harbor.”) In 1999, Melissa Bank’s A Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing—a collection of linked stories tracing the romantic evolution of a single character from age 14 to her 30s—spent 17 weeks on the best-seller list because even young women very different from Bank herself felt it spoke directly to their own dilemmas and experiences.
So a collection of stories like “Cat Person” would seem destined to hit this particular way-we-live-now sweet spot, well worth the seven-figure, two-book deal Roupenian landed soon after “Cat Person” was published. But most of the stories in Roupenian’s debut collection, You Know You Want This, are not like “Cat Person,” as anyone dipping into the first one, “Bad Boy,” will recognize. The collection, which abounds in macabre scenarios and sadomasochistic themes, will cause many of those who saw themselves in “Cat Person” to recoil. If these grotesqueries also felt as if they came from the wellspring of Roupenian’s literary imagination, I’d applaud the bold bait-and-switch. But they don’t; they feel like attempts to emulate her influences. This is that rare case in which the more commercially viable fiction is also the better fiction.
In “Cat Person” the courtship between Margot, a college sophomore, and Robert, a man in his 30s, takes place via witty, bantering texts, but on their single, ill-fated date, each is revealed to have entirely misunderstood the other. By the time Margot realizes this, she feels unable to extract herself from a night of terrible sex. Robert never gets it at all, and when she breaks it off with him, he lashes out in a final, nasty text. The story is told from Margot’s perspective, and Roupenian charts every ripple in her shifting, self-deceiving perception of what’s going on between Robert and herself. She feels “sad” when the evening seems about to end on a civil (if deflated) note. Should she prolong the date “not so much because she wanted to continue spending time with him as 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”? Maybe “he’d been trying to impress her by suggesting the Holocaust movie, because he didn’t understand that a Holocaust movie was the wrong kind of ‘serious’ movie with which to impress the type of person who worked at an artsy movie theater, the type of person he probably assumed she was.” Maybe his reserve actually conceals an appealing vulnerability? And so on. Only after Margot has decided she’s done with him does she learn of the far more elaborate stories he’s told himself about her.
The only other story in You Know You Want This that approaches “Cat Person” levels of astuteness is “The Good Guy,” a distaff variation of sorts, told from the perspective of Ted, a 35-year-old man whose toxic dating history is the result of the years he spent in high school crushing on a friend who was obsessed with another boy. The story opens with a post-breakup meeting between Ted and an ex, “a hopeless, absurd conversation in which she insisted that he had feelings for her that he was hiding, while he insisted, as kindly as he could, that he did not.” He waits numbly, knowing that “when he failed to admit that he was secretly in love with her, Angela was going to get angry. She was going to accuse him of being a narcissistic, emotionally stunted man-child.” He knows this because it’s not the first time he’s had this conversation. “It was not even the third. Or the fifth. Or the tenth.” Fed up, he reminds her that he’d always been clear about only wanting “something casual.” “You got hurt,” he says. “I see that. But I am not the one who hurt you. You did this, not me. I’m just—just—the tool you’re using to hurt yourself.” She throws a glass at him, which leads to a head injury and a trip down memory lane in which he tries to figure out how it came to be that “there’s a bad Ted underneath the good Ted, yes, but then, under that, there’s a Ted who’s good for real. But no one ever sees him; his whole life, no one ever has.”
What “Cat Person” and “The Good Guy” share is a merciless realism, particularly about the fantasies that attach themselves parasitically to our relationships, making us false to ourselves and others. Both are stories designed to elicit squirming self-recognition, even if you’re not quite a Margot or a Ted (or an Angela). Here lies Roupenian’s strength as a writer, but too many of the stories in You Know You Want This have other plans. They are fables with obvious morals: A fairy-tale queen falls passionately and narcissistically in love with the contraption that gives “The Mirror, the Bucket, and the Old Thigh Bone” its title; a woman uses a spell book to conjure her heart’s desire—a beautiful naked man—only to destroy him in fulfilling other wishes. Or they are exaggerated exercises in “darkness,” like that opener, “Bad Boy,” sure to turn away many curious readers, in which a couple, narrating in the first-person plural, drifts into a sadomasochistic relationship with a lovelorn male friend that culminates in a preposterous Grand Guignol scenario.
A rule of thumb with Roupenian’s work: The better one of her stories is, the harder it is to neatly summarize. She’s at her best when her material is constantly wriggling out of from under her microscope. “Bad Boy” and “Sardines,” a tale of divorced motherhood turned monster yarn, strain after the effect of influences like Shirley Jackson and Angela Carter. The eccentricity of the former and the sensuality of the latter don’t come naturally to Roupenian. The S&M element in some of the stories here—a man hooks up with a Tinder date whose sexual demands appall him—will remind many readers of the early work of Mary Gaitskill, whose 1988 collection Bad Behavior, although never a blockbuster on the order of A Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing, has nevertheless remained a touchstone for a certain breed of intense young literary woman. But unlike Gaitskill, Roupenian seems to be reaching, flaunting her edge, eyeing her readers and hoping to see them gasp or wince. Even Gaitskill’s most unsettling stories aren’t performative in that way. They feel like the work of an intelligence wholly devoted to telling the truth, to the titanic task of doing justice to human beings as she sees them, without artifice or mystification.
As a reader partial to fantastic and speculative fiction, I was surprised to find myself wishing that Roupenian would stick to realism, to writing about ordinary people like Margot, Robert, and Ted—not about cartoonish freaks like Ellie, in “Biter,” whose existence revolves around her thwarted desire to sink her teeth into her co-workers until they bleed. Roupenian has a gift for locating the monstrous in the mundane; she doesn’t need to head out into the wilds to find it. And as a reader accustomed to rolling her eyes at the vague, elliptical endings often associated with “New Yorker stories,” I was also surprised by my exasperation with Roupenian’s propensity for concluding hers with pat zingers and twists designed to drive some message home, like a kinky O. Henry. Nevertheless, every writer has her forte, and the harder Roupenian wants to be something other than a realist, the more that effort becomes the most noticeable thing about the story at hand. You Know You Want This is too weird and pervy to be the next A Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing, but Roupenian may still some day produce a book as good as Bad Behavior. But first she’s got to know she wants it.
by Kristen Roupenian. Gallery/Scout Press.
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