You Know You Want This
“Roupenian, justifiably, resented the reduction of ‘Cat Person’ by readers to a latent thinkpiece or #MeToo Rorschach test, with her at its heart”
Until December 2017, the idea that literary fiction could achieve ‘viral status’ would have seemed absurd. Literature, we might have said, is by definition resistant to cheap ubiquity. Yet Kristen Roupenian’s ‘Cat Person’ achieved precisely this, going viral after its publication in The New Yorker. Its coinciding with the timely reckoning of #MeToo, whose just proliferation, like the story itself, owed everything to social media, was of course propitious. The acuity, though, with which Roupenian dissected the toxic ambiguities of her characters’ brief relationship showed that ‘Cat Person’s’ appeal was as much the fruit of sheer talent than any piggybacking on the Zeitgeist.
Cat Person’ was realism at its best: moral, but not moralizing; relatable, but not facilely so. Revisiting it in her collection of stories, You Know You Want This, this reader was again struck by how it brilliantly renders a dangerous proclivity to project goodness onto the blank slates that are incipient romantic partners. A story like ‘Cat Person’ was bound to resonate with a generation for whom Tinder dates, seesawing as they do between anticipation and cold showers of disillusion, are par for the course.
Recently, Roupenian wrote of the pressures she confronted while writing this collection. Much to her frustration, the verisimilitude of ‘Cat Person’ had served to encourage that oldest of misreadings: the conflation of author and character, an error she can seem at pains, sometimes to these stories’ detriment, to dispel.
And dispel it does. ‘Bad Boy’, its opening salvo, is relentless in its strangeness, a far cry from the righteous percipience of ‘Cat Person’; its protagonists, a sadistic couple who gleefully dominate their milquetoast charge, are – one would hope – unrelatable, cruel and, ultimately, unregenerate. ‘Look at Your Game, Girl’ is as creepy as it is minatory, describing a young girl’s apparent near-miss with a Charles Manson epigone. These stories, peppered with references to Cobain and Guns ‘n’ Roses, and often icky à la Stephen King, are eventually offset by ‘Cat Person’ and, the collection’s longest story, ‘The Good Guy.’
Tellingly, this feels like a return to form. Rather than nods to hip retro as in the collection’s early offerings, ‘The Good Guy’ is portrayal of a largely unexplored, yet often no less pernicious, archetype in contemporary dating: the ‘nice guy’. Its avatar, Ted, appears benign, endearingly neurotic, and unfailingly polite; he is also ‘utterly dishonest’, a manipulator of considerable tact. Resentful at his subordination to the status of ‘fawning courtier’ to Anna, with whom he is creepily besotted, Ted nonetheless perseveres with his niceness, though his motives are as self-serving as any jock, only he lacks the crude honesty of bravado.
You Know You Want This is the work of a writer keen to reclaim some control over their own work. Roupenian, justifiably, resented the reduction of ‘Cat Person’ by readers to a latent thinkpiece or #MeToo Rorschach test, with her at its heart. And yet she is at her strongest probing the self-deluding justifications that people, mostly men, present for their shittiness. The problem is most definitely with readers, and not her.
Words: Luke Warde