The buzzword surrounding press coverage of Kristen Roupenian’s debut short story collection is “uncomfortable.” The term nestles into headlines of interviews and reviews alike. Take this profile, which proclaims that Roupenian “hopes her new book leaves you ‘uncomfortable’ and ‘shaken.’” Another profile begins with a quote from the writer herself: “As a reader, I am hungry to be uncomfortable,” she says. The New York Times review of the collection sums up Roupenian’s entire enterprise in a pithy headline: “Other Tales of Discomfort.” The title itself appropriates and subverts the language of violation: “You Know You Want This,” as if there is no choice.
Discomfort is Roupenian’s selling point; it’s the mode that makes her fiction work. It was the thematic enterprise of “Cat Person,” the viral short story for which she is best known, which appeared in the New Yorker at the height of the #MeToo movement in December 2017. Its plot — about a 20-year-old woman’s relationship with an older man that becomes a disturbing power play — rang disturbingly true among women in a cultural moment of reckoning for powerful men.
Aesthetically, “Cat Person” is a middling story, given its tendencies toward blunt sentences and uninspired imagery. But on some level — thanks to some combination of auspicious timing and its endeavor toward subtlety in the #MeToo discourse — “Cat Person” worked. The point of the story was not to state the obvious, that sexual harassment and assault are bad (of course they are), but instead to question the very nature of heterosexual sex itself. Evoking Andrea Dworkin, “Cat Person” aspired to examine the institutional understanding of heterosexual romance by shedding light on its inherent power structure. Blatant instances of sexual abuse and harassment are, unfortunately, widespread. But even more widespread are patriarchal romance and sex, seemingly innocuous, but latent with disturbing power dynamics. For many straight women, the kind of gendered power in “Cat Person” is not a freak occurrence, but rather, a commonplace reality, part of the fabric of their everyday lives.
Subtlety was what made “Cat Person” so compelling. Regrettably, it’s precisely what’s missing from “You Know You Want This.” Gone is the subtle interplay between characters, Roupenian’s knack for tracking the undercurrents of tension in normal conversations. Instead of simmering discomfort, Roupenian goes messily for the jugular, venturing into the realm of the macabre, the murderous, the shockingly graphic. In her stories, sex has a body count. Love — erotic, platonic, familial, and otherwise — is full of casualties. Save for “The Good Guy,” the stories in the collection tend toward inelegant, blown-up allegories that are vehicles of symbolism, and clearer vehicles of delivering blood and guts on the page. To follow the bodily metaphor to its absurd extreme, “Cat Person” operates with the tact of neurosurgery. The rest of “You Know You Want This” reads more like blunt force trauma.
Unsubtle allegories litter the pages of “You Know You Want This,” whose trajectories fall into familiar and quickly repetitive patterns of sadism and masochism. Benign situations turn dark! A quick sample: A venture into polyamory goes awry when the couple gets possessive over their third in “Bad Boy.” In “Look At Your Game, Girl,” a 12-year-old girl’s encounter with a local drifter diverges from a potential abduction scenario, but only just. A prepubescent girl’s tenth birthday party in “Sardines” ends in a freakish human centipede-esque horror show in which “overlapping bodies become one body.” A parasite assumed to be a woman’s imagined symptom of psychosis becomes real, infecting her boyfriend, in “The Matchbox Sign.” Somehow, these stories all seem like drafts of the same story, or perhaps inhabiting the same fictive universe of white middle class suburbia-brand Twilight Zone (with the exception of “Night Runner,” which takes place in what is presumably Kenya). These conceits, fantastical as though they may seem, have the approximate action value of sped-up footage of mold accumulating on old fruit: the unfolding of predictable events, as one learns to expect them. But it’s not so much the subject matter; after all, the right writer can make a day at the office into an exhilarating adventure, but the wrong one can turn a murder mundane. As Roupenian chases each story to its anticlimactic ending, they feel like they’ve already been bled dry.
There’s the obvious counterpoint, which is that Roupenian’s plot lines tend toward the schematic for allegorical purposes — that these characters are referents for capital “I” Ideas, like Adolescence and Consciousness and Motherhood, and their plights are a kind of modern fable. Indeed, “The Mirror, the Bucket, and the Old Thigh Bone” even literalizes the fable genre in a bizarrely twisted fairy tale on narcissism or perhaps women bent on escaping compulsory heterosexuality. “Biter,” the collection’s concluding story, also seems to gesture at a kind of feminist wish fulfillment for the modern era: Its protagonist flips the abuser-victim script on its head and gratifies her most primal urge.
Yet the didacticism argument isn’t quite satisfactory, not with a story so irresolute and opposed to moral dualisms as “Cat Person.” Or even “The Good Guy,” the collection’s longest story, which makes just enough room for a dose of humanity for each character. Perhaps herein lies the issue, that Roupenian skims the surface of most characters, who become stock caricatures. They’ve each got their shtick — a divorcée with an affinity for wine, a girl who likes to bite — but these epithets tend to reduce them to vehicles for action, as they become characters with opaque psychologies and unclear motives. They have become, to borrow an old creative writing adage, problems with people, rather than people with problems. Roupenian insists that we want this, we know we want this. But is it too much to ask for a little bit more?
—Staff writer Caroline A. Tsai can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolinetsai3.
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