I have found that as of late, my reading tastes have skewed towards the speculative and the fantastical; real life is a nightmare and contemporary fiction has yet to provide me with a suitable replacement. Immersing myself in a novel has lost the magic it once held; everything is bad, also I’ve already heard roughly 10 other peoples opinions on why I should or should not like a thing. So when I sat down to read You Know You Want This, the debut collection by Kristen Roupenian, of “Cat Person” viral fame, my mind was open and ready to accept anything.
My first pass at Roupenian’s short story debut was deliciously absent of any outside opinion— a pure reading experience that feels increasingly rare. I absorbed the stories, marveling largely at their readability. I liked the book; I recommended the book to friends. Then, I sat down and read the book again, unable to shake the feeling that its readability—its few demands on me as a reader—was the only thing to recommend the collection of stories
The stories in Roupenian’s debut deal with many of the same themes her short story “Cat Person” touched on, but without any of the blunt force that gave it such strength. In You Know You Want This, sex is a weapon and also a curse. Interpersonal relationships are vehicles for sadomasochistic manipulation. Power dynamics shift at every turn; the characters that populate Roupenian’s stories seek connection and would do anything to find it: bite a coworker’s soft flesh (“The Biter”) or wish for a monster made of bullies (“Sardines”). There are elements of the grotesque and the fantastical—shades of Angela Carter and Carmen Maria Machado—but it’s an empty fantasy that, at times, lacks the substance to make the stories stick.
It’s as if Roupenian felt the immense pressure to live up to the hype of “Cat Person” and, in attempting to do so, overshot the moon. It’s likely that Roupenian did feel pressure. Shortly after the New Yorker published her now-viral short story, Roupenian snagged a seven-figure book deal. But those looking for a “Cat Person” redux will be slightly disappointed. Here, the darkness that lurked beneath the surface of Margot and Robert’s proceedings is dragged into the light.
“Cat Person’s” success was not necessarily on account of its execution, but because of its resonant content. The story seemed almost algorithmically tailored for the current cultural moment: a tale of an older man, a younger woman, a disastrous date, bad sex, and a vicious text message exchange that plainly illustrates the nuances of modern dating. Perhaps it was because of the story’s plainspoken, intimate nature that played with the boundaries of non-fiction that it resonated, ultimately (and unfortunately) collapsing the writer with her characters.
Perhaps because of the response, You Know You Want This, is a short story collection with tremendous expectations that doesn’t quite live up to its hype.
Roupenian crafts some interesting scenarios in the 12 stories, some of which contain shades of the macabre. There’s nothing wrong with a well-executed modern fairy-tale, but in order for that construction to succeed, there must be an actual moral. Sexual deviancy, power, and damaged people who would seek to manipulate those around them to gain the power are the themes Roupenian returns to again and again. In “Look At Your Game, Girl,” a teenage girl has a murky interaction with a drifter with a predilection for Charles Manson. It’s clear that this interaction is supposed to invoke fear in the reader but I was most struck by how clearly desire is often paired with repugnance—the push and the pull of conflicting emotions. Sexual tension underscores every interaction, which is compelling at first but quickly becomes somewhat predictable as each story unfolds.
“The Good Guy” is one of the longest stories in the book and serves as a companion to “Cat Person.” The story of Ted, a man whose sexual encounters are only fruitful if envisions his penis as a literal weapon, is meant to excavate the myth of the “nice guy,” but falls short in its goal. Ted is a man who wants it both ways; his greatest defense is his niceness, and it is this quality that’s supposed to make him feel real. The monologue he delivers feels stilted and slightly try-hard.
“I was always honest with you,” Ted said. “Always. I told you what I wanted from this relationship from the very beginning. You could have trusted me, but instead you decided you knew better than I did what I felt. When I said I wanted something casual, you lied and said you wanted the same thing, and then immediately you started doing everything you could to make it something else. When you didn’t manage to make what we had into a serious relationship — the thing you wanted and I didn’t — you got hurt. 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!”
Using this very obvious setup as a launching pad into Ted’s experiences with women in the past, it’s clear that we’re supposed to think that he’s an asshole. Technically, he is. But the insidious nature of the specific kind of asshole Ted is meant to be is how nice he is in the first place. Roupenian doesn’t give that faux kindness the space it needs to fully develop. Perhaps it’s because of the form; the short story is not necessarily the medium best suited for building existential, mounting, dread.
Revisiting “Cat Person” is slightly traumatic. The hullaballoo around the story —the think pieces, the backlash, the sexism—was exhausting. Despite the laser focus of the criticism that the story was subjected to, it is the best story in the book: tightly constructed, with an element of horror that is more terrifying because it is eerily close to real life. Rereading it with some distance made me appreciate how clearheaded and sharp “Cat Person” is; how it succeeds in turning mundane sexism into fairy-tale like terror.
All the characters in You Know You Want This are, at best, damaged individuals in search of genuine connection. “Bad Boy,” the story that opens the collection, stretches the bounds of limits of human manipulation and humanity’s basest fantasies—a theme that is unevenly deployed throughout the collection. “Scarred” takes the notion of being able to conjure your basest desire —in this case, a naked man in the basement who serves as the victim of a sadistic torture scheme—and attempts to subvert it. In “The Mirror, The Bucket and the Old Thigh Bone,” a princess refuses to settle for a human man, preferring to instead imprint upon an effigy of a human comprised of the three things in the title. This story is the strongest in the collection, written as a fairy tale that, despite its best efforts, lacked the didacticism that the genre traditionally thrives on. The trouble is: shock is a limited resource and its effectiveness dwindles with each story.
Shortly after the publication of You Know You Want This was announced, HBO optioned the short stories for a series. While I never dreamed that I’d live to see the day “Cat Person” would be made into a half-hour episode of prestige television, Roupenian’s style and character sketches will likely be perfect for the medium: a hammer, when a more delicate instrument would suffice.