‘Cat Person’ became a phenomenon. Does the rest of this debut collection measure up?
Kristen Roupenian’s eagerly awaited debut collection features a lot of bad, self-involved behaviour: in one dark fairytale, “The Mirror, the Bucket and the Old Thigh Bone”, a princess literally falls in love with her own reflection. And at the centre of the book squats “Cat Person”, a cultural phenomenon in its own right, goading you into a reaction.
A story of modern dating at its most destructive, the piece was published in the New Yorker in December 2017 and promptly went viral. I first encountered it while scrolling through my Twitter feed in a McDonald’s; the bright, plastic space was a perfect fit for the overheated social media frenzy it provoked. In the online conversation, you had to pick a side. Were you with college student Margot or schlubby, older Robert? The fact that it was a piece of fiction, and an immensely layered and complex one at that, seemed to be largely ignored. Roupenian has written about how annihilating she found the experience, watching the online mood move from support to sly misogyny to ridicule. What looked like a moment for short stories instead became the most vulnerable and lonely period of a woman’s life.
Amid the noise, one certainty remained: “Cat Person” is a good story. It’s evenly paced yet still holds tension; the dialogue is sharp and believable; you experience the discomfort the author intends. The dynamic is constantly shifting, as neither Margot nor Robert ever has the upper hand. For me, the most memorable moment comes when Margot goes to Robert’s apartment, and, as she searches for his elusive cats, registers his framed posters, his games and books, cultural items that she thinks demonstrate evidence of his good taste. She needs to know that he’s not a personal or romantic failure, incapable of holding the attentions of a woman his own age: she’s scouring his house for the reassurance that he can seduce any woman, but he wants her.
For many female readers, it was a pathetically familiar routine. When they are in bed, the only gratification Margot feels is when she imagines Robert’s giddy pleasure at encountering her young body, her flawless skin. She describes it as “a fantasy of pure ego”. The cover of the proof copy is shiny and reflective; what stared back at me when I closed it was a blurry, indistinct outline of myself.
If Roupenian’s aim was to make a comment on female narcissism, she didn’t stand a chance. “Cat Person” coincided with the #MeToo movement and became a lightning rod for conversations about consent, unwanted if not necessarily abusive sexual encounters and male entitlement. Much of the discussion hinged on the punishing final text that Robert sends Margot, a nasty conclusion to their brief relationship: “whore”. I felt that last ugly word was a disappointment in comparison with what preceded it – a story that allows for stupidity and sexual awkwardness. Unfortunately, several of the stories here have the same intention as Robert’s final correspondence: they want to upset and disturb, at any price.
In “Bad Boy”, a couple involve their guileless friend in a sadistic relationship. In “Sardines”, a spiteful daughter invokes black magic as her mother considers switching her husband’s new girlfriend’s lube for superglue. In “Scarred”, a woman conjures her ideal partner, only to destroy him with her solipsistic wishes. In my favourite story, “The Boy in the Pool”, Kath tracks down her teenage crush, remembered from a long-ago movie, and delivers him as a gift to an eager bachelorette party. In this collection dignity is an illusion, as fleeting as a glimpse of a perfect on-screen boy. At one point Kath thinks: “What a fantastical place adulthood has turned out to be: with the power of social media and a thousand dollars, she’s summoned Taylor’s dream crush out of an ancient VHS tape.” Roupenian is skilled at illustrating how second-hand desire can be; how often our wants are sad mimicries of someone else’s, tied up with the desperation of maintaining appearances. Like Margot in Robert’s house, we’re constantly watching and monitoring other people’s lives. The effect is quietly corrosive.
Nowhere is that clearer than in “The Good Guy”, the companion piece to “Cat Person”, in which Ted is judged by a tribunal of women whom he has wronged. Eschewing the dreaminess and horror of the other stories for realism, albeit with a fantastical ending, Roupenian sets out to expose the soulless Ted. She wants us to know his absolute detachment, and she wants us to condemn him for it. The only problem with cold, indifferent surfaces is that you eventually become impatient with them. I don’t think Ted warrants a 50-page analysis: I think he’s a loser. I think he’s as dumb as a brick. Yet, if he’s to be executed – by the end of the story, his feet are tickling the flames of hell – then what does that make me, the reader? His executioner? “The Good Guy” is striking, not in its casual cruelty or lack of tenderness, but in its instinct towards judgment. The stakes of Ted’s relationships are too low, without the gentlest ripple of genuine feeling, for me to enjoy his comeuppance. I don’t think a character who needs to repeat a woman’s full name, as if she is a prize, in order to climax, deserves to go to hell – I think he’s already there. This sort of ugliness is not an achievement.
Maggie Nelson, writing about Jane Bowles in her critical work The Art of Cruelty, claimed Bowles’s talent lay not in her wickedness, but in how she used it to disarm: “It isn’t so much that Bowles is out to tell us that the world is a cruel and cold place, and isn’t it a pity. Like many artists of cruelty, she is no philosopher. She is roaming a world of balloons, armed with a pin.” The problem with several of Roupenian’s stories is that there is nothing beneath their brutality, and the result is often banal and uniform. In “Death Wish” a man is asked by a Tinder date to punch her in the face. It’s a terrible encounter in a bleak motel room involving two desperate people. The world is a cold and cruel place. But what else? It’s too easy to let the woman walk away into the night after her impulses jolt the man from his stupor: it reduces her to nothing more than a manic pixie punch girl. What if the woman’s need for violence had to be folded into a domestic arrangement? What if you cared about someone who had these desires? Roupenian thinks she’s going too far. I disagree – I think she’s not going far enough. What follows the blow? Emptiness, apathy. The balloon is not punctured.
Roupenian is at her best when she discards shock tactics and levels her gaze at teenage sexuality. In “Look at Your Game, Girl” and “The Boy in the Pool”, naive female desire is so brilliantly and lushly evoked that you can practically see the sun-drenched cinematography. Similarly, in “Biter”, a woman humorously takes advantage of office sexual politics. It shows a flair for satire and comedic timing. Roupenian’s strengths lie here.
The New York Times’s review of You Know You Want This dismissed it as “dull and needy”. It sounded like Margot describing Robert to her friends, and was widely and gleefully shared on social media. In many ways, the cycle of cruelty was complete. This debut isn’t perfect, but I look forward to Roupenian’s next book and sincerely hope it’s spared the difficulty of being “topical” and “important”. I want her to look us directly in the eye – to meet the world on its own challenging, complex terms, rather than wielding blunt instruments. Suffering is not necessarily a sign of authenticity.