Flannery O’Connor once expressed a wish that a novel could be published as quietly as a short story, “without having to hear from all the bright people in the Sunday papers.”
Imagine her bemusement over “Cat Person.” Published in late 2017 — in the thick of #MeToo revelations — the viral short story by Kristen Roupenian, then an MFA student, became The New Yorker’s second-most-read piece of the year, and a flash point in conversations about consent, its gray areas and how men metabolize rejection into rage.
Following the story’s success, Roupenian received a seven-figure, two-book deal. Her first collection, “You Know You Want This,” has just been published.
“Cat Person,” included in the book, is a sour romance between Margot, a college student, and Robert, older, schlubby and insecure. It’s a brisk, efficient piece of storytelling with a skillfully modulated sense of vertigo as Margot begins to realize she knows next to nothing about the man she is dating. By the time she is able to see past her projections, they’re in his bedroom and he is undressing. It’s like sending food back to the kitchen after you’ve ordered it, she reasons. A skin-crawling sex scene ensues. Margot later breaks off the relationship, and Robert handles it about as well as you might expect.
Many heralded the story, when it first appeared, not as a piece of fiction but as a dispatch from the murky zones of sex and dating. “‘Cat Person’ is basically a documentary” is a take I remember from the time. Others sniffed, saying relatability shouldn’t be embraced as an artistic criterion. Some men felt personally attacked by the description of the male character, only to carry on a bit like him online — not least a National Review columnist who wrote an angry and wounded open letter to Margot, chiding her for her behavior.
It was the usual internet life cycle, in other words. Everyone used the story to scold everyone else — for liking it or not liking it enough or liking it for the wrong reasons. A few people made cat memes; everyone moved on.
The 11 other stories collected in “You Know You Want This” are far more extreme. They lead with caustic opening lines (“Ellie was a biter”) and scenes of gaudy violence. The friendships are treacherous, the mothers more so. The sex might kill you. The man you’re in love with might turn out to be an old thigh bone tied to a mirror (an actual plot point). Pedophilia, necrophilia, child abduction, child murder, mass murder — go down the menu of fears and outré fantasies; they’re all here.
And for what? This is a dull, needy book. The desire to seem shocking — as opposed to a curiosity about thresholds physical and ethical — tends to produce provocation of a very plaintive sort.
How do we spot the difference between those related but very different aims? Artists who ritually engage with cruelty see that engagement as a form of truthfulness — a way to be frank; a way to honor the reader, not to bludgeon her. Here is Flannery O’Connor again, writing to a novelist friend about his work in progress: “Isn’t it arbitrary to call these images such as the cat-faced baby and the old woman that looked like a cedar fence post and the grandfather who went around with Jesus hidden in his head like a stinger — perverse? They are right, accurate, so why perverse?” Or turn to Mary Gaitskill, whose influence can be felt on every page of Roupenian’s collection, and whose fiction is full of brutality but also deep sympathy for her characters: “I’m picturing a small core place in a person’s heart that is hard to touch but that everyone wants touched,” she has said about her work.
With Roupenian, there is just the giddiness of her imagination, of what she can get away with. In the first story, “Bad Boy,” a couple becomes fixated on having a friend overhear them having sex. After a while, they invite him to watch, and later, participate. They order him into various acts of humiliation that culminate in a gamy little climax that would be horrifying if it weren’t so sudden, so random and, finally, so meaningless. When the couple taunts him — “Look at what you’ve done” — I was shaken out of my numb disdain into a kind of anger. No, it’s what the author has done, and why? I wanted better for these characters — lives with real emotional stakes, actual personalities and not just kinks.
Ellie in “Biter” bites. Ted in “The Good Guy” needs to fantasize about stabbing women to sexually perform. Laura in “The Matchbox Sign” imagines that her body is crawling with parasites — and her boyfriend participates in the fantasy. These characters remain their pathologies; the curtain falls on them before we can ever ask: Now what?
There’s none of the simmer of “Cat Person” or its attention to language in the rest of these stories. Roupenian will work a metaphor until it screams. On a walk in the woods: “The vaginal lips of a pink lady’s slipper peep out from behind some bushes; a rubber shred of burst balloon, studded by a plump red navel knot, dangles from a tree branch, and the corpse of a crushed mushroom gleams sad and cold and pale.”
I might stay indoors for the rest of my life.
But there might be another chance for this book’s raw material. The collection will be a series on HBO. “You Know You Want This” has a quarry’s worth of raw suffering; maybe in the adaptation, we won’t be just shocked, but shocked into something — into a kind of understanding or feeling. That’s what I know I want.