One story is about an increasingly precarious sex game, another about an 11-year-old’s birthday party gone wrong. There’s a princess fairy tale, a guy in the Peace Corps who’s tormented by his students, a bachelorette party with a special guest from a dirty movie — and that’s just the half of it.
As varied as Roupenian’s stories are, they all clearly come from the same brain, one of those brains that feel out-of-this-world brilliant and also completely askew — like those of Karen Russell, George Saunders, Mary Gaitskill.
In addition to her simple, punchy opening lines, Roupenian likes to begin stories at true beginnings, like childhood or a brand-new relationship, her tales often ones of maturation in fast-forward. She also has a distinct method of ending, which I can only describe as pushing her characters and their plights off the deep end. These stories get really dark, really fast, often in the last page or two. That’s especially the case with the first story in the book — “Bad Boy,” the one about the sex game. If you can handle its brutal conclusion, you can likely handle the rest of the collection.
I’ll say here that I’m not usually a fan of the dark, creepy or supernatural. My imagination holds onto those things for too long; I can’t shake them. But the power of these stories transcends any one genre or element. Ultimately they’re about what it means to be human. In “Sardines,” a picked-on girl makes a “mean” wish for her birthday, and gets a complicated sort of revenge on her bullies. In “The Mirror, the Bucket, and the Old Thigh Bone,” a princess falls in love with a figure in a cloak, which turns out to be an inanimate reflection of herself. I had a hard time determining exactly why I felt so moved by that story, but I sensed I too would be happier with that mirror, bucket and thigh bone as a partner than with most of my dates.
“The Matchbox Sign” relates a man’s perspective on his girlfriend’s skin condition: “What if she really is hosting some kind of exotic infestation, and because of David’s poorly timed outburst, the doctor wrongly consigned her to the realm of the mentally ill, drugging her into a mute endurance of her pain?” Oof. In “Biter,” a woman fantasizes about biting her new co-worker, and when he eventually forcibly kisses her, she finally feels she can get away with it. “That was awful,” she thinks following his attack. “Worse than being bitten. Truly grotesque. But then, she thought, oh right. Here’s my chance.” I was especially disturbed by how much I enjoyed that story, as some kind of demented #MeToo-era manifesto.
As for “Cat Person”: I hope the story’s hype doesn’t define Roupenian’s career, because she can do so much more. That story is just as precise and perfectly minimal as the rest of this collection, but the content is somewhat less interesting; perhaps its appeal is by now more a reflection of the expectations and experiences of its readers — our collective response to the gray areas of modern dating. What’s special about “Cat Person,” and the rest of the stories in “You Know You Want This,” is the author’s expert control of language, character, story — her ability to write stories that feel told, and yet so unpretentious and accessible that we think they must be true.