This post is part of a log I keep on things I finish. Read here for why I keep this log.
Why did I read it?
Much like the rest of the world, I was fascinated by Roupenian’s Cat Person when it appeared in the New Yorker. Although I was immensely frustrated by the story and the actions of the main character, I felt Roupenian had tapped into a cultural moment better than anyone else who had tried. It seemed she had something to say and it would be worth it to hear her message. This short story collection shows the promise Roupenian has to craft a compelling message about the darkness of our own desires, but largely I found these stories to be a mix of adolescent drama and egomania mental illness.
How was it?
Let’s start with the good. The last batch of stories in this collection show Roupenian at her most promising. Unsurprisingly, these stories are also the ones that are highlighted by reviews and the jacket cover. These stories give life to the mental disturbances in our own mind by manifesting them as real life terrors, more frequently of the body-horror variety.
- Scarred is a short tale about a woman summoning a naked man who acts as a cadaver as she cuts him for blood and other ingredients as she betters herself with more black magic.
- The Matchbox Sign follows a couple where the woman develops strange “insect bites” that spread across her body, while doctors suggest they’re self-inflicted.
- Death Wish is a first-person recount of a strange sexual fetish.
- Biter tells the story of Ellie and her desire to bite people for gratification.
There are obvious themes across these four stories. Our desires — specifically sexual fetishes — can corrupt the world around us. They can be a source of self-fulfillment and gratification, while degrading our so-called loved ones. Each of these stories has a different take on how we may respond to being targeted as the supplier of our sick fantasies. Some of us can’t handle it and stay forever disturbed (Death Wish) while others may accept our demented side (Matchbox Sign). Roupenian has tapped into the vulnerability our culture feels when discussing our sexuality and how it exists in the #MeToo era. Although these are the most promising stores in the collection, they often end short of their potential. Quickly wrapping up anticlimactically when it feels like it was just getting good. These later stories show Roupenian is close to synthesizing her ideas into something really quite novel.
However, the rest of the book could convincingly make the case that Roupenian needs to address her own demented desires before further plunging herself into fiction writing. I am a strong believer of separating art from the artist, but virtually every character — their motivations and worldview — appear to be see-through stand-ins for Roupenian herself. Specifically, the thoughts and desires of someone who suffers from intense narcissism. This is evident by the fact that all of her stories maintain this revolting obsession with reputation sabotage, sadism and egomania. Let’s look at some of these stories:
Bad Boy — where a couple discovers their fetish for teasing their friend and using him for sex.
“It became the kernel of a fantasy we shared, picturing him out there with his ear pressed to the wall, all churned up by jealousy and arousal and shame.” (pg. 4)
“As soon as he was gone, though, we got so bored we could barely stand it. We white-knuckled it through two days, but without him around to watch us, we felt so dull and pointless it was almost as though we didn’t exist.” (pg. 8)
Look at Your Game, Girl — a young girl recalls the time when a strange beach-bum’s attention to her could’ve turned her into a nationally recognized name.
“After she went away to college, Jessica came to believe that this early impulse to link her own experience to Polly’s had arisen from a childish self-absorption, the impulse to see herself as the center point around which the rest of the universe revolved.” (pg. 25)
The Night Runner — an earnest Peace Corps teacher is pushed to desperation due to a class of girls terrorizing him.
“She was propositioning him, and the joke of her offer to take him back behind the classroom and suck him off in return for a higher mark left him red-faced and stunned, she while strolled back to her desk amidst cheers.” (pg. 46)
The Mirror, the Bucket, and the Old Thigh Bone — a princess seeking suitors decides a mirror that reflects her image, a bucket that echoes her voice, and a thigh bone that replicates her touch, is the “mate” she chooses to spend her life with.
“You love what you love, the king said. If that means you are selfish, or arrogant, or spoiled, then so be it. I love you, and your children love you, and the people of the kingdom love you, and we don’t want to see you suffer any longer.” (pg. 71)
Cat Person — a young woman has a complicated relationship with a man, but ultimately finds herself most attracted to him when he makes her life herself.
“…from the way he was gazing at her; in his eyes, she could see how pretty she looked, smiling through her tears in the chalky glow of the streetlight, with a few flakes of snow coming down.” (pg. 83)
“She was starting to think that she understood him — how sensitive he was, how easily he could be wounded — and that made her feel closer to him.” (pg. 85)
“She pushed her body against his, feeling tiny beside him, and he let out a great shuddering sigh, as if she were something too bright and painful to look at, and that was sexy, too, being made feel like a kind of irresistible temptation.” (pg. 86)
“As they kissed, she found herself carried away by a fantasy of such pure ego that she could hardly admit even to herself that she was having it. Look at this beautiful girl, she imagined him thinking. She’s so perfect, her body is perfect, everything about her is perfect, she’s only twenty years old, her skin is flawless, I want her so badly, I want her more than I’ve ever wanted anyone else, I want her so bad I might die.” (pg. 89)
Once again, I believe in separating art from the artist. A writer’s ability to create a viciously immoral character does not imply they themselves are viciously immoral, but these disturbing views are not exclusive to one character, or one story, they exist across all of the stories. Roupenian herself has said that reading her stories is a window into her worldview:
Here’s the catch: when you read a story I’ve written, you’re not thinking about me—you’re thinking as me. I’ve wormed my way inside your head (hi!) and briefly taken over your mind. You’re forced to reckon with my full complexity—or, at least, whatever fraction of that complexity I’ve managed to get down on the page.Kristen Roupenian, New Yorker
With this in mind, it’s obvious Roupenian has a sustained interest in the concept of extreme idolization, to the point where a person is willing to self-harm to please the target of their affection. This theme is present in virtually every character across the many stories within the collection. On its own, this fascination with a dismal personality flaw might be interesting enough to dedicate a dozen short stories to, but what makes You Know You Want This so loathsome to read is how it celebrates the narcissism of its protagonists.
Bad Boy’s protagonists are the tormentors. Look At Your Game, Girl reads like a missed-connections tragedy. The Night Runner routinely emasculates and degrades a person who’s shown to be earnest. The queen/princess of Mirror/Bucket/Thigh Bone is relished for her selfishness. Cat Person’s Margot is hailed as a survivor of toxic masculinity despite being the author of the story’s emotional terrorism.
These characterizations of immoral, awful people prevailing in their own terribleness is infuriating to read. As if they were the modern-era equivalent of a teenage boy writing about a muscular anti-hero manipulating women into sex. The majority of You Know You Want This reads like a childish power fantasy. One where Roupenian and her subjects acknowledge their immorality and get rewarded for it.
My only hope is that Roupenian is playing a different role than the one she’s been assigned. Viewed as a voice for women in #MeToo, Roupenian seems more interested in examining the extent of awfulness humans are allowed. In what situations do we forgive our tormentors? What becomes our breaking point when we’ve already submitted ourselves to abuse? These are fascinating questions that seem to be on Roupenian’s mind. Most notable in in Biter, where the protagonist’s desire to bite a man is portrayed as deranged, but circumstances arise so that she’s seen as a hero. It’s an interesting conclusion that made me reconsider the rest of the book’s themes.
I have no idea how this short story collection came about. These very well could be stories Roupenian wrote over a decade ago, before she crafted her style, or understood the target of her obsessions. Maybe she even realized her earlier stories were devoid of morals and has learned to tune them to a wider audience. Maybe that is why the last batch of stories are significant improvements from the ones that precede them. This is all I can hope for.
I won’t diminish Roupenian’s potential. There clearly is some talent behind her writing. However, as a standalone work, You Know You Want This reads like the immature journal doodlings of an egomaniacal prom queen.