Suffocation, humiliation and alienation are par for the course in You Know You Want This, the debut short story collection by American writer Kristen Roupenian. Some of it, you imagine, almost matches up to the experience of what it’s like to go viral on Twitter. Roupenian is the author of “Cat Person”, the New Yorker short story that achieved such explosive popularity on social media that it became the magazine’s second-most emailed article of 2017, even though it was published in mid-December.
The story of how a 20-year-old obliges herself to have sex with an older man, “Cat Person” touched a nerve in the middle of an American conversation about sexual consent and violation. The conversation was hashtagged #MeToo, and so was “Cat Person”. It became a testament of an experience men didn’t know about, didn’t have to think about, or could, at best, normalise and shrug off. Indeed, it was a story that had been told a thousand times before – from the point of view of the man, anxious about having sex with a younger woman who should, by all rights, be out of his league.
Victims or monsters?
Many of Roupenian’s other stories also feature women protagonists who recognise something monstrous in themselves as they respond to their male antagonists. That’s the primary charm of You Know You Want This, whose very title is both a provocation and an an argument. It’s what someone says to you when overpowering your will; but it also indicates that making yourself want something is a kind of suffering on par with denying yourself something you want. The stories themselves range from fairytales and modern-day fables to suburban American horror. They might even, kind of, be #MeToo stories.
The monsters here are creatures of circumstance. They may be victims themselves, but they understand themselves more clearly as victimisers. These are stories about guilt, self-blame and doubt. They return faithfully to the familiar but disquieting idea that the greatest horror is to discover that you are a stranger to yourself. The second-greatest horror may well be to find a loved one – a lover, since You Know You Want This is largely about sexual and romantic intimacy – a stranger, confused about which of you has really turned out to be someone you never knew.
Patriarchy is at the heart of this, of course. To survive men you have to enter a state of semi-permanent disorientation, as Margot does in “Cat Person”. Fantasies about overpowering men give way to surprising revelations about the nature of that victimhood quite literally, in stories such as the brief and staccato “Biter”. “Scarred”, in which a woman traps a man to use as a monkey’s paw in a bizarre supernatural ritual, is a fantasy about inflicting the kind of outsize villainy on men that they inflict on women all the time. But its gender dynamics also means that the pleasure of this havoc is masochistic, not sadistic.
Not quite #MeToo
However, none of these stories appear to be directly motivated by the confessional and highly political conversation that surrounds #MeToo. Instead, their fundamental anxiety is much more familiar in this genre of American short story: the inability to feel love, which leads to the inability to accept love. The former screws up how you relate to the world, and the latter prevents you from ever getting a chance to un-screw it up. It feels, therefore, that Roupenian isn’t writing alongside peers such as Carmen Maria Machado, whose Her Body And Other Parties became a phenomenal hit last year, and who bestows a glowing blurb on You Know You Want This.
Rather, these stories seem to push back against male narcissism, rewriting a familiar narrative to expose its selfishness and capacity to hurt. It also extends those qualities to female narcissists. Roupenian has been compared to Mary Gaitskill for doing this: taking the patriarchal photo-negative and showing us the picture as the girl in it sees it. Non-narcissists like George Saunders like to do this too, but Saunders has no interest in expanding and assimilating shame and disgust into the female body. That is, perhaps, a distinctly female preoccupation, and it is why Roupenian’s story about a young girl stalked by a potential rapist stranger, “Look At Your Game, Girl”, comes from a different literary planet than “Victory Lap”, Saunders’s own story about the same thing.
A mixed bag
This isn’t to put Roupenian in the same league as Gaitskill and Saunders, which would be unfair and, on current evidence, unwarranted. You Know You Want This is uneven and too watchful of its audience. Not all its stories land with the impact of something like “Cat Person” – which also sabotages itself in its last moments, when it goes from a story about a power imbalance to one that’s just about a power trip (Spoiler: our sympathies wrench towards the protagonist because the man, in the end, calls her a “whore”.) Some stories are boringly predictable. Others end gratuitously, which is damning for a short story writer, whose work hinges on its ability to manipulate how time passes in the mind.
There’s real pleasure to be derived from some of these outré performances of self-exposure, both physical and emotional. But they rarely affords us anything other than the thrill of psychological horror. Even the realism that drove “Cat Person”’s virality is restrained in favour of stylised fantasy more often than not. The results aren’t always extraordinary. Only in one other story, the long and quietly disgusting “The Good Guy”, does Roupenian offer both the almost embarrassing close third-person insight of “Cat Person” – as well as a very of-the-moment feminist charge in its recognition of how men weaponise niceness.
Honestly, though? Nothing in here is half as bleak as being judged on your first work of fiction because something you wrote became world-famous on twitter. Social media pile-ons usually result in unemployment and some form of social ostracisation for their subjects, so I’m sure Roupenian, whose fame has resulted in an outpouring of attention for her book, is counting her blessings. But to write seriously and honestly without giving in to the version of you constructed by thousands of casual and dismissive judges – it must be like trying and failing to wake up from a dream in which you’re naked among strangers. Roupenian has been bold to give it a shot, and I hope her future stories will be bolder and more imaginative still.