You Know You Want This
Jonathan Cape, $29.99
Kristen Roupenian's short story Cat Person, published in December 2017 in The New Yorker quickly became a sensation. The story hit a cultural nerve, going "viral" and landing Roupenian a six-figure publishing deal for this collection of stories. An HBO series is also in development.
Cat Person is by far the most complex and considered piece here and sets the tone for the remaining stories. In it Margot, who works at an independent cinema meets Robert, a patron who buys red vines. Their relationship meanders over a series of text messages and Roupenian writes, "when they landed two or three jokes in a row there was a kind of exhilaration to it, as if they were dancing".
On their first date Robert picks her up and she wonders "if the discomfort in the car was her fault, because she was acting jumpy and nervous". Robert seems to enjoy keeping Margot on her toes – initially kissing her forehead rather than her lips and allowing long periods of time to elapse before responding to her messages. Eventually, when sex seems inevitable, Margot acquiesces and experiences "a humiliation that was a … perverse cousin to arousal".
You Know You Want This by Kristen Roupenian.
Roupenian's skill in Cat Person is depicting a set of relations that are both specific and universal. Robert's insecurities cause him to lash out and withdraw affection; Margot's reluctance to assert herself and set boundaries places her at risk. Roupenian captures the zeitgeist of the social media generation; instead of seeing each other, what these characters encounter is a strange, distorted projection.
The first story Bad Boy is about a couple whose relationship with a friend initially arouses their desire for each other, develops into a menage a trois and into a situation where the couple control all the friend's movements. The idea is interesting, but instead of exploring the human need for control, its insight stops at the fact of control, rather than its causes.
A 12-year-old girl meets a homeless man in a park, in Look At Your Game, Girl, and he gives her a tape of Charles Manson singing. When she fails to show up for another meeting with the man, a girl her age is abducted from a sleepover and in certain ways she blames herself for the incident. Roupenian writes that events are connected "if not as a matter of practical fact, then by some gravitational pull that flowed deep under the surface of things".
With shades of Joan Didion in its theme, it's one of the stronger pieces here. It's difficult to read Roupenian without comparing her to that other Millennial whose books have drawn devoted readers, Sally Rooney. Whereas Roupenian often places her characters in difficult circumstances so we might watch them squirm, Rooney illuminates them lantern-like from within. In Roupenian's stories power swings between characters and ultimately lands in one place. In Rooney's fiction characters are constantly exerting and relinquishing control over others; how they behave correlates to some secret psychological process Rooney makes visible.
The Mirror, The Bucket, And the Old Thigh Bone is a fairytale that has its roots fairly obviously in Angela Carter. A princess, unable to decide on a suitable partner, unwittingly falls for her own reflection. Unlike Carter's complex subversions of the form, however, the narcissism is the point here rather than the starting place.
In The Matchbox Sign, Laura and Daniel struggle to come to terms with a skin condition plaguing Laura. Eventually, she shows up to the doctor's surgery with a plastic bag containing "evidence" of a burrowing parasite. The doctor considers the illness psychosomatic and once Laura is medicated, she is cured but withdrawn and "grooms herself very carefully, so as not to let her inner disorder show through". The Matchbox Sign almost unfolds into a story about the fictions couples willingly participate in to preserve the status quo and yet at the last moment, it swerves towards a very literal conclusion.
Death Wish, towards the end of the collection, is a story in which a woman who a man meets on Tinder visits his motel room, asking to be brutalised. The story focuses on how the man ultimately rationalises that behaviour to himself. Afterwards, the young woman vanishes, saying nothing and un-matching him shortly afterwards.
It's a habit Roupenian falls into in You Know You Want This: she closes the door on characters, shutting us out rather than allowing us in. What Roupenian invites us to do is judge her characters, whereas what they are crying out for is our kindness.
Kristen Roupenian is a guest at Sydney Writers Festival, April 29-May 5 (swf.org.au).
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