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Kristen Roupenian’s Power Dynamics

In her new book, the author of “Cat Person” tells stories of sadism, narcissism, and gore.

Photograph by Brittany Greeson for The New Republic

When Kristen Roupenian’s New Yorker short story “Cat Person” became a five-alarm sensation late last year, critics rushed to explain its popularity in terms of its relatability and quality. In its outlines, the plot seems standard enough: Twenty-year-old college student Margot begins a brief, frustratingly hot-and-cold relationship with the older Robert, vacillating between affection and revulsion as she tries to read his motives; when she finally gives up and breaks it off, his reaction exposes him as a boring misogynist. But “Cat Person” soon became the most-read piece of fiction ever on The New Yorker web site, prompting the blooming of a thousand takes and landing its author a million-dollar book deal.

YOU KNOW YOU WANT THIS by Kristen Roupenian
Gallery/Scout Press, 240 pp., $24.99

Fiction’s not supposed to go viral. The poet Rupi Kaur’s huge following makes sense to me; her brevity, simplicity, and hyper-earnest aesthetic play well on Instagram. But why did “Cat Person” cause such a ruckus? Did its page views reflect its objective superiority over all other contemporary fiction? Or was it, as some critics argued, mistaken for a fictional think piece about “our political moment,” shared more as an expression of political membership than of genuine appreciation? If it was, you’d expect comparable success for stories like Lynn Coady’s “Someone Is Recording” or Sana Krasikov’s “Ways and Means,” explicit responses to post-#MeToo gender politics, or Madeleine Schwartz’s “Collusion,” which is doubly timely in addressing both sexual misconduct and Russian politics.

It may be better to consider “Cat Person” a well-timed (though no-less-well-written) contribution to an existing genre, a high-water mark in the tide of righteous 2010s literature grappling with male entitlement and abuses of power. You can read its emergence as the postelection complement to a slightly earlier boom of novels about female friendship, the ones that usually had “Girl” or “Friend” somewhere in the title. Books about shitty men constitute one of a handful of literary movements responding to contemporary American society, along with Young Adult authoritarian dystopias, poems about drones, cli-fi, and stories about technology leaving us lonely or dead.

I wouldn’t be the first to argue that the herald of this current wave was Helen DeWitt’s 2011 satire Lightning Rods, a novel about a salesman who proposes a counterintuitive, depraved method to end workplace sexual harassment (which just so happens to align with his own sexual fantasies). Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.about an emotionally dishonest young novelist and his failed relationshipsin 2013 was another early entry, and Rebecca Solnit’s essay “Men Explain Things to Me” brought the concept of mansplaining to the mainstream. Now it’s 2019, and the biome is teeming: Alissa Nutting goes sci-fi in Made for Love, Kate Walbert’s His Favorites transposes sexual harassment to high school, and Claire Vaye Watkins’s “On Pandering” and Lili Loofbourow’s “The Male Glance” reassess the ways men read stories by women. More is on its way, judging by upcoming titles like Terrible Men and How to Date Men When You Hate Men. Even men have barged in, with Andrew Martin’s Early Work and Teddy Wayne’s Loner serving up variations on the fictional male mea culpa.

Point is, lots of great recent writing gets male shittiness dead to rights, so that’s not what sets “Cat Person” apart. Personally I like how it painstakingly draws out the exhausting mental flowcharts and loop-de-loops it takes to try to understand someone—Margot puzzling over Robert’s dolphin emojis, whether she can feel safe in his car, what’s up with his cats—and how exasperating it is when the effort isn’t reciprocated. Margot’s idea of Robert swings between romantic projection and cynicism and false epiphany until the brutal snap-resolution of the final word, Robert’s ugly slur. You could argue that delivering such a neat verdict on Robert forgoes nuance, that letting us dwell in eternal uncertainty would’ve been richer or truer to human nature; I contend that a person can both contain multitudes and still be a thoroughgoing asshole.

In the twelve stories in Roupenian’s debut, You Know You Want This: “Cat Person” and Other Stories, she establishes herself as a raucous and bloodthirsty storyteller who, even when she stumbles, never bores. There are only a few more stories of disastrous dates here; it’s just one part of a larger project about human sadism. More than anything else, You Know You Want This is a sanguinarium of gothic horror, less Carrie Bradshaw than Carrie White doused in pig blood. (Roupenian is an alumna of Clarion, the vaunted sci-fi/fantasy workshop, and a self-professed Stephen King superfan.) Its profusion of body horror reminds me of Amelia Gray’s Gutshot or Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, books whose psychological violence has a gruesome physical edge. Nearly every story in You Know You Want This has someone getting stabbed, strangled, slashed, gouged, degloved, immolated, bludgeoned, bled out, brain-injured, or asswhupped.

I suspect Roupenian knew “Cat Person” would jaundice readers’ expectations one way or another, and she exploited this by opening the collection with “Bad Boy,” a title that might suggest another misogynist miscreant. The couple who narrate the story torment their friend, a sad-sack guy fresh off a breakup who’s crashing on their couch. They tease him by having noisy sex in the next room; when they realize that degrading him turns them on, they coerce him into a ménage à trois full of “pain and bruises, chains and toys,” escalating to a frenzy of deadly transgression that feels like an homage to Georges Bataille’s ultra-obscene novel Story of the Eye: “No matter what we did, he wouldn’t stop us. No matter what we told him to do, he would never, ever say no.”

It only takes a few stories, or maybe even just the title, to see that they all play off the same Nietzschean character archetypes: the weak dominated by the strong, victim versus victor. The victims are sensitive, passive introverts, forever in their own heads, wavering between reluctance and compliance. The victors, meanwhile, look just like you and me: Their innocent, kind, or seductive facades conceal a poisonous nature, like the appetizing rainbow slick of petroleum coating a dead ocean. The victim compounds their own suffering by over-empathizing with their tormentor, who is only emboldened by shows of vulnerability. After an eleventh-hour plot twist, the dynamic abruptly shifts, and someone either dies or is scarred.

That’s not to say the stories are cookie-cutter, but that they each take a different angle on this particular model of human affairs. Actually, one of the book’s strengths is how diverse its styles and genres are, as it twists the formula of weak versus strong. Sometimes Roupenian will hint at an ending, only to dislocate it. In “Look at Your Game, Girl,” a preteen girl is approached by a threatening drifter; the violence we anticipate does occur, but not to the person we think it would. Then there are genre departures: Roupenian’s fairy tale “The Mirror, the Bucket, and the Old Thigh Bone” presents a finicky but kindhearted princess who, dissatisfied with every suitor in the land, ends up accidentally infatuated with her mirror reflection. “What can this mean but that I am spoiled, and selfish, and arrogant, and that I am capable of loving nothing but a distorted reflection of my own twisted heart?” she laments, realizing what’s happened. She’s able to suppress her autosexuality for a few years, but when her caring King gives her a chance to indulge herself, her self-regard takes over. Unlike Narcissus, she doesn’t melt away into a flower. She turns into something hideous and dangerous. In Roupenian’s moral universe, the customary literary virtues of empathy, a strong conscience, and anxious self-doubt achieve nothing and save no one.

The antagonists in these stories are not always who you’d expect. As if intended to frustrate critics eager to slap a #MeToo sticker on the book, several stories flip the usual scripts of power. The female narrator of “Scarred” imprisons and tortures a man in order to harvest from him the blood and tears that her dark magic spells require. In “Death Wish,” a petite woman insists on being life-threateningly beaten by her reluctant Tinder date. (We already know what he’s going to do—Roupenian seldom pulls a punch.) “The Night Runner” has a feckless Peace Corps teacher terrorized by his class of Kenyan schoolgirls because he refuses to beat them; they hurl garbage at him and mock his feline eyes, making him the sorrier of the collection’s two cat people. And in “Sardines,” a jilted woman fantasizes about “swapping the lube in [her ex’s] girlfriend’s bedroom drawer with superglue, tying her down and tattooing slut across her face.” True to form, what ends up happening to the girlfriend is considerably worse.

But not all the stories are so easily reduced to pure will-to-power scenarios, and one of its standouts, “The Boy in the Pool,” is an unexpectedly sweet story about a woman planning a bachelorette party for her former high school crush. She manipulates a has-been actor into becoming a glorified escort and live-reenacting the bride-to-be’s favorite sex scene from the TV horror movie he once starred in. Though the outcome is heartwarming rather than chest-ripping, the book’s themes still lurk in the wings: The actor’s appeal is that he’s “a boy who will kiss your feet and be grateful for it, a boy who suffers, a boy who will suffer for you”; in the film, a straight-to-video schlockfest called Blood Sins, he has a phrase carved into his body: “Love breeds monsters.” With this the book reaffirms its commitment to christening even the tenderest story with at least a drop of blood.

Clearly none of this will appeal to the squeamish, to anyone who’s not in the market for “a puddle of sentient, erupting flesh” or a “gushing surge of dark red blood.” You’ll probably also want to pass if moral gray zones are your thing, since, as in “Cat Person,” the endings tend to eschew nuance in favor of clarity and intensity. Sometimes this makes the gore less gothic than goofy. The prose is intelligent, though generally plain and conversational, with the occasional whoopsie-doodle of a cliché (“It started to get under our skin,” “lithe as a cat,” “burst into tears,” “dissolved into tears”). You could call Roupenian’s approach to description spare if you’re feeling generous, vague if not.

The big exception is when she aims for the stomach, as when she describes a writhing blood-slick parasite as “a six-inch-long tube of knobbed white flesh, lined with a thousand shivering legs that wave like seaweed.” She slathers even the most innocuous pastoral imagery with erotic Baudelairean macabre, as in this description of a forest:

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.

You can see how the book deals with feelings viscerally, an approach neatly symbolized by the recurring images of corrupted hearts. Here the human heart is not the poetic locus of love, but the pulsing, fallible organ pumping atop our livers, or beneath our floorboards. It first appears in the epigraph: “There is something jerking in your ribcage / that is not a heart / It is cow-intestine white / & fibrous & gilled.” The anti-hearts of this book are not healed or changed; they’re carved from chests and infested with parasites. The heart is a lonely hunter, deceitful above all else, it wants what it wants, and when it shows up, it’s never good news—you’ll know exactly what Roupenian means when the softboy protagonist of “The Good Guy” calls a woman his “sweetheart.”

And about that—if you do want more “Cat Person,” then “The Good Guy,” the collection’s best and longest story, is the perfect follow-up: a 50-pager that plumbs the benthic depths of just how manipulative and self-serving a guy can be, while genuinely seeing himself as a loyal, blameless ally. “Good-old friendly, utterly dishonest Ted” is someone who considers himself a nice guy while acknowledging the perils of being a “Nice Guy”; who says things to women like “I’m so sorry. That sounds really hard,” but only achieves erection by “pretend[ing] that his dick was a knife, and the woman he was fucking was stabbing herself with it.” The story does the emotional autopsy of “Cat Person” from the vantage of the cryptocreep, and it’ll have you covering your eyes and reading through your fingers. “Biter,” the final story, also offers a bit of #MeToo catharsis and thematic closure, as a victim of sexual harassment discovers a way to get revenge and provide cover for her own dark appetite.

Although You Know You Want This may be timely in its occasional adjacency to #MeToo, its real canniness comes from apprehending the psychology not only of power, but of power-hunger as, itself, a form of weakness: how people harbor an impulse toward sadistic narcissism, and how little it takes for them to succumb to it. Taken together, the uncommonly clear moral of these dark fables is that, given enough of an opportunity, even the kindest, most thoughtful people can be driven to gleefully, passionately hurt and exploit others just to satisfy their desires. Those without consciences will conscript you into their grotesque fantasies, turn you into whomever they want you to be, wreaking any amount of targeted violence and collateral damage; if you survive, you’ll be left to catalog your scars. Power only inflames this tendency and helps people get away with it.

Speaking of power, seeing how readers approach Roupenian’s collection will surely say something about us: No matter the book’s merit, maybe we’ll act on the perverse desire to see the much-hyped book tank, flop, or disappoint the standards of literature or feminism, just to feed our sadistic inner critic its blood meal of schadenfreude. That would only redound to Roupenian’s success, because she knows we want this.