You Know You Want This
Kristen Roupenian’s name may not be familiar, but there’s a good chance you’ve read, or at least heard of, her short story “Cat Person”. After its publication in The New Yorker in 2017, that story went viral on social media, inspiring hundreds of hot takes dissecting its portrayal of a flirtation between a young female college student and an older man that leads to an awkward date, regrettable sex and an exploration of the mundane tragedies associated with dumping someone via text.
Roupenian’s debut collection features “Cat Person” plus 11 other stories, most of which also consider the vagaries of contemporary relationships through a cynical, realist lens. Some playfully veer from this perspective, featuring fantastical elements such as spellbooks, wishing candles and fairytale princesses. Throughout these stories, Roupenian zeroes in on the cruelties – mundane and extreme – that people inflict on each other, sometimes with regret and sometimes with relish. Some of her protagonists are changed by events, while others simply shrug them off as just another shitty day.
Roupenian has a great ability to fill her characters’ internal monologues with anxiety, pointed self-doubt and barely adequate self-justification. Their authenticity creates an ambiguity that allows empathy for almost any of the characters, if the reader so chooses. This ambiguity is exemplified by the way the conversations about “Cat People” resulted in a lot of back and forth about who was really the story’s villain and who its hero, in line with the commenters’ own world views and agendas.
While part of the appeal of this collection is in reading about people doing things you hope they won’t but know they will, some stories land too close to their premise, lacking the bend in the bar that can make a short story truly satisfying. After a number of situations play out the same way, the reader may come to simply expect the worst or saddest things to happen.
While this repetition risks Roupenian’s compelling observations of the darker side of humanity becoming routine, she is a talented author gifted with insight and wry humour. She is as comfortable writing about someone trying to resist the urge to bite work colleagues as someone torturing the magically summoned dream boyfriend trapped in her basement.
Roupenian has captured something real in her writing, and her next collection should prove well worth waiting for.
Jonathan Cape, 240pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 16, 2019 as "Kristen Roupenian, You Know You Want This". Subscribe here.