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Book Reviews Review: Cat Person author Kristen Roupenian’s debut book may not live up to the hype – and that’s okay

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  • Title: You Know You Want This – “Cat Person” and Other Stories
  • Author: Kristen Roupenian
  • Publisher: Scout Press; 32.00/Canadian
  • Reviewed from Advanced Reader’s Edition

Kristen Roupenian was a relatively unknown writer when her short story Cat Person, published in The New Yorker, went viral. It was published a year ago in December, yet quickly became the most read fiction piece of 2017, and one of the most read pieces in general to appear in the entire magazine in all of that year. A 30-second meme of a moose walking into a hospital is more likely to go viral than a highbrow literary form published in one of the highest-brow locales, but the story’s timely “themes” (ugh) of heterosexual power dynamics and the ways in which women shift around according to men’s emotional cues was very timely. A story about sexual agency, the awkwardness and mismatched fantasies of courting via text message, coming at a time when the #MeToo movement had yet to experience the current wave of backlash, was largely assumed to be the reason for its popularity. But when the most frequent adjective about your work is “timely,” is that a compliment?

Some short-story writers reacted to the story’s virality like indie rock teenagers offended that their unknown genre became popular with the uncultured (and mostly female) masses, likely fuelled by the fact that they, like me, have kind and encouraging rejection letters from The New Yorker printed above their desks. But some of the irritation felt reasonable after witnessing readers misread what was a complex and skillful story as somehow being About Rape Culture – although most published works are misread, or read differently than the author intended, and so perhaps that didn’t matter. For a writer to reach that many readers is an odd and fleeting gift. But many readers didn’t seem to understand the rudimentary distinctions between author and narrator, fiction and first-person essay, assuming the author was a young heterosexual woman, assuming everything they read on the internet – even in third person – is confessional fact. (The author is a late-30s lesbian – more on that later.) So hungry were people to read authentic experiences that no one remembered the definition of fiction. A friend of mine tweeted: “Wait until they hear about Alice Munro!” And because the story was popular and written by a woman, of course serious readers were quick to critique it.

All this to say, this may be the most anticipated (by people who don’t normally read short stories) short-story collection to ever be published, and given that Roupenian reportedly received a six- and seven-figure deal in Britain and the United States, that is a lot of pressure for a writer to live up to. Sometimes large advances can sink a book – did anyone actually read the novel City of Fire, which reportedly earned close to US$2-million? – even though short stories by and large do not sell as well as novels. (When I signed a two-book deal, I had to promise neither would be short stories.)

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Author Kristen Roupenian.

Elisa Roupenian Toha

But fiction is at its best when it causes us discomfort, disgust and confusion, and thus I think those who loved but also misread Cat Person as being some sort of morality tale about sex politics might be disappointed by how consistently dirty, repulsive and uncomfortable the collection is when it’s at its best. Most stories on the whole take the best part of Cat Person – its moments of vulnerability and repulsion – and amplify them to horror movie heights. That doesn’t mean the book is start to finish brilliant; like all collections, it’s uneven, and like all books written to keep up with a marketing win, there are moments when some stories could have used more time in the oven, or a more decisive editorial eye.

The first story, Bad Boy, is in the horror genre – it was originally published in Body Parts Magazine – although you won’t realize it until the last few paragraphs. It starts out pretty filthy – and I mean that as a compliment – about a complicated threesome dynamic, that soon goes terribly awry. To be clear in my biases, it’s the only kind of horror story I like, one where I’m essentially tricked into reading it. It’s written entirely in first-person plural, and the gender of the narrator couple is never explicitly outlined, even during the sex scenes. I read the “we” initially – and most reviewers did – as a straight couple, but during the second read, I realized it makes much more sense as a lesbian couple. It’s one of the most affecting and creepy of all the stories, and one that comes the closest to being as successfully executed as Cat Person. Roupenian’s stylistic choice, or perhaps unwillingness, to gender the couple could feel like an outdated hacky gimmick, but it’s done fairly seamlessly, adding texture to a story that could easily veer towards a crude but delightful one-handed read or basic genre story. But it did beg the question: Why would a queer writer debut an entire short-story collection with no lesbian or queer content? One could cynically say it’s because lesbian short-story collections do not fetch seven-figure advances. (Backstage at a Giller event, the year we were both shortlisted, Emma Donoghue inquired if my novel had any queer content. When I said, “Only sort of,” she said, “Yeah, our gay books won’t get us here,” verbalizing a mostly unspoken truth about the business side of the publishing industry.) Or perhaps it’s because, according to a recent essay in The New Yorker to promote the book’s release, Roupenian only newly identifies as queer. But there are ways that these stories about straight people read as though they are presented through a queer lens, as all queer people historically have had to think deeply about power, sexuality and shame in order to come out. So perhaps the absence of queer characters is as purposeful as it is subversive.

The rest of the collection is a real mixed bag stylistically, although linked expertly by a roving theme of shameful desires, and the related horror we can inflict on others because of it. I wasn’t sure what to make of The Mirror, the Bucket and the Old Thigh Bone, a fairy tale about a princess reluctant to marry anyone but a mirrored reflection of herself. It moves along at a good clip, but ultimately fizzles out into what feels like an MFA workshop experiment. In Sardines, a little girl at her 10th birthday gets queasy revenge, told from the point of view of her middle-aged mom. The woman’s description of her daughter is a good example of the author’s gift for describing the ultimate horror show that is having a body: “The further Tilly lurches into gruesome adolescences, the more she insists on acting like a baby, trying to recapture a cuteness she never possessed. Maddening, tic-ridden, love-hungry Tilly; beloved Tilly, who, despite Marla’s best effort to protect her, at times seems not only destined but determined to be chewed up by the world’s sharp teeth.”

Some highlights include The Matchbook Sign, about a parasite that drives a woman crazy, and no one believes her but her lover. In Death Wish, a depressed guy hooks up with a girl who wants to be punched and kicked before sex. In Biter, an otherwise unremarkable woman is overwhelmed by the urge to bite people, especially her “pink-cheeked” co-worker. The Good Guy is a deep dive into the psyche of a misogynistic player who ends up getting his due.

What You Know You Want This really succeeds at is describing men and women at their most disgusting, desperate and power-hungry, for both sex, intimacy and meaning, incapable of reconciling their desires with correct social expectations. It may not live up to the hype, but with that much buzz, it would be nearly impossible to.

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