© 2023 Iowa Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'You Know You Want This' Takes Risks On Every Level

Popularity is a strange thing. It's distinct from fame; not many of us have first-hand experience with the latter, but we've all seen the former up close. The Internet is collapsing that distinction, but it's also created a new form of popularity. We react to a viral tweet or video, or to the century's first viral short story, the way we once treated our high school's mean girls, with a combination of admiration and criticism: She's so great and she's not so special. Kristen Roupenian's New Yorker short story "Cat Person," which dominated literary conversation for the last month of 2017, made her popular. Her debut collection, You Know You Want This, demonstrates that her work is special.

You Know You Want This is very good. For many readers, it may prove deceptive as well. This has happened before. When "Cat Person" went viral, many readers treated it as an essay, or as thinly veiled autobiography. This provoked a discussion about how readily we assume women's writing comes from experience, not imagination — a phenomenon Virginia Woolf wrote about in A Room of Her Own, and related to what critic Joanna Russ called "the double standard of content" in her 1983 book How to Suppress Women's Writing. In the same book, Russ wrote about what I might call the double standard of style: The idea that if a sentence or a story is easy to read, it must have been easy to write. This, of course, is false.

Roupenian's stories are extremely easy to read. She's worked out a way to write short stories that have no stopping points. They build steadily and discursively, and even the stories that jump years or decades seem to happen all in one breath. The flirtation in "Cat Person" emerges so swiftly, so naturally, that even the story's protagonist can't look away. This is, perhaps, another reason why the story provoked a wave of double-standarding. "Cat Person" contains no signs of the meticulous care with which it's built, and neither do the other stories in You Know You Want This.

The other stories in You Know You Want This, for their part, contain little sign of "Cat Person." To my mind, "Cat Person" was observant nearly to the point of being precious. Alone, it's a pleasure to read, but a collection full of similar stories would shine hard enough to be blinding. Thankfully, You Know You Want This is looser than that. Roupenian is catholic in the voices she chooses, and the genres she deploys. The collection's opener, "Bad Boy," slides from G-chat conversational to film noir. "Sardines," two stories later, is full-blown horror story in tone and content, turning a birthday-party game into a dark metamorphosis. The latter is more successful than the former, but both stories take confident steps into terrain "Cat Person" never surveyed.

I worried, before reading You Know You Want This, that the popularity of "Cat Person" might inhibit Roupenian's confidence. It would be understandable if Roupenian, fearing what Joanna Russ calls "the myth of the isolated achievement," produced a collection of Cat People. Instead, she took risks on every level. There are genre switches, shock endings, even a fairy tale. There's plenty of superficially risky sexual content: submission, humiliation, knives. The collection's truest risk, though, is its directness. Roupenian is here to write straight-ahead stories about the erotics of power, and how better to do that than blood lust?

To my mind, "Cat Person" was observant nearly to the point of being precious. Alone, it's a pleasure to read, but a collection full of similar stories would shine hard enough to be blinding.

Take "Biter," whose protagonist, Ellie, yearns to bite her male co-workers. Biting will bring her sexual gratification — Roupenian makes that clear — but not as a prelude to sex. Ellie wants the pleasure she found as a kindergartener "tiptoeing behind Robbie Kettrick while he was standing at the craft table, smugly stacking blocks. Everything is normal, quiet, boring, and then here comes Ellie — CHOMP! Now Robbie Kettrick is screaming like a baby and everyone is scrambling and yelling, and Ellie is no longer just a little girl but a wild creature pacing the halls of the preschool, sowing chaos and destruction in her wake."

This is blunt, fun, evocative writing. The double standard of style would tell us there's something wrong with that. The double standard of content would tell us that biting is not the subject of great fiction, anyway. Per the latter, Ellie should have a more oblique desire for power. Per the former, her desire is fine, but not that onomatopoetic CHOMP! The popularity paradox would tell us that "Biter" is enjoyable, but that doesn't make it special. Wrong. By any metric — craftsmanship, intelligence, addictiveness — Roupenian's stories are excellent. Her blood lust will take her far.

Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Washington, D.C.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.