You Know You Want This by Kristen Roupenian
When it was first published in The New Yorker in December 2017, Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person” went viral. Its buzz is well-deserved (although maybe not worth the subsequent seven-figure book deal): the story follows a college girl through a short, awkward affair with an older, local guy and is a chilling reflection of late twenty-teens society. Roupenian effortlessly shows a hyper-contemporary dating landscape that’s been spoiled by expectations of how a person should feel and act, augmented by the paradoxical disconnect of modern technology. But “Cat Person” is not just about texting, ghosting, and “nice guys,” it can function as a kind of litmus test for its readers as they decide who exactly is responsible for the story’s uncomfortable turns. “Cat Person” leaves its readers feeling scummy, and silently encourages them to discuss it amongst their peers. It’s a story everyone should read.
Sadly, the quality and power of “Cat Person” overshadows all the other stories in Roupenian’s lackluster debut collection You Know You Want This. The book feels rushed and under-edited and would have been better with a few stories entirely omitted. Many lean into taboos and kinks, but do so in a way that leaves little to actually talk about outside of their “scandalous” content. Most of Roupenian’s stories fail to grow beyond their conceit and rely too heavily on cliché renderings of couples, teens, and mothers to set up and execute their agenda.
Many stories feel like they began as “what if” hypotheticals and do little more than answer that question. What if there was a couple who became sexually dominant together, reveling in their cruelty to a third party? What if a grown woman relapsed to the “biting” phase of her childhood? What if a woman could conjure, with a spellbook, her innermost desire? And what if a cute and unassuming Tinder date asked you to beat her before taking things to the bedroom? These ideas would be better channelled into an awkward game of “Would You Rather;” they fall flat as literary short fiction and are a far cry from the timely excellence of “Cat Person.”
“Sardines” is a remarkable flop: set around a ten-year-old’s birthday party, the story is cast full of stereotypical moms and misfit kids and has one mother daydreaming about swapping her ex-husband’s sexual lubricant with superglue. A strange supernatural twist lurks beneath this childishness, as a birthday wish for “something mean” might actually come true.
“The Good Guy,” the longest story in the collection, is a moderately successful attempt to return readers to the contemporary dating world of “Cat Person.” The protagonist is a curious riff on toxic masculinity and incel culture: when Ted’s crush appears out of his league, he numbly dates another girl to not only go through the motions of what society seems to ask of him but also to wallow in the fact that he, a good guy, can’t seem to get what he deserves. As an adult, he develops a private kink for sexual violence, dates a lot, and revels in his partners’ tears and their inability to understand that he isn’t looking for anything serious in his relationships.
This story revolves around an incident at a restaurant when, as an adult, a spurned lover throws a glass of water at Ted’s head, sending him to the hospital. There are some strange anatomical missteps in the story that make it feel rushed and under-reviewed: as ice water splashes his lap, “his dick started to hurt” because his “crotch was really, really cold.” (It’s a glass of water, not liquid nitrogen.) In a high school scene, during an intimate phone call with his long-standing crush, Ted weirdly plays with himself by “flicking” and “tapping” his genitals. (It’s not as if he’s sexually naïve — we see him dry-humping his “girlfriend” Rachel, a few pages earlier). Lastly, strapped to a gurney with “a giant shard of glass embedded in his forehead,” blood somehow “[won’t] stop pooling in his mouth.” (A multi-axis space-camp spinner comes to mind, as the gravity and blood flow just doesn’t make sense.) Granted, the strange sexual details in this story could be chalked up to Ted being emotionally dead inside, but they’re presented in a way that flashes the lights on suddenly and makes Roupenian seem like she’s not the expert on bodies and intimacy that the collection suggests she is.
Still, it’s hard to look away, and You Know You Want This can be easily read to completion in a few late nights. In “The Good Guy,” a young, numb Ted kisses Rachel, the girlfriend he doesn’t actually like, and realizes something: “he discovers that it is possible to enjoy something and yet not care about it in the slightest.” It’s a sadly apt sentiment for readers to discover while experiencing the shallow but intriguing twists of You Know You Want This: the book is a page-turner, a thrill that’s often shocking and uncomfortable, but lacks the emotional resonance needed to be more than just a one-night stand.