If there’s a common thread shared amongst experienced readers, it’s a combination of understandable skepticism and acid-drenched cynicism. This hypothetical reader has been hurt so many times in the past. Promising literary flourishes between the pages of a gold-embossed book are set free into the world but already burdened by hype. More often than not, in a debut short story collection the story so loved or at least respected in isolation is weighed down by hype, great expectations, and ultimate failure. This writer can’t be that good. This initial story so effective and lethally viral and shared after its initial appearance in The New Yorker is either elevated by its surrounding stories or burdened by flashy tricks and tired M.F.A. tropes that dangerously flirt with themes of depravity and darkness without ever really understanding their consequences. Indeed, the skeptical, cynical, experienced reader expects the worst and adds the hyped debut short story volume to an ever increasing pile of over-ambitious books that think they’re more important than they actually are.
Kristen Roupenian’s You Know You Want This: “Cat Person” and Other Stories is a brutal, brilliant, biting, masterful debut short story collection that readers might think exists only as a forum for “Cat Person”. Surprisingly, all the cynical perspectives many of us take on when reading the work of a new voice are eliminated after the first story, “Bad Boy”, and things get darker from there. Most early buzz for this book has made an effort to note, perhaps as a consumer warning, that the dozen stories here are not all like “Cat Person”. Readers will remember the early buzz for that story. As this writer noted in a review of Best American Nonrequired Reading 2018, “Cat Person” was launched into a society more than ready for it.
A 34-year-old-man named Robert connects with a 20-year-old student named Margot. His approach is equal parts patronizing and pursuing. She wishes it would stop but allows it to continue, though she knows “that insisting that they stop now, after everything she’d done to push this forward, would make her seem spoiled and capricious.” It ends with a transcription of a text message correspondence that builds to an angry, violent crescendo.
“Death Wish”, the penultimate story in this volume, could be seen as the male version of “Cat Person”. It’s also one of only three stories here (the others being “Scarred” and “Bad Boy”) not told in third person, an important writing choice in more ways than one might initially consider. By giving our male hero (Ryan) the primary voice in “Death Wish”, Roupenian clearly wants us to align ourselves with his harrowing narrative. He’s depressed, spending most of his time in his room drinking, watching porn, and playing video games. He meets a girl on Tinder who can only experience sexual gratification through physical violence. She has a death wish, and he wonders what that says of himself that he’d follow through on this sexual arrangement:
“…I was too wrapped up in a depressive haze for it to occur to me… my conscience was a set of brakes that had worn thin. I didn’t want to punch this girl, but the situation had its own momentum…”
These two characters go through with the arrangement, “…in this icy mildewed motel shower…” and Ryan understands that the worst feeling wasn’t actually going through with it but understanding the after effects. “It was how I felt after, when it was over, when she was gone, and I was alone.” Indeed, biolence plays a big part in many of these stories, but in the masterful “Bad Boy”, told in a collective first person (“Our friend came over the other night…We would feed him dinner…”) the reader falls quickly into a horrifying vortex of a menage-a-trois that isn’t exactly as one might expect. A couple invites their friend to join them at their place. He’s getting over a bad breakup and unaware that he’s about to enter something even darker. This couple wants him in their place and eventually to join them in bed:
“We knew that if something were going to happen, we would have to make the first move. We outnumbered him… we bossed him around and he did what we asked… He was like some slippery thing we had caught in our fists…”
Roupenian bathes this ending in a Grand Guignol haze of violence that makes undeniable logical sense. She’s working in the same area code of the darkest Joyce Carol Oates short stories, or Mary Gaitskill’s 1988 collection, Bad Behavior. Nobody gets out of these stories unharmed, one way or another.
In “Biter”, the closing story, our heroine’s means of relating to people is to bite them. It stayed with her as a child and returned to her as an adult, when she launches her upper and lower mandibles (quite literally) into the cheek of a male colleague at a holiday party in retaliation of an unwanted advance. The results of her action, and how it’s interpreted by her colleagues, is what makes this story so devious and strange. Bad actions have consequences, but they’re not always what the reader (or any of us in real life) might expect.
In “The Good Guy”, the title character is “…painfully aware of his natural role at the party-fawning courtier-and he didn’t want to play it.” He develops a chaste relationship with a woman named Rachel, but then there’s the complicated addition of Anna to this picture, who’s always relegating him to a “friend zone” and nothing more. She was the first, Rachel was the one he took out, but nothing happened with either. The story spans 20 years in Ted’s life and the addition and complications of these women. Later in life, he “…becomes an instrument of pure punishment…” Roupenian develops the conceit of a tribunal of judges meant to render a verdict on the choices Ted has made in his life, and the results are powerful.
There are parasites and there is sacrifice in “Matchbox Sign”, where David notices that his girlfriend Laura has “…completely given herself over to the war against her skin.” No culprits can be found, no flies, larvae, or mites. It’s determined that while the bugs might be imaginary, the suffering is real. Again, it’s the slow and methodical crash ending Roupenian develops here that will make the reader feel both overwhelmed by the visceral deadly conclusion of one character and the power of the sacrifice. It’s a strange and strongly convincing love story that solidifies Roupenian as a writer fully in control of her vision.
Sickness and disease (psychological or otherwise) plays a big part in “The Night Runner”, where an American Peace Corps volunteer (Aaron) seems to be going through hell during his time as a teacher in Kenya. The Night Runners are people “…driven to run by a kind of demonic mental disease.” It’s a story of imagined demons, culture clash, and good intentions never realized that will linger in your mind.
There are minor stories here, but none are weak. In “Look at Your Game, Girl”, a title taken from a Charles Manson song, the reader is drawn into 1993 Petaluma, California, three weeks before Polly Klaas is kidnapped at a sleepover. A 12-year-old girl entranced by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana, and Guns and Roses, temporarily falls under the spell of an older man who tells her about the title song, a man whose “…hands were huge and warm and they made her face feel tiny… She thought he was going to kiss her, but he stroked his thumb across her mouth.” What works best here isn’t the fear of a pedophile kidnapper but the way Roupenian takes the relatively brief time frame of most short stories and expands it by the final paragraph. This is an experience that will forever scar this woman, and we need to understand it before we move on.
In “The Mirror, the Bucket, and the Old Thigh Bone”, 100 years pass as we read the story of “…a princess who needed to get married.” There are creatures that stay too long at the fair, a king who goes mad and orders his servant’s tongues cut out, and a tin bucket deep beneath the earth echoing “…with the sound of gnawing maggots.” Again, it’s a “lessor” story when compared with the others, but the structure and development is strong. The same can be said for “Sardines”, (named after the popular kid’s party game of overlapping bodies), but it’s far from a minor story. A little girl manifests a birthday monster that grants wishes to the lonely, awkward, and insulted. “To the angry, the tortured, the hate-filled, the powerless.” It’s all about Marla (a mom) and Tilly (her daughter) and the payoff conclusion is well worth the ride, but it’s the smaller pieces that also make this story shine:
“The further Tilly lurches into gruesome adolescence, the more she insists on acting like a baby, trying to recapture a cuteness she never possessed. Maddening, tic-ridden, love-hungry Tilly… who… seems not only destined but determined to be chewed up by the world’s sharp teeth.”
“The Boy in the Pool” is probably the least strong story here, but again that’s tantamount to being the smallest jewel in a blindingly sparkling crown. A group of women arrange to have a film actor from their adolescence come to their friend’s bachelorette party. He was the boy in the pool, now a middle-aged man, making a fool of himself for the sake of a middle-aged woman. Not much more happens here except a strong mood of regret and longing for a past that will never again be restored.
“Scarred” will remind the reader of elements in Walter Mosley’s The Man in My Basement. Both stories work deeply in metaphor and dark elements of control. In Roupenian’s story, a woman tells us of a naked man in her basement. She tells the reader: “You must imagine your own naked man… There was no prettiness about him, and nothing effeminate. Nothing angelic, either…” He’s contained in an invisible cell in her basement. She slashes him. After a year, she starts collecting drops of his tears. It’s a beautifully contained mood piece, a two-hander like several other stories here, and Roupenian is completely in control of her vision from beginning to end.
That’s the bottom line with the dozen stories in You Know You Want This. Roupenian’s confidence and willingness to follow through with the dark visions and sentimental longing in these 12 stories is enough to convince the reader that what follows will be equally surprising, dark, tender, and real.