'Cat Person' Author Kristen Roupenian Wants to Let Women Be Bad

In its quest to give its characters "equal opportunity" to be depraved, Kristen Roupenian's new collection of short stories falls short of capturing the nuances of gender and power that made "Cat Person" so resonant.

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Jan 15 2019, 4:50pm

Simon & Schuster/Broadly

I began reading Kristen Roupenian’s new story collection, You Know You Want This, at the wrong time. It was the end of the work day on September 27, the day Christine Blasey Ford appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to testify that then–Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in high school. I was exhausted, but I’d just received an advanced reader copy of Roupenian’s book and was eager to dig in—perhaps I’d find there the kind of recognition many women found in “Cat Person,” the viral New Yorker story that earned Roupenian the seven-figure two-book deal to publish these stories. In “Cat Person,” Roupenian’s description of an awkward sexual encounter between her main character, Margot, and a man named Robert was so precise that some people who read it received it as nonfiction. Roupenian seemed to understand the subtleties of male-female interactions: who has power, and when.

What I found in the first 11 pages I read only added to my distress. In “Bad Boy,” the book’s opening story, a couple lures a male friend recovering from a devastating breakup into a series of sadistic games. The couple starts out trying to get their friend back on his feet, but quickly begins to manipulate him into participating in a sexual fantasy that involves them acting as his parents—telling him what he can and can’t do, punishing him when he disobeys—and making him watch them have sex, eventually permitting him to join. Their treatment of him becomes increasingly cruel and twisted, culminating in a final scene where, having walked in on their friend having sex with his ex-girlfriend, the couple makes him strangle her to death.

“Don’t let us interrupt you,” they prod him. “You want this, right? You know you want this.”

I didn’t. I put the book down and didn’t pick it up again for another month.

“Bad Boy” is a good primer for the stories that follow: Roupenian is principally interested in taking the gendered power dynamics that pervade our everyday lives to unfamiliar extremes, drawing out the depravity of human relationships in the hopes of making us shift uncomfortably in our chairs. “I have always been perplexed by and obsessed with not only questions of powerlessness, but feeling like you have too much power,” Roupenian told Elle last month. “I’ve always had a hard time finding a middle ground.”

That would be fine, were it not for how often Roupenian leaves us wondering what it’s all for. There’s little value in making a reader’s discomfort the sole point of a piece of fiction, yet most of the works that surround “Cat Person” don’t seem to go much further. Particularly appealing to Roupenian is the shock value in foregrounding female antagonists. Roughly half of the stories in You Know You Want This center on a woman or group of women or girls taking pleasure in being vicious, conniving, or simply gross, the last quality being the result of Roupenian’s narrative doctrine to allow her characters “equal opportunity” to be disgusting, as she told Elle.

Roupenian places these women in explicitly “feminine” settings: a girl’s birthday party; a bachelorette weekend. In “Sardines,” which occurs in the former, a bitter wine mom named Marla tries to plan a birthday bash for her daughter Tilly, an awkward 10-year-old, in the shadow of her ex-husband’s affair with a 23-year-old woman. In between chatting with the other mothers and hastily icing a melting homemade cake, Marla has dark fantasies about swapping her ex’s girlfriend’s lubricant with superglue and tattooing “SLUT” on her face. Unbeknownst to Marla, her daughter has her own sinister plans, though Roupenian brings Tilly’s to life: Tilly insists her guests play a hide-and-seek game, which involves all of the adults hiding together until Tilly comes to find them. By the time she does, the group of women—the girlfriend, the other wine moms, and Marla—have become tangled up into one writhing, shrieking mass, Tilly’s own monstrous creation.

In the collection’s other stories, women and girls do worse: If they aren’t persuading someone to kill their ex-girlfriend, they’re shitting on a teacher’s stoop, torturing a man they’re holding captive in their basement before cutting his heart out, or taking a sizable chomp out of a male coworker (perhaps he deserved it). Though all quite distinct from each other in both form and content—one story, for example, takes the form of a fairy tale—the majority of them hew back to the same theme of giving women the room to be as warped as they like.

Roupenian’s book is one reflection of a growing cultural appetite for representations of women doing bad things. Two of 2018’s most lauded television shows, Killing Eve and Sharp Objects, were psychological dramas revolving around female killers. Sharp Objects relied on “subverting images of innocence, femininity, family, and the domestic,” as Anna Leszkiewcz wrote last month in New Statesman, to create the horrifying prospect of an “idealized mother”—Patricia Clarkson’s character, Adora—“bringing warm milk to a bedside … yet guarding a dark, violent secret.” In the end (big spoilers coming), it isn’t Adora who turns out to be the serial killer in Sharp Objects, but her duplicitous teenage daughter, Amma, who kills her female classmates and uses their teeth to tile the bathroom floor of her dollhouse. Do we take pleasure in the murders of these young girls? No. But perhaps there’s something delicious in the idea that Amma, in her performative coyness and femininity, had never even been a suspect, just as the women in Roupenian’s stories often manage to surprise others with their deviance.

The release of Sharp Objects and its ensuing popularity coincided with what became known as the “Summer of Scam,” a phenomenon that began with a viral Cut story about Anna Delvey, a young woman who conned wealthy elites out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. The Cut continued to track other grifters: an assistant at Vogue accused of stealing more than $50,000 from her boss; a British woman who allegedly tried to make off with a yacht docked at a resort on the Italian Riviera; a “meta-scammer” who attempted to scam the man who scammed her. A fake Saudi prince and former Environmental Protection Agency Chief Scott Pruitt are mentioned in The Cut’s coverage of scammers, but the grifters making headlines all summer were largely women.

But instead of condemning them for their alleged misdeeds, many delighted in their ingenuity. “Delvey is weirdly easy to root for ...” Cady Drell wrote for Marie Claire in June. “Even though what she did was super illegal and extremely ill-advised, it was compelling stuff.” It seemed that, if our culture so consistently underestimated women and demanded that they be virtuous, then women who took advantage of the assumption of their essential goodness deserved whatever they reaped from it. Even if their schemes didn’t topple the patriarchy, it looked to some that they put a small dent in it.

How could such gruesome tales manage to be so tedious?

Roupenian’s stories exploit and invert a similar assumption of women as good by suggesting that there’s something about the experience of woman- and girlhood that can be a horror onto itself. Many of us recall well the abjection that accompanies being a preteen girl; can feel viscerally Marla’s description of Tilly’s “greasy sprinkle of acne” on her forehead and her breasts that appear to be “growing at two slightly different rates.” When probed with consideration, these kinds of bodily observations lead to a work like Carmen Maria Machado’s 2017 Her Body and Other Parties, a prize-winning collection that would be an obvious analog to Roupenian’s work, if one were discussing theme alone. Machado chooses to represent the real-world conditions of gendered violence and inequality with elegant allegories: “Machado offers a more complicated solace,” New York Times reviewer Parul Sehgal wrote at the time. “She doesn’t contain our terror, she stokes it and teaches us about it.”

Roupenian teaches us little. Because she tips the power differentials in her stories so absolutely in one direction or the other, she reduces her characters to archetypes. Each story is a conflict of “victim versus victor,” Tony Tulathimutte points out in his review for The New Republic, “the weak dominated by the strong.” And “after an eleventh-hour plot twist, the dynamic abruptly shifts, and someone either dies or is scarred.” Tulathimutte doesn’t seem bothered by the predictable rhythm of Roupenian’s stories; I find it boring. How could such gruesome tales manage to be so tedious?

In You Know You Want This, “Cat Person” stands out as the exception to this rule. Margot and Robert aren’t as easily categorized as “victim” and “victor”; rather, Roupenian chronicles a power valence in flux. At times, Margot wonders if Robert is going to kill her, a thought Roupenian knows has flitted through many women’s minds on first dates with strange men. At other times, Margot’s convinced she has the upper hand: When they kiss, she finds herself “carried away by a fantasy of such pure ego that she could hardly admit to herself that she was having it.” Margot thinks of Robert pityingly, imagining that he wants her—her “perfect” body, her “flawless” skin—so badly he might die.

“Cat Person” is about what happens when heterosexual encounters are observed between the poles of good and evil: Often, these do not result in the grisly murder and abuse Roupenian describes in her other stories, but simply bad sex. As the cultural reckoning with sexual misconduct spurred by the allegations against Harvey Weinstein stretches into its second year, we’ve discovered so much exists in the in-between space. Roupenian doesn’t have a responsibility to sort it all out for us; but in her binary explorations of abuse, she’s missed an opportunity to capture the gray areas.

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