Inarguably, Kristen Roupenian is best known for her short story “Cat Person,” which exploded the Internet last year when it went viral after being published in the December 2017 issue of The New Yorker. It trended on Twitter. People wrote think pieces. My undergrads, who have never heard of anyone after reading Hemingway in high school, had heard of it. Arguably, however, “Cat Person” is the least compelling story in Roupenian’s debut collection, You Know You Want This (out January 15th, 2019, with Gallery/Scout Press).
This isn’t an insult to “Cat Person,” mind you, but rather a testament to how strong the rest of the collection is, too. I only mean to say that You Know You Want This transcends its most famous story. The eleven other stories are even more twisty and weird and wrong and so, so right. In the opening story, “Bad Boy,” a couple, fixating on the idea of their friend listening to them having sex, spiral down a dark path as they realize they can no longer have sex with each other unless he is watching and, later, participating. Whereas one might argue that the ending of “Cat Person” is #relatable enough to be familiar and even predictable, “Bad Boy,” and the stories that follow it, are surprising and unexpected. This collection will leave you saying, “I knew it,” as the narrator does in “Scarred” after finding a magic spell book: “I knew the world was more interesting than it was pretending to be” (171).
Most of the collection is centered around women and their sexual/romantic encounters with men—and even the three stories with male protagonists focus on their relationships with women: believing and disbelieving women, idolizing or abusing women, destroying and being destroyed by women. A common theme is the connection between love and suffering. When Ted finally gets Anna to go out with him in “The Good Guy,” he is disappointed because “Anna loves Ted, but does not want him in a way that causes her to suffer; she does not want him desperately, despite herself” (145). And in “The Boy in the Pool,” Kath realizes what Taylor wants is “a boy who will kiss your feet and be grateful for it, a boy who suffers, a boy who suffers for you” (151).
Women who suffer for love, women who want men to suffer for their love—the collection is deeply preoccupied by the power dynamics that exist between men and women. What can a woman do when she feels she is powerless? What might she do when she feels she has all the power? In “Death Wish,” a woman asks a man she met online to punch her in the face and kick her in the stomach before they can have sex. It is deeply uncomfortable for the man, who feels somehow that he’s abusing her, but she is the one explicitly asking for it, and he is paralyzed for a long time with “that combination of responsibility and powerlessness” (212). Who has the control in this situation? Who is the victim, if there is one? The collection is dedicated to exploring those shifting dynamics, and the blurry boundaries between the powerful and the powerless.
And this collection excels at blurring boundaries, not just in character relationships, but in genre. To me, much of the heart-pounding, page-turning inability to stop reading comes from the collection’s capacity to span so many genres at once. Stories like “The Good Guy” and “The Boy in the Pool” are firmly rooted in the real world, with situations springing from unrequited love, failed relationships, aging, lying, and other narratives that are plausible and “realist.” These stories sit alongside such supernatural siblings as “Sardines,” in which a young girl makes a dangerous birthday wish that melds all her friends into a monstrous blob, and “Scarred,” where the narrator finds a spell book and summons a naked man to be her heart’s desire. The result of such a combination is that the stakes are high in even the quietest of stories—any encounter in any one of the stories is just as likely to turn into a bad date as it is a gory, gruesome murder, and you can never be sure which. The tension, therefore, is heightened on every page because you, as a reader, can’t predict the “rules” of any given story.
And at its core, this is a collection about what happens to people when they don’t know—or perhaps forget—their own rules and boundaries. My favorite story in the collection is the last one, “Biter,” in which the protagonist, Ellie, has for several years resisted the urge to bite people, until she meets Corey Allen, a co-worker she really wants to sink her teeth in. She resists the urge, fearing repercussions from losing her job to going to jail, until the moment Corey comes onto her and she bites back in retaliation—after which she is heralded as hero instead of an assailant. Since childhood, Ellie has loved biting, because it has the power to transform her from victim to abuser: “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” (216).
This kind of power is what makes the collection truly terrifying, regardless of genre. Indeed, the scariest stories in this collection aren’t the ones that are supernatural—the true horror comes from the stories with a reality closest to our own, human protagonists with abilities like ours. In “Look at Your Game, Girl,” a twelve-year-old has multiple uncomfortable encounters with a man in a park, who gives her unsolicited gifts and asks her to meet with him after dark. What is most frightening in this story isn’t the possibility of some supernatural event; because, in this moment, the man in the park is way scarier even than the monster consuming children in “Sardines.”
The story that best showcases this hybridity between “real people horror” and “magic horror” is “The Night Runner,” in which Aaron suspects he is being haunted by a mythical creature and sets out to hunt it—stumbling through the wilderness and emerging dirty and bloody in a schoolyard and frightening the children there. When they scream at his arrival, he turns around to see what monster is behind him, then “remembered himself to be pursuer, not pursued” and “looked down and saw himself as they did” (59). It is not, then, the supernatural creatures who are the monsters of these stories—but we the people every time.
The effect of such a realization is a compulsively readable, stay-up-with-it-all-night kind of book that simultaneously condemns the horrific humanity of its characters—“I am trying to be better than what I am” (68)—while also granting them permission to embrace such darkness. “You love what you love,” as the king says to his queen in “The Mirror, the Bucket, and the Old Thigh Bone”: “If that means you are selfish, or arrogant, or spoiled, then so be it” (71).
It’s not often that I read a book and feel the urge to tell people what to do, but this book makes me want to start issuing orders for the good of everyone around me. What I’m saying, then, in other words, is this: Read these stories. You know you want to.
Samantha Edmonds is the author of the prose chapbook Pretty to Think So (Selcouth Station, 2019) and an MFA candidate at the University of Tennessee. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Literary Hub, The Rumpus, VICE, Entropy, Mississippi Review, Black Warrior Review, and more. She is also the fiction editor for Grist: A Journal of the Literary Arts.