“Cat Person” is the story that landed Kristen Roupenian on the literary radar. Remember? Her uncannily perceptive toxic-dating tale was just what we needed when The New Yorker published it, mere weeks after the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke. Aimed straight at a roiling cultural moment, it managed for a little while to become that rarest of creatures: a work of short fiction that was on everyone’s lips.
Turns out there’s more where that came from, and it makes delicious reading. Roupenian’s “You Know You Want This” is a scintillating new debut collection, with a glorious revenge comedy at its center.
It’s called “The Good Guy,” and it opens with an ugly breakup. Well, actually, it starts with a vivid sexual image — no way could we print that bracing first sentence — but soon a relationship permanently ruptures. A woman named Angela throws a glass (“it was more of a tumbler, really”) at a man named Ted, who has reached his mid-30s under the grievous misapprehension that he is a decent human being.
Nope. As the origin story that makes up most of “The Good Guy” demonstrates, Ted has been, since boyhood, a calculating creep disguised as a viable dating option. He’s the kind of man who will blame a woman — even a successful, attractive one like Angela, who is, “by any objective measure, way out of his league” — for getting her hopes up about their relationship. If he’s broken her heart, it’s her own fault.
“You did this, not me,” he insists. “I’m just — just — the tool you’re using to hurt yourself!”
He’s right about being a tool, anyway. And maybe, given the murkiness of sexual politics and the frequency with which self-abasement gets mingled with passionate yearning, he’s a little bit right to think she knows deep down that he’s bad for her — and that that’s part of the attraction.
Roupenian tells 11 more stories of desire, damage, and retribution in “You Know You Want This,” of which “The Good Guy” is the lengthiest by far. It is probably (pardon me while I hedge; there’s some really strong stuff here) the best, too.
That’s not only because, if you’ve ever dated guys, there’s a hefty chance you have at least one ex like Ted (but c’mon, you do, right?). It’s also because Roupenian — who proves astonishingly deft at depicting the warped psychology of romantic entanglement, and finding the black humor in it — conjures the “endless rounds of jealousy and harm” that follow unrequited longing.
Teenage Ted is hardly unusual in wanting someone unattainable (his friend, Anna) and settling in the meantime for someone he treats with contempt (his first girlfriend, Rachel). Such actions are of course not confined to men, and acknowledging that is part of the book’s feminism: Women are whole human beings.
The girls and women in these stories are entirely capable of evil, from furious young Tilly, who wishes harm on the guests at her birthday party in “Sardines” (and, to be fair, has her reasons), to the narrator of “Scarred,” who happens upon some spells, uses an enchantment to summon her ideal man, and keeps him in the basement, a tortured prisoner.
Both of these are cracked fairy tales, as is the excellent “The Mirror, the Bucket, and the Old Thigh Bone,” the grisly story of a princess whose parents pressure her to marry when all she really wants is the pleasure of her own thoughts.
“The Night Runner” and “The Matchbox Sign” lack the clarity and persuasiveness of the other pieces, but the book shows an impressive range. “Bad Boy,” in which a couple’s teasing of their friend begins as an erotic joke but spins into sadism and beyond, leads into “Look at Your Game, Girl,” about the indelible effect of a child’s encounter with a predator.
In “The Boy in the Pool,” three girls’ friendship endures into adulthood, while the crush one has on another lingers, too. “Death Wish,” about a brutal Tinder date between a woman who wants to be beaten and a man odious enough to acquiesce, is followed by the spectacularly funny and satisfying “Biter,” about an office worker with a voracious yen to chomp on other people’s flesh, the way she did in preschool.
And then there is “Cat Person,” which remains startling for its impeccable delineation of a common and insidiously abusive male-female dynamic. For the woman, this involves ingrained fear, self-doubt, and the habit of imagining wounded vulnerability beneath a man’s hostile behavior, thereby excusing it. Sound familiar?
“Cat Person” was our tip-off to pay attention to what Roupenian did next. Now that it’s here, well, you know you want it.
By Kristen Roupenian
Scout, 240 pp., $24.99
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