About a year ago The New Yorker published a short story, “Cat Person,” by Kristen Roupenian, a recent graduate of the U-M MFA program. It went viral online, where it was read by more people than any other story in the magazine’s history.
In “Cat Person,” a twenty-year-old college student has an awkward one-night stand with a man in his mid-thirties. When she tries to end the situation, the man does not respond well. Readers’ opinions and interpretations range from “it’s a story about bad sex” to “it’s a story of a young woman forced into a horrible situation by a culture that gives women very little control.” The protagonist is read either as a young woman just learning to exercise her own agency or as someone hampered by cultural expectations. The one thing everyone agrees on is that “Cat Person” leaves them feeling uncomfortable.
You Know You Want This, Roupenian’s newly released debut collection, contains her already famous story and eleven others at least as troubling, in styles that range from brutal realism to a fairy tale.
“The Mirror, the Bucket, and the Old Thigh Bone” starts out: “Once there was a princess who needed to get married.” None of her suitors can meet her unspoken, perhaps unknown expectations, until a mysterious figure draped in black appears at her side. Its head is a mirror that reflects the princess back to herself, a bucket that creates an echo of her own voice, and an old bone that gives it some shape but that has lost any flesh that might indicate another person was attached to it. When she has become queen and is seen listening to the whispered counsel of this shadowy figure, “those who kneeled before her thought they could see, through the folds of the hood, an image of the queen’s own face, broken into a thousand jagged pieces.” We don’t have to jump too far to find an allegory for either a generation or, perhaps, a major political figure.
All of the stories in You Know You Want This have a wonderfully clear, almost transparent prose style–even the one that is almost entirely supernatural. But there is no escapism here. Most of Roupenian’s characters are more comfortable texting than having an actual conversation and find it easier to hook up on Tinder than to build a relationship that might last longer than a night. She writes about those uncomfortable spaces between desire and disgust, between fear and love, and even, in that famous ambiguity, somewhere between sex and death.
Roupenian reads at Literati Bookstore on January 21.