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Cat People: Kristen Roupenian’s Viral-Age Horrors

The highs and lows of an unlikely internet sensation are captured in the phenomenon of the short story writer’s experience, while her debut collection ‘You Know You Want This’ has an altogether different but equally unsettling effect

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Affixed to the cover of my copy of Kristen Roupenian’s You Know You Want This is a sleeve announcing—perhaps a first for a literary short story collection—“from the author of the viral story, ‘Cat Person.’” The very notion of a “viral” short story would have been impossible to imagine a decade ago, and even last December, when the New Yorker published Roupenian’s piece online and then in the fiction section of its magazine, its meme-like ubiquity ran counter to conventional wisdom about what sorts of content is most aerodynamically built for travels around the internet. In the era of “tl;dr,” here was a nearly 6,500-word story that millions of people seem to have read in its entirety. In a digital publishing economy glutted with personal essays (Slate’s Laura Bennett once described the internet’s “first-person industrial complex”), here was a must-read piece that announced itself, right at the top of the page, as “Fiction.” In a moment when many complex issues about sexual agency and patterns of abuse were being reduced to black-or-white morality tales, here was a canvas of unsettling grays.

“Cat Person” tells the story of Margot, a 20-year-old college student, and Robert, a 34-year-old man she meets while working at a movie theater concession stand. They trade flirtatious jokes about Red Vines, exchange phone numbers, and keep up a brisk text message exchange when Margot goes home for winter break. But when they meet up later for their first IRL date, the mystique (at least in Margot’s view) evaporates. They share “a terrible kiss, shockingly bad; Margot had trouble believing that a grown man could possibly be so bad at kissing.” They drink, go back to Robert’s place, and end up having an excruciatingly rote sexual encounter (“his hand moving mechanically across her breasts and down to her crotch, as if he were making some perverse sign of the cross”) about which Margot had initially been ambivalent. “It wasn’t that she was scared he would try to force her to do something against her will,” Roupenian writes, “but that insisting that they stop now after everything she’d done to push this forward would make her seem spoiled and capricious, as if she’d ordered something at a restaurant and then, once the food arrived, had changed her mind and sent it back.”

Although it had been written earlier, “Cat Person” was published in the immediate aftermath of the #MeToo movement, when, among other things, once-private conversations about the murkier aspects of sexual consent were suddenly taking place in public. It was a time when the internet was on the hunt for clearly demarcated heroes and villains to guide us through a moral morass, but as the conversations proliferated it sometimes grew harder to understand who was who. What were we to do, for example, with a figure like Asia Argento, who had courageously gone on the record as one of Harvey Weinstein’s first accusers—but who, it was revealed months later, had previously paid off a man who had accused her of sexually assaulting him when he was underage? What about Aziz Ansari, a comedian who’d previously identified himself a feminist, but who’d come under fire for an accusation of sexual coercion that was, itself, reported rather irresponsibly? The think pieces thunk, as they do. But they only seemed to sequester everyone more snugly in their respective corners. Maybe a literary short story was the only hope to ignite a safe, productive, dialectical conversation. Try as some might, you cannot doxx a fictional character.

It is generally not the role of fiction—or at least good fiction—to take sides, and some of the most successful short stories are ones that leave the reader in a state of ambiguity. One of the first short stories I remember reading was Frank R. Stockton’s famous 1882 “The Lady, or the Tiger?” in which the fate of a man undergoing a rather barbaric public trial comes down to chance: He must blindly open one of a pair of doors, and either be greeted by a lady who will marry him immediately, or a hungry tiger ready to devour him whole. I still remember how jarring it was to read to the end of the story and find that Stockton had left me not with a tidy conclusion, but a Rorschach test: “And so I leave it with all of you: Which came out of the opened door—the lady, or the tiger?”

“Ours is an age where the reductive aesthetics of the broadsheet prevail, so it’s inevitable that some readers view ‘Cat Person’ as weighing in on a timely issue and offering up lessons,” wrote Slate’s Laura Miller last December. “It’s easy to get into the habit of thinking that every imaginative literary work must be made to carry an unambiguous moral. But … ‘Cat Person’ has galvanized its readers precisely because it refuses to be so tendentious, even if their response to it might be the immediate urge to fit it to the procrustean bed of their personal convictions.” I agree: “Cat Person” worked as short story and an internet lightning rod precisely because Margot was far from an unblemished hero and Robert was not a clear-cut villain. Roupenian was able to dwell in an ethical grey area to which most authors of online personal essays, or even Twitter feeds, are no longer admitted. The internet mob seems to be populated exclusively by ladies or tigers. Roupenian, instead, gave us a couple of cats.

It is difficult to come across a review of You Know You Want This that does not mention the fact that it garnered Roupenian a seven-figure publishing contract and a development deal from HBO. Still, from its first pages, it’s clear that this book is not pandering to a mass audience: The opening story, “Bad Boy” is defiantly sadistic and escalates towards a violent, unsettling conclusion. “Cat Person 2: Putting Out the Fire” this is not. On the internet, at least, much of the praise of “Cat Person” hinged upon Margot and her plight being described as “relatable”: “I want an investigation on how she wiretapped my inner monologue,” reads one of the tweets quoted, alongside blurbs, in my promotional copy of the book. I can only hope that these other stories—which describe such trending topics as subcutaneous parasites, biting fetishes, and a hellish playground game known only as “Sardines”—do not inspire similar tweets.

Roupenian may have been trying a little too hard to push against this scourge of “relatability,” and although “Cat Person” was lauded for its realism, most of the stories in You Know You Want This are more like modern-day fables, fairy tales, and horror stories. Some of them are quite gnarly: I deeply regret reading both “The Matchbox Sign” and “The Mirror, the Bucket, and the Old Thigh Bone” over lunch breaks and would suggest that you learn from my mistake. Although she often seems to be aiming for Bad Behavior-era Mary Gaitskill, Roupenian at her most gross-out reminded me more of the grisly provocations of Chuck Palahniuk. Cruelty and macabre can be thrilling in moderation, but Roupenian often lays them on so thick that they risk flattening her characters into one-dimensional cartoons.

Roupenian, though, does has a gift for propulsion and pacing: Even in the times when this book disgusted or infuriated me, I couldn’t put it down. Though it was more of a digital-era slice-of-life story, “Cat Person” had the pulse of a thriller, and I suspect that’s why (even in the time of endless distraction) so many readers felt compelled to stay with it until the bitter end. Roupenian’s horror influence is used to greatest effect not when she’s writing about, say, the internal monologue of a woman who fantasizes about chomping a bite out of her co-worker’s flesh (from the story “Biter,” how ever did you guess?) but when she is bringing that pulse-quickening urgency to her chronicles of the fears and desires of everyday life. One of the best and most compulsively page-turn-able stories here is “The Good Guy” (which is also the most tonally similar to “Cat Person”), a coming-of-age story that follows an everydude named Ted through his formative romantic stumbles in high school and college. (I’d like to hope this 50-page story is a harbinger for the novel she’s working on.) Another highlight is “The Boy in the Pool,” a melancholically funny vignette about a bachelorette party at which a bridesmaid tries to hire the actor from a Skinamax-grade movie she and her friends used to watch compulsively when they were young. It’s squirmy and sad in a deeply human way. Roupenian does not always need to resort to parasites to get under her reader’s skin.

Last week, Roupenian published an essay on the New Yorker’s website titled “What It Felt Like When ‘Cat Person’ Went Viral.” It’s a wild ride. The moment “Cat Person” takes off has, in her recollection, the tone of the first act of a monster movie:

Three days later, I was sitting in a coffee shop with my girlfriend, Callie, trying to write, when she looked up from her computer and said, “There’s something going on with your story.”

“It’s just Twitter,” I said, with the smug dismissiveness of a thirtysomething late millennial who had tweeted a grand total of twelve times in her life.

In a matter of days, Roupenian went from a little-known MFA graduate in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who had only published her stories in small, niche publications (she writes of her agent, who broke the news to her that the New Yorker wanted to publish her story, “at that point, we’d had so few reasons to talk to each other that I hadn’t yet entered her number into my phone”) to an international trending topic. Context was obliterated; her story was taken to be representative of all sorts of things it wasn’t. People inevitably conflated Roupenian’s identity with Margot’s, which made her feel a bit like “an imposter”: “I was thirty-six years old and a few months into my first serious relationship with a woman,” she writes, “and now everyone wanted me to explain why twenty-year-old girls were having bad sex with men.”

Of course no writer wants to toil in obscurity, and you’d be hard pressed to find one who would turn down a seven-figure payday, but the attention paid to “Cat Person” was—not unlike some of the fantastical talismans in Roupenian’s stories—a blessing and a curse. You Know You Want This has garnered a level of attention and expectation it would be difficult for many debut short story collections to weather, and its harshest reviews (the book critic Parul Sehgal, in the New York Times, dismissed it wholesale as “a dull, needy book”) have been greeted with an air of schadenfreude.

“The word I kept reaching for, even though it seems melodramatic, is annihilating,” Roupenian wrote in her essay on going viral. “To be faced with all those people thinking and talking about me was like standing alone, at the center of a stadium, while thousands of people screamed at me at the top of their lungs.” That image is as unsettling as any from her goriest prose—maybe the experience will inform the scare tactics of her future work. Going viral, after all, is its own kind of modern horror story.

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