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You Know You Want This: A review of Kristen Roupenian's dark short stories

If Cat Person grabbed me by the throat with its eerily relatable themes of sexual coercion, gender power imbalances, and courtship mind games, The Good Guy threw me to the floor and stomped on my neck.

You Know You Want This: A review of Kristen Roupenian's dark short stories

Cat Person, Kristen Roupenian’s deliciously cringeworthy short story about modern dating, blistered across our Twitter feeds in December of 2017. By the end of the year, it had set insane records, gaining over 4.5 million hits and becoming the New Yorker’s most read piece of fiction in history.

There is something to be said for the timing of Cat Person’s publishing. The story about a young college girl’s fling with a possibly-pathetic, possibly-predatory older man came out when #MeToo was climbing to a fever pitch. It felt like it seamlessly elevated the conversations we were already having online, giving women a reference point they didn’t even know they needed. If before they found themselves searching for the best way to explain why “if she was uncomfortable, why didn’t she just leave?” was such a ridiculous question, Cat Person gave them the words.

Before she knew what was happening, author Kristen Roupenian was hit with a book deal. She barely announced it, preferring instead to plug the book release at the end of another short story, The Good Guy, which she uploaded to her Medium in January, 2019. If Cat Person grabbed me by the throat with its eerily relatable themes of sexual coercion, gender power imbalances, and courtship mind games, The Good Guy threw me to the floor and stomped on my neck.

It begins with one of the most horrific sentences I've ever read, a sentence that Roupenian used to introduce Ted, the story's central character (read it here, if you dare). And, instead of being appalled by the horrific image within those lines, I sat back and thought, “Oh, I know a guy like that.”

That, I think, is the magic of Roupenian’s writing. No matter how dark it gets, how strange and terrible the characters she creates, something about the core of every single one of them feels uncannily familiar.

Her short story compilation, You Know You Want This, contains the aforementioned two stories and ten more. The stories range from uncomfortably relatable slice of life pieces to actual horror stories. Some characters are viscerally recognisable, and some are monstrous.

Roupenian has a voice that reveals us at our most disgusting in a way that is most entertaining.

Cat Person and The Good Guy are by far the standout pieces in the book, but there are a few others that will stay with you. In Bad Boy, a story about a dominating couple that begins a sadistic sexual relationship with their meek, sad friend, what makes the characters horrifying is that they are human and still capable of evil things. In The Boy In The Pool, Roupenian captures the way youthful desire lingers on into adulthood, how age can reveal the deepest of our desires as desperate and shallow.

Her capacity to explore and expose the psyche of these characters, unsure, narcissistic women and lonely, loser men, “nice guys” with cruel minds and middle-aged bachelorettes still holding on to high school lust, is breathtaking.

Unfortunately, several of the stories are too obvious about their intent to shock and disturb the reader.

Where Roupenian gets it wrong is when she takes the brutality too far and includes too many fantasy elements. There is nothing satisfying about a story with senseless horror, that has no depth to it.

In Sardines, a little girl who has been bullied a little too hard exacts revenge on the people who have hurt her and her mother, devising a terrible game that transforms them all into something grotesque and screaming. It's disturbing, yes, but not very thought provoking. In Scarred, a woman uses a spell to conjure up the perfect man, and is then is forced to slowly torture him to continue using the magic. Something about it just feels futile.

You Know You Want This isn’t perfect, but few debuts ever are. What this compilation has, what it is bursting with, is potential. I’m excited for what’s to come, and hopefully it will come with less fanfare, allowing Roupenian the freedom to truly find her voice, without worrying about living up to the standards of virality.

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