You Know You Want This: “Cat Person” and Other Stories
by Kristen Roupenian
Scout, 225 pp., $24.99
Courtesy of The New York Review of Books
It has happened only twice in nearly seventy years: a short story appears in The New Yorker and goes viral, setting off an avalanche of responses. Some readers, fooled by its up-to-date style, misinterpret it as a piece of reportage. Others attack the author as a sadist or a misanthrope. And many more are simply confused about what it means. Is it an allegory for the suffering that women face under patriarchy? A screed that indicts contemporary society more generally? Or just a tale taken from everyday life in which something goes horribly wrong?
The first of those viral stories, from 1948, was Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” a parable about a woman in an ordinary village who gets matter-of-factly stoned by her neighbors in an annual ritual that no one understands but in which everyone participates. It quickly became a classic work of twentieth-century short fiction, usually thought of—in settings ranging from cold war America to apartheid South Africa—as a commentary on the barbarism and brutality inherent even in so-called civilized society. The second, published in December 2017 by the then unknown writer Kristen Roupenian, was “Cat Person,” a chronicle of a misbegotten romance between Margot, a college student, and Robert, an older patron of the movie theater where she works. The pair meet at the concession stand, flirt extensively via text message, and go on a single date, during which they have a sexual encounter so miserable that Margot decides never to see Robert again. It’s a perfectly tuned satire of modern-day hookup culture, deftly written, often hilarious, and genuinely shocking.
On the surface, these stories don’t seem to have much in common, aside from the demographic of their writers—both American women in their thirties, at the start of their careers—and the reactions, often vicious, that they generated. (Some of the most unfortunate responses to Roupenian’s story were screenshotted and immortalized on Twitter by someone using the handle @MenCatPerson, or “Men React to Cat Person.”) Looked at more broadly, however, their themes and preoccupations both fit neatly, if unconventionally, within a genre that might be called “domestic horror.” In neither story does anything supernatural take place, nor is there graphic violence. “The Lottery” unfolds with an exquisitely calibrated, slow-burning foreboding that begins with the deceptively innocent first line (“The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day…”) and builds through the devastating conclusion. Its horror takes place at home, in a quaint village, in the full light of day. Pressed repeatedly to explain what the story meant, Jackson eventually said that by setting the brutal ritual in present-day America, she hoped to shock readers “with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.”
Though “Cat Person” never detours from reality the way “The Lottery” does, it uses a series of apparently innocuous quotidian details to build a sense of inchoate menace. Margot wonders more than once, not unreasonably, whether she’ll be murdered by the man whose car and house she trustingly, drunkenly enters. She perceives Robert’s body as disgusting, almost monstrous. And the story focuses on the experience of a vulnerable woman—a woman who comes to realize, over the course of the story, her own powerlessness. One female reader commented that “watching Margot blithely convincing herself that Robert is a good guy feels like watching a horror movie. ‘Don’t go through that door!’ you want to shout. ‘Call the cops!’” Many others remarked on the uncanniness of seeing their own reality dramatized on the page, while male readers expressed incredulity that women could perceive them the way Margot perceives Robert—boorish, dull, sexually inept. Like Jackson so many years earlier, Roupenian succeeded in giving her readers an unflattering glimpse of their own faces in the mirror—and many were horrified by what they saw.
I didn’t recognize “Cat Person” as a horror story in disguise until I reread it in Roupenian’s wildly discomfiting new collection, You Know You Want This: “Cat Person” and Other Stories. The book places her among a growing cohort of women writers—others include Carmen Maria Machado, whose Her Body and Other Partieswas one of the most celebrated debuts of recent years, and Kelly Link, the more established author of multiple collections, including Magic for Beginners and Get in Trouble—who borrow the conventions of horror and the fairy tale to depict the deception and cruelty of modern relationships. In addition to Jackson and the British writer Angela Carter (both of whom Machado and Link cite as influences), another foremother of this group might be Rachel Ingalls, an American writer living in Britain since the 1960s, whose novellas and stories often give domestic scenarios an absurdist twist. Perhaps to take advantage of the current trend, a number of Ingalls’s works have recently been reissued, including the 1982 novella Mrs. Caliban, in which a lonely woman in a foundering marriage falls in love with a humanoid amphibian.
These writers have tended to emphasize the ways in which women are treated cruelly by men (and sometimes other women). “The Husband Stitch,” the tour-de-force opening story in Machado’s collection, transforms the old legend about a woman who wears a mysterious green ribbon around her neck into a parable of modern marriage; the title refers to the extra suture sometimes given to a woman who experienced tearing during childbirth, to tighten her vaginal opening for the pleasure of a male sexual partner. One of the epigraphs to Machado’s book is a quote from the poet Elisabeth Hewer: “god should have made girls lethal/when he made monsters of men.” Ingalls, too, tends to depict women as the weaker sex, with love as the arena in which their unequal jousts take place. In many of her stories, there’s a sickening moment when the main character discovers that everything is stacked against her—often when her male partner either colludes in others’ deceptions of her or otherwise reveals himself to be untrustworthy.
Roupenian’s world, by contrast, is one of equal-opportunity depredation. A girl uses a magical birthday candle to avenge her mother on her father’s new girlfriend. A man discovers that his Tinder match has a bizarre, violent kink, with which he reluctantly but willingly complies. An ungendered narrator who chances upon a spell book with which one can summon one’s heart’s desire discovers that the first step is to mutilate the love object. On an essential level, these stories are all about power: who has it, how they use it, and what happens when it gets reversed. In the midst of the Me Too movement—a cultural moment that exposed the hidden power structures that benefit men, a moment to which “Cat Person” felt exquisitely attuned—there’s something almost transgressive about literary fiction in which the women are equally villainous.
In a horror movie referenced in one of Roupenian’s stories, a pair of vampires, a man and a woman, carve a motto into their victim’s skin: “Love breeds monsters.” It’s the first principle of You Know You Want This, in which, again and again, love—or its evil siblings, lust and jealousy—disfigures and corrupts those who are unlucky enough to fall under its spell. In “Bad Boy,” the opening tale, a couple (their genders again unspecified) are titillated by the presence of a friend sleeping on their couch. Their account of perversities starts innocently enough—leaving the door open so that the friend can overhear them having sex—and turns quickly into a relationship of dominance and punishment, inside the bedroom and out. “Suddenly the world cracked open and overflowed with possibility,” the narrators remark of their newfound power. Once they’ve let the genie out of the bottle, they can’t put it back in. I won’t spoil the story’s ending, but it’s a trope straight out of Gothic fiction. This is Roupenian’s signature move: she takes things a step or two further than we expect her to, removing them from the bounds of realism into something wilder and darker.
Even before Carter reengineered the fairy tale in The Bloody Chamber (1979), it was long recognized as a bastion of patriarchy in which the woman’s role is to be beautiful and comatose, waiting patiently for her hero to arrive, even if it takes him a hundred years. In “The Mirror, the Bucket, and the Old Thigh Bone,” Roupenian begins with a setup borrowed from the Brothers Grimm—a picky princess, not unlike Margot in “Cat Person,” who rejects all her suitors—and turns it into a strange, sad fable of self-love and obsession. The princess opens the door one night to find an apparition sheathed in a black cloak, with a captivating face and a melodious voice. When it returns her smile, the princess feels “as though all of her blood had been drained from her body and replaced with a mixture of soap bubbles and light and air.” She spends a happy night canoodling with her guest. But in the morning, when she announces that she has found the man she loves, her father’s adviser reveals that he played a trick on her. The apparition was nothing but a cracked mirror that reflected her own face, a dented tin bucket to echo her voice, and an old thigh bone. “You are capable of loving no one but yourself,” the adviser tells her.
The princess is duly chastised. She selects a suitor from the men who have been waiting for her and marries him. But the story doesn’t end there. Years later—by now they are king and queen—her husband asks how he can relieve her unrelenting unhappiness. (It’s one of the few moments in this collection in which someone demonstrates real love.) Touched by his concern, she confesses the strange story of the apparition at her door. “The night I spent with it in my bed was the only night I have ever been happy,” she says. “And even knowing what it is, I ache for it, I yearn for it, I love it still.” Wanting only to satisfy her, the king assembles the weird contraption, which is even more grotesque than it was at first: the mirror is more cracked, the bucket moldy, and the thigh bone rank and decayed, with holes where dogs have gnawed it. The queen is beside herself with bliss, but the king is disgusted, especially after she brings it into their bed. He leaves her there with it—“naked among the bedclothes, nuzzling the mirror, murmuring into the bucket, and cradling the old thigh bone in her arms”—for a decade. It’s a haunting story of deranged obsession, of the things we’re willing to do for a beloved, of the way tenderness can flip to cruelty, and of the narcissism inherent in all forms of love.
“So much of dating involves this interplay of empathy and narcissism: you weave an entire narrative out of a tiny amount of information, and then, having created a compelling story about someone, you fall in love with what you’ve created,” Roupenian said in an interview with Deborah Treisman, the fiction editor of The New Yorker, after the publication of “Cat Person,” another story about desiring an illusion rather than an actual person. At the start, like so many other contemporary couples, Margot and Robert conduct a complicated dance of courtship via text, a dialogue from which they both spin fantasy versions of each other that have little to do with their real-life rapport. (The readers who appear to have understood the story as a personal confession rather than a work of fiction may have been responding to Roupenian’s skill at reproducing the texture of the virtual relationship, including Margot’s careful calibrations of how long each of them will wait to text back and the effect of delays on the tenor of their interaction.) Over the course of the story, as the details Margot absorbs about the actual Robert fail to correspond with the fantasy she’s built around him, she feels increasingly unsure about her own perceptions. They’ve shared an extended joke about their cats, for instance, but when she visits his house, she sees no evidence of pets.
At first, Margot feels as if she has the upper hand: young and attractive, she is reasonably certain of Robert’s interest in her. As their bad date progresses—he takes her to a Holocaust movie that she doesn’t enjoy, after which she gets turned away at the door of a bar for being underage—she worries that he’s not as interested in her as she thought he was. But as they talk, she becomes aware of his insecurities, and her own confidence builds: “Once she knew how to hurt him she also knew how he could be soothed.” She knows, too, that she can make him desire her. Though she expects him to be clumsy in bed, imagining his excitement is enough to make her feel “a twinge of desire pluck at her belly, as distinct and painful as the snap of an elastic band against her skin.”
Much has been made of the moment when Margot realizes she doesn’t want to have sex with Robert and decides to go through with it anyway. Roupenian talks us through her thought process:
The thought of what it would take to stop what she had set in motion was overwhelming; it would require an amount of tact and gentleness that she felt was impossible to summon. It wasn’t that she was scared he would try to force her to do something against her will 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.
Saying “yes” is easier than saying “no”—a moral of this story that, with the Me Too movement well underway, seems to have cut uncomfortably close for many of its readers. But the power difference here goes further than that. Even in the thick of a sexual encounter that gives her no physical or emotional pleasure, Margot’s fundamental concern is the way she appears to Robert; she feels obliged to please a man she doesn’t even like. Up till now, she has been able to enjoy her sexual power over him. But when she realizes she doesn’t want to continue but nonetheless cannot ask him to stop, she discovers that the power she thought she had isn’t real. As long as she remains conditioned to believe that her role is to appeal to men, they will always be in control. At this moment, forced to confront her powerlessness, Margot loses whatever interest she may have had in Robert. Her only concerns are enduring the rest of the encounter and removing herself from his life.
This view of women as passive and men as actors is integral to “Cat Person”; earlier in the story, when Margot seeks to confirm that she’s still in Robert’s good graces, she “present[s] herself…for kissing” rather than kissing him herself. Indeed, the only thing Margot enjoys about their sexual encounter is witnessing Robert’s desire for her: when she takes off her bra, his face is “stunned and stupid with pleasure, like a milk-drunk baby, and she thought that maybe this was what she loved most about sex—a guy revealed like that.” Both of them have spun so many layers of dissimulation and fabrication that it’s only in extremis that the self is evident. But Margot will never reveal herself to Robert, who persists in his fantasies about her. That’s the one power she retains, the power to conceal her true self.
“I wrote it in a feverish burst,” Roupenian has said of “Cat Person.” (Jackson is said to have written “The Lottery” in a single morning.) Not every story in You Know You Want This is equally inspired, but even the ones that don’t quite land have a line or image worth savoring. The schlubby male protagonist of “The Good Guy” (another version of Robert in “Cat Person”), recalling a high school girlfriend with whom he had an emotionally abusive relationship, reflects that she might have been “a very low-level clairvoyant, her psychic powers limited to a tiny and useless handful of realms”—that is, intuiting his thoughts about another girl. “Biter” begins from a wonderful premise: What happens when the preschool biter grows up? Ellie, as a little girl, feels no shame about her love of biting, which makes her “no longer just a little girl but a wild creature pacing the halls…sowing chaos and destruction.” By adulthood, she has learned to limit her predilection to fantasies, but her self-control is tested when a hot new guy comes to work as a temp in her office. The story ends with a uniquely Me Too twist—the guy turns out to be a sexual predator, and she’s seen as a hero for fighting him off. On a deeper level, the story is an uncomfortable reminder that humans are animals; maybe we weren’t meant to be domesticated. (Margot, fickle and proud, might be the real “cat person” of that story.)
Roupenian’s language is often wonderfully, if grotesquely, physical. To the couple in “Bad Boy,” the man they prey on is “like some slippery thing we had caught in our fists, and the harder we squeezed the more of it bubbled up through our fingers.” In “Look at Your Game, Girl,” a preteen girl is menaced by a drifter to whom she finds herself inexplicably attracted. Instead of kissing her, he puts his thumb into her mouth; later she remembers “how bony and filthy it had been, and how his nail had scratched at the spongy bit of skin where her throat met the roof of her mouth.” Disgust, here, is an emotional driver as powerful as love or fear.
The two emotions coexist again in “The Matchbox Sign,” another of the collection’s strongest stories. The title refers to the phenomenon of patients who suffer from psychosomatic skin problems, such as hives or rashes, bringing evidence of what they believe to be parasites to a doctor. (Matchboxes were once a common receptacle for such items.) In the story, Laura and David are an apparently happy couple until, shortly after their move to San Francisco, she begins suffering from bites that torment her with itching. Finally David insists that she visit a doctor, who seems to take her complaints seriously, until she produces a baggie containing what she believes to be eggs dug out of her skin. As the doctor explains to David afterward, the patient’s very act of presenting purported evidence of a parasite is sufficient to convince a doctor that it’s all in her head. All such evidence is “too small to see,” the doctor says, “except by a person whose mind is turning on her body, tearing it up and scavenging it for proof of something that’s not there.” David at first concurs with the diagnosis, but when Laura fails to improve under psychiatric medication, he resolves to continue trying to find the answer.
The depiction of Laura’s anguish—her conviction that something is living beneath her skin, the refusal of repeated doctors to believe her, her gradual deterioration—is so realistic that it is hard to read. Which of them is more credible: neurotic Laura, justifiably driven mad by her suffering, or rational David, devastated by what has become of the woman he loves? The reader isn’t sure whom to side with until nearly the last moment of the story. As Laura sleeps, David notices something moving beneath her skin and pulls it out, “damp and twitching…this impossible, this unbelievable thing…a six-inch-long tube of knobbed white flesh, lined with a thousand shivering legs that wave like seaweed in the unfamiliar air.” But again, the story doesn’t end there. David will be punished for his lack of faith, a punishment that uniquely suits his crime. If the misdeeds here don’t discriminate by gender, neither does the suffering.
This book isn’t bedtime reading. I found one of the stories so upsetting that I couldn’t bring myself to revisit it. Though I read much of the collection with admiration, I put it down wondering, in the end, where Roupenian’s madly misanthropic vision leads. One of the primary contributions of the Me Too movement has been to prod us into new awareness of the casual misogyny underlying much of the literary canon. Male authors, Virginia Woolf wrote nearly a century ago, can’t be trusted to tell women’s stories; we must speak up for ourselves. The nerve that “Cat Person” hit was a woman telling a female truth, one of which men appeared to be painfully unaware. But the relentless savagery of Roupenian’s vision ultimately detracts from the stories’ impact as a whole. It’s too easy to read them and respond, “I wouldn’t do that,” without recognizing the ways in which we might.
It’s also too easy to respond with simple despair at the sheer darkness with which Roupenian depicts the human condition. Of course, Shirley Jackson’s readers had the same complaint. “I read [‘The Lottery’] while soaking in the tub…and was tempted to put my head underwater and end it all,” one wrote to her. It may well be a long time before another new story has the same power to show us who we really are.
Originally published under the heading “Everyday Sadism” in the April 4 issue of The New York Review of Books
Ruth Franklin is a book critic and former editor at The New Republic. Her first biography, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life (Liveright/W.W. Norton, 2016) won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography and was named a New York Times Notable Book of 2016, a Time magazine top nonfiction book of 2016, and a “best book of 2016” by The Boston Globe, the San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, and others. In The Washington Post, Elaine Showalter called it “a sympathetic and masterful biography that both uncovers Jackson’s secret and haunting life and repositions her as a major artist.”
Franklin’s work appears in many publications, including The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books, and Harper’s. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in biography, a Cullman Fellowship at the New York Public Library, a Leon Levy Fellowship in biography, and the Roger Shattuck Prize for Criticism. Her first book, A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction (Oxford University Press, 2011), was a finalist for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.