You’ll have come across Kristen Roupenian online: her short story “Cat Person”, a no-nonsense tale of a younger girl dating an insecure older man, was published in The New Yorker in 2017 and subsequently went viral. But few then would have guessed what her debut collection would be like. You Know You Want This is full of surprises.
The first is that Roupenian intended it to be a book of horror stories, “Cat Person” included. Sure enough, the tale that seemed like a post-MeToo comment on relationship power dynamics takes on a new dimension when sandwiched between twisted fantasy stories where princesses fall in love with mirrors and buckets, a bookish woman summons her heart’s desire with a spell then locks him in a basement, and an increasingly psychotic couple conspire to dominate the life of one of their friends with sickening consequences.
The collection is bold, bizarre and defiant, like a lot of its central characters. Most of its tales borrow from a long horror tradition of centring on adolescent girls, but instead of requiring exorcism or containment, here they acquire a violent, magical autonomy. The little girl distressed by her parents’ divorce might have been a passive vessel for demonic power from another author’s pen. In Roupenian’s telling, she uses her birthday wish to spread malicious chaos, resulting in a climax which is equal parts Brothers Grimm and The Human Centipede. The woman who just wants to bite people might have been given the Freudian treatment elsewhere, but Roupenian turns her into a cannibalistic weapon against the patriarchy. If all of this sounds completely insane, it is – but wonderfully, humorously so.
If you’re looking for more “Cat Person”-esque commentary on relationships, You Know You Want This has its moments. “The Good Guy” is one of the collection’s longer stories and it gives the bitter, friend-zoned, self-identifying “nice guy” Ted a much more nuanced treatment than “Cat Person”’s Robert. Bar the fact that Ted has bizarre fantasies of women stabbing themselves to death with his penis, this is the most conventional romantic tale of You Know You Want This, one that has stylistic echoes of Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends. It interrogates what it means to have superhero-style “good guys” in the world, how even in comic books these men depend on women being preyed on by other men in order to cement their heroic status – and how everyone becomes a victim when they buy into such fantasies. Like Netflix’s You, it does a good job of making you secretly root for an obsessive, borderline dangerous loser of a guy you’d never want to admit you were rooting for.
The white male saviour complex is picked up again in “The Night Runner”, where protagonist Aaron protests “I came here to help you” as he contemplates using corporal punishment on the unruly, rebellious young girls he’s been sent to teach as part of a charitable mission in Kenya. The commentary is sometimes unsubtle – just as it is in “The Good Guy” when Ted openly ruminates on the “nice guy” trope – but it’s also unfailingly funny and super articulate. Men who take themselves too seriously do so with blackly hilarious consequences, often involving disfigurement, humiliation and death.
Perhaps the most straightforwardly disturbing tale is “Bad Boy”, the bold opener of Roupenian’s collection, which reads like the darkest answer to the question asked when Fifty Shades of Grey first hit the shelves: What would this distorted, barely consensual version of sadomasochism actually become if it played out in real life? “Bad Boy” has flavours of Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden and it exploits its shock factor in a similar way, which is to say with a knowing smirk.
Elsewhere, shorter inclusions like “The Boy in The Pool” and “Look at Your Game, Girl” come across more like shrugged asides, welcome breathers that break up what might otherwise have been quite a heavy collection. Meanwhile “The Matchbox” and “Death Wish” deal most obviously with feminist issues, but don’t say huge amounts beyond presenting the problems in vividly imagined, visceral detail. Perhaps that is enough.
There is, in other words, a huge amount of variety in You Know You Want This. Magical realism rubs up against full fantasy, narrative formats chop and change, the first and third person are used with equal and impressive skill. “Scarred” was so brutal that at times it genuinely made me feel sick; “Biter” and “The Mirror, The Bucket and The Old Thigh Bone” were both so unexpectedly funny that they made me laugh out loud more than once. This is a highly accomplished collection. It does also feel like there’s something in there for everyone – but it will inevitably end up being something you never knew you actually wanted.
‘You Know You Want This’ by Kristen Roupenian is published by Jonathan Cape
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