Several hundred debut short story collections are published each year, and of those, many are the result of years spent in a fiction MFA program, which typically culminates in the production of a thesis collecting a student’s strongest work. Recent MFA graduate Kristen Roupenian’s “You Know You Want This” seems like one of them.
Unlike most collections, this book has had the benefit — or misfortune, depending on your point of view — of having come into being because one of its stories, “Cat Person,” went viral as no New Yorker short story has since that magazine’s publication of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” in 1948. That story, too, confused readers who mistook it for reportage rather than fiction, and arrived with perfect timing to galvanize conversations about desires that its readers had been accustomed to thinking of as private.
Some of “Cat Person’s” readers responded thoughtfully. Many women were grateful to have a name for the experience of realizing you don’t want to have sex with someone, then having sex with him anyway, which one of the characters in the story experiences vividly. Many, many other readers responded with latently or overtly sexist idiocy. Roupenian has just published a follow-up piece in the New Yorker explaining how bad this felt. She has not (yet) been asked to write about how it felt to sell this collection and a follow-up for more than $1 million, or how it feels that HBO is making a TV show out of the collection. Presumably that feels okay, though of course it might also feel bad.
Critics should avoid writing about the circumstances of a book’s publication and focus on the work itself, but for a couple of reasons it’s hard to do that with “You Know You Want This.” Pretending that it’s a collection like any other is impossible; I wouldn’t be writing this review if everything in the previous paragraphs weren’t true, and you wouldn’t be reading it; most debut short story collections aren’t reviewed in non-trade publications, or are jammed three to a review in brief, brusquely descriptive paragraphs. Publishing these uneven collections serves a purpose: The writers get to add a line to their résumés, which helps them secure jobs teaching the next crop of MFA students how to write short stories. Advances are often in the mid-three figures.
The other reason it seems important to describe this book’s path to publication is that it explains why, instead of sighing and moving on and focusing on its strengths, I felt absolutely enraged by its weaknesses. It does nobody any good, least of all the author, to pretend that the other stories in this collection are anywhere near as noteworthy or polished as “Cat Person.” They are student work, and they trumpet their influences baldly. There are nods — more like full body bows — to Angela Carter, as in a story about a fairy-tale princess who rejects all her suitors and takes to her bed with a magical lover whom everyone else perceives as a mirror, a bucket and an old thigh bone. Like many of these stories, “The Mirror, the Bucket, and the Old Thigh Bone” takes place in that liminal zone between realism and fantasy beloved by realist writers who haven’t quite figured out how to make their work believable yet: Everything is normal except this one thing which is either magical or a metaphor.
Worst of all is when the metaphor turns out to be magical, as in “The Matchbox Sign.” A couple is torn apart by a woman’s delusions of having a parasite under her skin, which in the final scene leaps out of a wound and “slaps wetly on the bed, a six-inch-long tube of knobbed white flesh, lined with a thousand shivering legs that wave like seaweed in the unfamiliar air.” It then — sorry! — dives into her lover’s face and swims “toward his heart.” The end.
Roupenian is great with those grisly, gory details; she writes them with wit and humor and glee. It’s as if they provide a needed release from the strictures of reality, of the tedious work of making meaning. You absolutely can shock readers into forgetting that they just spent several minutes puzzling over the emotional lives of a youngish couple who are just trying to figure out, despite their respective pathologies, how to live together in a new city and share their finances fairly. Turns out, what was really going on was that the woman was harboring a hideous sci-fi parasitic worm! Horror is great, ambiguity is fine, but they both need to be deployed in the service of something besides themselves.
There are other stories here that almost rise to the level of “Cat Person,” like “The Good Guy,” which does the same close-third-person, flickering-shifts-between-arousal-and-revulsion thing, but from a male perspective. But my favorite is the final story in the collection, “Biter,” which is about a girl who discovers a love of biting in preschool. Later, as an adult, she must find a socially acceptable way to get away with assuaging her craving for flesh; when she accidentally stumbles on a predatory man, she discovers that she can bite with impunity. It made me say “ew” out loud while I was reading it, but I didn’t feel like that “ew” moment was used (as with the white worm) for no reason. This story’s ending, which I won’t spoil, lands. Its moral seems to be: Take advantage of the flaws in the system, as long as they’re not going anywhere. Good for the biter, I guess.
Emily Gould is the author of “And The Heart Says Whatever,” “Friendship” and the forthcoming “Perfect Tunes.”
By Kristen Roupenian
Gallery/Scout Press. 240 pp. $24.99.