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23 January 2019

The first book from “Cat Person” author Kristen Roupenian is full of the horror of sex

Roupenian bites unsparingly into the darkest chambers of the human heart.

By Sarah Ditum

In the autumn of 2017, the New Yorker ran an article detailing allegations of rape and sexual assault against the film producer Harvey Weinstein. It also accepted for publication a short story about a bad date. The story was “Cat Person by Kristen Roupenian, and when it appeared in print the #MeToo movement that the Weinstein reporting had helped to spawn was tearing down great men, less great men and everyday assumptions about sexual relations. Women were looking back at their own histories and seeing the bindweed entanglements that had made them say yes – or say nothing – when they would rather have said no.

In this context, “Cat Person hit a nerve. The main character Margot’s thoughts and feelings, her self-awareness and self-deceptions as she moves towards a truly dismal act of intercourse, are rendered so transparently that many readers failed to register “Cat Person as fiction at all. And there were a lot of readers. Unprecedentedly for a short story, “Cat Person went viral, collecting the usual scurf of op-eds and Twitterstorms, along with the clicks.

If You Know You Want This, Roupenian’s first collection, had been more of the same minutely observed relationship drama, that would have been fine. That it’s something disturbingly – and superbly – other is announced by the first story, “Bad Boy”. Told in a strange and effective first-person plural, it’s about an ad-hoc BDSM threesome that develops between a couple (the narrators) and their male friend, who crashes on their sofa after a break-up.

At first, his presence simply feeds a fantasy of exhibitionism and teasing for the couple, who imagine him listening in avid frustration at their bedroom door. Then the game becomes real, with peremptory commands for the friend to obey and capricious punishments when he fails. And then the real becomes too-real:

At first, what happened during those nights was a strange unspoken thing, a bubble clinging precariously to the edge of real life, but then, about a week after it started, we made the first rule for him to follow during the day, and suddenly the world cracked open and overflowed with possibility.

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This is what Roupenian is an expert in: the unreason of sex, the unravelling force of desire in contact with power. What happens by the end of the story is so nasty that the reader will either abandon the collection at once, or rush into the next story hoping for respite. 

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In “Death Wish”, the narrator is confronted with a shocking demand from a hook-up partner: what unsettles him most, and ultimately guides his decision to comply or not, is that she has judged him to be the kind of person who could be asked for such a thing. So too with the whole collection: you will decide on the basis of “Bad Boy” whether you are the sort of reader who will go through with this, or not.

It’s regrettable that readers might be turned off so early, but it’s also a brilliant act of expectation-setting. From then on, the knowledge that you are in a world where terrible things can happen hangs over everything: when you get to “Cat Person, midway through, there is a giddy relief that nothing worse than a miserable shag is in store; and when you get to the true horror stories, there is the grisly satisfaction of having been prepared for the extremely bad.

Roupenian is a horror writer, bone-deep and red-blooded. Her horrors, like the horrors of Shirley Jackson or Janet Frame, are grounded in sharp emotional veracity, but there is no shame or squirming about her generic inheritance. One story, “The Matchbox Sign, opens in the Lovecraft-stamped borough of Red Hook, Brooklyn.

Horror and sex, of course, have gone together at least since Dracula, but in Dracula it’s easy to interpret the violence as a sublimation of lust: poor gay Bram, under the Victorian moral cosh, only able to imagine men getting with men by orgiastically mingling their blood in the veins of hopeless Lucy. In You Know You Want This, the horror is the sex and the sex is the horror. You open the door to your kinks, and hell rushes in. Desire untrammelled is not satiated, but provoked to devastating proportions.

Characters flirt with making rules (hilariously, the couple in “Bad Boy” consider going full polyamorous, with safe words and house meetings, before lurching to their final descent), but what they all want is the skinlessness of doing it for real. The antiseptic liberal orthodoxy about sex is that everything is fine, so long as all parties consent. But the compelling insight of “Cat Person” is that consent is more entangled in power than such orthodoxy can admit, and in this collection, Roupenian bites unsparingly into the darkest chambers of the human heart. 

You Know You Want This
Kristen Roupenian
Jonathan Cape, 240pp, £12.99

This article appears in the 23 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Who’s running Britain?