Is sex interesting? Is that a stupid question? It’s certainly reliably attention-grabbing when it comes up in your first sentence. While good sex, like good fortune, is generally best kept to oneself (it inspires rhapsodising and provokes resentment), bad sex has both comedic and tragic potential, as does good sex described badly – the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award proves it. Most people, including those who claim to gravitate to more serious topics (death, taxes), will pause at even the vaguest innuendo. But the commodification of sex through apps and toys and play parties has sterilised what was once appealingly dirty; just as being constantly advertised to no longer enrages, sex no longer registers as sexy. Porn is free, accessible and precisely taxonomised. A catalogue of potential partners, optimised for location and (alleged) compatibility, exists on our smartphones. In the course of writing this piece I came across a headline that read: ‘How do you sell erotica to millennial women? Make it more like podcasts.’ Sex has become so common that it’s boring, the act itself almost beside the point, which may be a reason young people are reported to be having less of it.
Obviously, sex doesn’t happen in a vacuum (that might be interesting); it’s often a way to discuss gender and power. That point, too, is a little tired, worn out from overuse, but it persists as justification for writing about sex, and as a marketing tool for writing about sex, particularly post #MeToo. Kristen Roupenian’s debut short story collection, You Know You Want This, attempts to jump on this bandwagon and at the same time tip it over. She ends up driving it in a circle. A deliberate mixture of body horror, psychological realism and fantasy, the stories are written in a smug tone that recalls a self-professed neurotic on a first date cheerfully outlining his adolescent traumas and the ensuing ‘issues’. (A couple of the stories are centred on such a guy, to grating effect.) The lack of mystery isn’t terrible, just deflating, and a little suspicious, though you don’t really know why because everything is ostensibly being presented to you up front.
The collection’s title moves to transcend its scripted sauciness through double entendre; the naughty part is that it also refers to the literal book. Roupenian is the author of the short story ‘Cat Person’, published in the New Yorker in December 2017. It quickly became the second-most-read piece on the magazine’s website that year, behind Ronan Farrow’s initial interviews with Harvey Weinstein’s accusers. It follows the text-message courtship between Margot, a 20-year-old student and arthouse cinema employee, and Robert, a dumpy 34-year-old to whom she sells Red Vines and who is ‘cute enough that she could have drummed up an imaginary crush on him if he’d sat across from her during a dull class’. The climax, and most discussed aspect, of the story is the bad sex they have after their long-awaited first and only date, which consists of a Holocaust movie followed by drinks. Seeing Robert clumsily undress drains Margot of any longing she’d felt when she imagined ‘how excited he would be [to sleep with her], how hungry and eager to impress her’, and how young and beautiful she must seem to him, but she has sex with him anyway, thinking that
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.
Painful observations accumulate. To get through it, Margot alternately imagines how hot Robert must think she is, and how her future perfect boyfriend will laugh with her about this. The next day she ignores Robert’s text messages; eventually her roommate steals her phone and types: ‘Hi im not interested in you stop textng me.’ He’s sweetly understanding at first, and Margot misses him, ‘not the real Robert but the Robert she’d imagined on the other end of all those text messages’. A month later, he sees her in a bar and sends her a nice text. When she doesn’t reply, his messages get more aggressive; he has the last word, which is ‘Whore’.
Though the connection between the act of unwanted but consensual sex in ‘Cat Person’ and the #MeToo movement was tenuous, many women said they found the detailed description of the interaction uncomfortably familiar, and the combination of relevance and relatability became the stuff of tedious internet legend. The story’s frenzied popularity soon led to a seven-figure book deal for Roupenian, and a guarantee her collection would get widespread coverage when it arrived. You Know You Want This is now being adapted for a series on HBO. My attitude to it reminds me of the way I feel whenever I consider downloading Tinder: I certainly wouldn’t be here if so many other people weren’t already.
Reading ‘Cat Person’ alongside the other stories in You Know You Want This makes it difficult to see it the way many readers did initially, as a kind of feminist parable about the pressure to please; this is usually something women feel, but in the collection, it’s often the hapless, infantilised, more or less well-intentioned men you feel sorry for, or at least identify as human, even as the genre tips to fantasy or horror. In ‘The Boy in the Pool’, a woman hires a washed-up Z-list actor to appear at her friend’s bachelorette party; he had become the object of the friend’s youthful fantasies when he played ‘a boy who will kiss your feet and be grateful for it, a boy who suffers, a boy who will suffer for you’ in a straight-to-video vampire movie. He doesn’t want to re-enact the embarrassing erotic toe-sucking scene of his adolescence in front of a live audience decades later, but after being sternly reminded by the bachelorette wrangler that he’s being paid good money to be there, he complies, though in an ‘oily and self-mocking’ way that deliberately tarnishes the experience and infuses it with a sense of pressure and unease. In stories where the balance of power is less stable, it’s because men’s hopes, fears, rationalisations, hang-ups and backgrounds are given pages and pages to complicate things; when Roupenian writes from a man’s perspective she makes him over-conversational, as if he’s desperate to make a connection. Standing over a mysterious naked woman who has respectfully but firmly asked him to beat her up before sex, the narrator of ‘Death Wish’ reflects on ‘that combination of responsibility and powerlessness – truly, standing over her, I saw with absolute clarity how I had no one else to blame, how I was the one who’d let my life spin completely out of control.’ Though he wonders extensively about the mysterious woman’s life, ‘how she ended up like that’, we never learn anything about her: women’s motivation in these stories boils down to narcissism (or its cousin, revenge), or is omitted. The sex scene in ‘Cat Person’ ends: ‘At last, after a frantic rabbity burst, he shuddered, came, and collapsed on her like a tree falling, and, crushed beneath him, she thought, brightly, This is the worst life decision I have ever made! And she marvelled at herself for a while, at the mystery of this person who’d just done this bizarre, inexplicable thing.’ Elsewhere, an otherwise inscrutable girlfriend is seen ‘rapt before a mirror, marvelling at the sight of her own blood’. This is flagged as an ‘omen’.
If Roupenian sees our expectations as informed by what is now common knowledge about feminism as well as by traditional gender norms, then what she’s doing is subverting them; the women in her stories are handed power only to abuse it so often that you could almost see the feminist literary event of 2017 as a covert men’s rights operation. But what unites the collection is less her gender politics than her interest in the way fantasies become distorted, disappointing, even dangerous when they approach reality. Literally poised to cut out her lover’s heart, the unnamed narrator of ‘Scarred’ sums up Roupenian’s approach to fiction writing: ‘You can’t have everything your heart desires, because what would be the moral in that?’
That story can be read as a fairytale translation of ‘Cat Person’: where Margot projects thoughts and feelings onto Robert, the narrator of ‘Scarred’ finds a book of spells in the library and conjures a naked man, ‘Scottish, maybe, or Irish’, whose blood she ruthlessly harvests for future spells, even as she claims she’s falling in love with him. She gains wealth, strength, intelligence and power (that one requires his tears) while her dream guy wastes away, trapped in her basement and completely beholden to her; when she performs the spell that will make her beautiful, she notes that ‘it came as a surprise, how much I enjoyed the look he gave me then – desired it, desired him,’ echoing Margot’s musing that her favourite thing about sex might be seeing a guy look ‘stunned and stupid with pleasure, like a milk-drunk baby’. When the narrator of ‘Scarred’ has to kill the man she conjured up for a spell that requires his heart, she laughs: having love on top of all this would be too good to be true. Like Margot, she’ll find another boyfriend.
The best men and women can hope for, it seems, is the uneasy equilibrium in ‘Biter’, one of the most successful stories in the book. Here, Roupenian uses her fixation on twists and twistedness to reflect the power dynamic between men and women as working like a finger trap rather than a game someone eventually wins. Ellie, a lifelong biter with ‘no lover, no ambition, no close friends’ (no reason), must repress her fantasies of gnawing on colleagues because ‘the difference between children and adults is that adults understand the consequences of their actions.’ But when a particularly succulent new hire walks in, she can’t stop thinking about ‘what it would be like to lock her jaws onto the soft part of Corey Allen’s neck’. She begins to make lists, rationalising that ‘it is wrong’ to bite unsuspecting co-workers, and what’s more she could be fired or arrested; she also invents a game, Opportunity, that allows her to monitor Corey’s position in the office and give herself a point every time she could bite him but doesn’t. Still, she anguishes. ‘The truth was,’ she reasons, ‘that if a woman bit a man in an office environment there would be a strong assumption that the man had done something to deserve it.’ She could say he’d touched her inappropriately. (A similar sort of rationalisation occurs to the narrator of ‘Scarred’ when she considers calling the police to deal with the naked man who’s appeared in her apartment: that she summoned him there is a small detail no one would ever think to ask her about.) Ellie’s struggle, though random, is believable, and soon the universe opens a door: when Corey Allen forcibly gropes her at the company holiday party, she takes her chance, and a chunk out of his face. She’s unperturbed by what another female co-worker calls his ‘assault’, and goes unpunished by HR for her response. In fact, her future looks brighter: she starts switching jobs every year, targeting the ‘one in every office: the man everyone whispered about. All she had to do was listen, and wait, and give him an Opportunity, and, soon enough, he would find her.’
The more speculative stories show most clearly how Roupenian uses sex and gruesomeness to deflect attention from her jazz-hand conclusions. In ‘The Mirror, the Bucket and the Old Thigh Bone’, the weirdest story in the collection, a princess is offered every eligible bachelor in the kingdom, from dukes to artists, and turns them all down. (No reason.) For five years she remains single, to the frustration of her parents and the royal adviser, until one day they decide they’ve had enough and demand she pick a partner. ‘Tired of this procession, and troubled by her own inability to choose,’ she agrees. But at the end of the procession she still can’t give an answer, and sheepishly requests, to the fury of the king and queen, one more day. That evening, the princess answers a knock at her door to find a cloaked man she’s never seen before. Though his hair is covered, his face is ‘lovely and captivating and warm’. They have a beautiful night together – ‘the only night I have ever been happy’. She’s relieved: her choice will now be easy. But when she informs the king, queen and royal adviser – who are standing over her when she wakes – that she’s decided, they shake their heads. The lover is revealed to be not a lover at all, but a contraption made of ‘a cracked mirror, a dented bucket, and an old thigh bone’. The princess is confused. The royal adviser spells things out, because this metaphor achieves the rare feat of being both extremely heavy-handed and impossible to understand without explanation:
When you looked in your lover’s face, you were looking at your own face reflected in this cracked mirror. When you heard his voice, you heard only your own voice echoing back to you from this dented bucket. And when you embraced him, you felt your own hands caress your back, though you held nothing but this old thigh bone. You are selfish and arrogant and spoiled. You are capable of loving no one but yourself. None of your suitors will ever satisfy you, so put an end to this foolishness, and marry.
This defies the laws of physics and humbles the princess, who until now has seemed to have a perfectly fine personality (she likes reading!). She settles and picks a human suitor who tries very hard to make her happy despite her pining for her trash boyfriend; hating to see his loved one suffer, he fashions her a new, identical trash boyfriend with whom she lives happily ever after – until one day, years later, her real husband tries to coax her out of her cave and, now transformed into a ‘ghastly, skeletal thing, with matted hair and corpse-white skin and huge, unseeing eyes that had long ago grown used to the dark’, she murders him. The resolution pairs well with the story of the woman ominously transfixed by her own blood: she enthusiastically decides she wants to quit graduate school and move across the country with the boyfriend who financially and emotionally supports her, only to develop a parasite/psychosis that she eventually passes on to him. (Don’t ask why.)
A narrative twist changes the direction of a story and leads it somewhere new. Roupenian’s desire to have her moral and reject it too could be said to put a twist on the twist: she has somehow managed to make these stories both unpredictable and unsurprising. Her reasons for doing this are similarly disorienting but easy to parse. In an essay entitled ‘What It Felt Like When “Cat Person” Went Viral’, published on the New Yorker website, Roupenian said she’d ‘wanted people to be able to see themselves in the story, to identify with it in such a way that its narrative scaffolding would disappear’. The rest of the collection is governed by this way of thinking: frequent direct addresses to the reader (‘you must imagine your own naked man’) are both patronising and baffling; several endings are both ambiguous – a woman may be dead, or in shock after being raped; a man may die after having a beer glass thrown at him, or just have to go to hospital – and definitely bad. You could see this as empowering the reader; you could also see it as a convenient excuse for a writer hoping to hide her shaky narrative scaffolding. The most cynical interpretation is that it’s a marketing strategy – optimisation – like the cheeky sloganeering of a dating app that wants to make its millions of users feel like someone’s personal soulmate. I’m told the only thing anyone really cares about on Tinder is the pictures. You Know You Want This would make a good prop: designed for an audience easily distracted by shiny things, the front cover features the individual words in large, metallic lettering. The fatalism inside is similarly both obvious and refractive, sending the reader on a hunt for motivation or meaning only to have her end up right where she started: a story about selfish people messing with other people, for selfish reasons, or no reason at all.