Maggie Nelson, writing about Jane Bowles in her critical work The Art of Cruelty, claimed Bowles’s talent lay not in her wickedness, but in how she used it to disarm: “It isn’t so much that Bowles is out to tell us that the world is a cruel and cold place, and isn’t it a pity. Like many artists of cruelty, she is no philosopher. She is roaming a world of balloons, armed with a pin.” The problem with several of Roupenian’s stories is that there is nothing beneath their brutality, and the result is often banal and uniform...Roupenian is at her best when she discards shock tactics and levels her gaze at teenage sexuality. In “Look at Your Game, Girl” and “The Boy in the Pool”, naive female desire is so brilliantly and lushly evoked that you can practically see the sun-drenched cinematography.
Roupenian foregrounds the convolutions and contradictions of our interior lives in part through her characters’ relationships to each other. Bizarre role reversals and episodes of boundary-crossing seem symptomatic not only of an outer world gone haywire but of a nuanced, shadowy human condition. Through a creepy turn of filial permeability, Marla’s murderous fantasies about “The Girlfriend” are transmitted to her ten-year old daughter, Tilly. In “The Night Runner” a peace corps volunteer assigned to a school in Kenya refuses to use violence on his wayward female pupils, even as he is encouraged to do so by the principal; this would-be colonizer soon becomes colonized himself. In one of the most unsettling stories, “The Matchbox Sign”, a parasite that may or may not be imagined destroys a previously robust woman and then, on the night of the woman’s marriage to her loyal carer of a boyfriend, seems to spread to him, perhaps underscoring the dangers of becoming too connected.
Unfortunately, You Know You Want This, Roupenian’s debut collection, doesn’t live up to the hype generated by ‘Cat Person’, easily the strongest story here. Like that story, the collection explores obsession, desire and unhealthy relationships... Despite such enticing premises, the stories don’t develop into more than the sum of their parts and the psyches of Roupenian’s protagonists remain inaccessible.
Most of the stories are startlingly realistic which lends the almost inevitable abasement, when it comes, an even more catastrophic feel. Familiar landscapes; a hen party, a child's birthday party, bad dates and the tedious office are rendered with faultless verisimilitude before often descending to nightmarish conclusions. In others like Scarred and The Mirror, the Bucket and the Old Thigh Bone, realism is dispensed with and these horrific fairytales about want and desire leave us with the bleakest view of the human condition... This book calls to mind the suburban nightmares of AM Homes and the ultra violence of Chuck Palahniuk. However, Roupenian's violence is of a more nebulous and ultimately more frightful kind than any overt displays.
Death Wish is a startling and insightful exploration of sexual debasement: “I want you to punch me in the face as hard as you can. After you’ve punched me, when I’ve fallen down, I want you to kick me in the stomach. And then we can have sex.” Showing her range, Roupenian closes the collection with Biter, a darkly comic piece about a woman’s attempts to control her urges that includes a delightful twist in the tale for a sexual predator. You know you want this collection. Of course you do.
...sex doesn’t happen in a vacuum (that might be interesting); it’s often a way to discuss gender and power... 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... 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...
The author is at her best in ‘Cat Person’ mode, writing forensically about dating, relationships and desire, exposing the psychological underpinnings of the violence and rage that puncture the surface. The final ‘Whore’ of Robert’s rapid-fire text messages to Margot in ‘Cat Person’, and Ted’s vicious sexual fantasy in the opening to ‘The Good Guy’, shock, even as Roupenian helps us understand where they come from... Schweblin is adept at creating these surreal images, distilled from our latent desires and preoccupations. In ‘Preserves’, a woman’s ambivalence about having a baby is rendered in her transforming her foetus into ‘something small, the size of an almond,’ which she spits out into a preserving jar to be kept for a more suitable time. There are 20 stories in this collection: some feel a little sketchy; others sear into the mind’s eye.
This is an enjoyable set of stories, often executed with flair. They’re fun. They’re just not what the fans of Cat Person might be expecting... This uneven collection certainly doesn’t live up to the hype. It’s not that zeitgeisty or cutting-edge. It’s apt to prove a momentary publishing sensation rather than an enduring classic... Despite the absurdity of the undeserved hoopla, you still get the sense that she had a good time writing these tales, and I had a good time reading them.
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.
Taken as a whole, You Know You Want This lacks the cohesive voice of recent collections by authors such as Catherine Lacey and Lauren Groff. That said, when Roupenian remains rooted in realism, she gives pause by exposing the sinister side of sexuality, and one looks forward to seeing what she might accomplish with the novel form.
Roupenian's short story Cat Person received an incredible 2.6m hits on The New Yorker's website in 2017, and a book deal inevitably followed. Her collection of stories about good, bad and ugly sex nods to classic horror (yes, really!).
...excruciatingly misjudged... The lurid jolts soon come to feel factitious and needy... It isn’t all soulless and facile. I was won over by The Good Guy, the longest and most thoughtful story... It shows that Roupenian is generally more engaging when she sticks to realism... It’s just a shame Roupenian hasn’t taken — or been given — time to develop her voice. These stories feel rushed and dishonest at a time when we need fiction that scrutinises power rather than fetishises it. They are all spice and no flavour.
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.
The stories are stylistically consistent, but thematically so distinct that reading them felt like binge-watching 12 completely different, intense movies. “You Know You Want This” is probably best digested one or two stories at a time, but I kept getting lured into another and another just by Roupenian’s first sentences: “The Class Six girls were bad, and everyone knew it,” “This is Marla’s first wine afternoon with the moms since The Incident,” “Ellie was a biter.” (Or there’s the first sentence of “The Good Guy,” which can’t be printed here.)
The pattern displayed by Cat Person — a queasy situation escalating into something viler — is, it emerges, her narrative stock-in-trade... Although different locales and genres are deployed, plot trajectories remain the same... Although talented at capturing speech, Roupenian underemploys this strength... The book’s blurb says these stories “make you feel … revolted but aroused”. What Roupenian’s fetid fantasies are more likely to give rise to are guffaws of incredulity.
Roupenian’s work declares that there is no fun in reading between the lines, and this kind of obvious symbolism can be grating. Any straight woman who’s been on a date, let alone hundreds, will be able to predict each step of Ted’s psychological evolution from nerdy boy stuck in the friend zone to a commitment-phobe adult. Don’t worry, he’ll get the comeuppance he deserves. Any nuance brought to play in these morality tales is lost by the end, in favor of a resounding judgment.
For a book that relishes the messy carnage of relationships, it’s frustrating to have literal and metaphorical bloodshed be resolved in so a tidy manner.