Kristen Roupenian at Border Kitchen in The Hague

You Know You Want This  –  Kristen Roupenian’s horror tinged tales on gender in the age of the internet.

Kristen Roupenian is a bubbly, highly eloquent speaker who, dressed in t-shirt and slashed jeans, looks far younger than her 37 years. Her short story, ‘Cat Person’ published in The New Yorker in 2017, went viral, catapulting her to overnight fame.  She spoke with us last night about her recently published anthology, ‘You Know You Want This, which includes Cat Person, and for which she reportedly received a 1.2 million dollars advance.

Kristen admits that, even with the benefit of hindsight, she cannot fully explain just why Cat Person went viral in the way that it did. It is still the most shared and read online story ever. She acknowledges the role of social media in the process of course and the fact that it appeared around the time when the #MeToo movement was gaining ground. The American writer also mentions her story’s ability to invite such contrasting readings. But, perhaps most importantly, she believes that it ‘held up a mirror’ for a portion of twenty-something women who recognised themselves almost immediately in Margot, the story’s narrator.  

The story is told by a twenty-something college student, Margot, who meets an older, thirty-something year old man, Robert, while working part-time at the movie theatre downtown. The second time they come across one another there, Robert asks for her phone number and they begin texting. The story follows the development of their largely, virtual courtship, which finally leads to a date. The date goes badly from the beginning but throughout, Margot attempts to convince herself of a connection between them, even when Robert kisses her and she describes it to herself as ‘shockingly bad’. Nevertheless the date continues and ends with Margot having sex with Robert, because she can not think of a polite way out of it. Kristen talks to us about the need for many young, educated, privileged girls, like Margot, to conform to societal expectations about being ‘nice’, polite and accommodating, no matter the cost.

Certainly, the thousands of comments on Twitter and elsewhere bear testament to the fact that Margot’s interior monologue captures something that is recognisable to many young women like her. As Roupenian points out, Margot herself is a flawed character, she has subscribed, perhaps unconsciously, to a range of conventional ideas about how a young women in her position should behave but also to various expectations, many based on outdated notions of gender roles. As a young, slim, attractive and intelligent white girl, Margot expects Robert to admire her, put his arm around her in the cinema, chase her for a date and kiss well. He fails to do any of these things and so, as the author points out, she has two choices. To abandon the date and the fantasy which she has built around Robert, or find excuses for his behaviour and continue. For a variety of reasons, which have formed the basis for much of the extended debate on this short story, Margot stubbornly persists with the date and later the unwelcome sex which is dominated by her repulsion at his fat, hairy stomach.   

Roupenian recalls the Monday morning on which the story was due out in The New Yorker. Based in Michigan, she remembers heading out early to a nearby news stand to buy a copy but none of them yet had it in stock. Later in the day, there was a celebration with friends and family and then all was quiet. She recalls thinking, ‘So this is what it’s like to have your dreams come true.’ Although Kristen doesn’t say it, the word ‘anti-climax’ seems to be on the tip of her tongue. A few days later, sitting in a coffee shop with a friend and fellow writer, she was initially dismissive of the Twitter activity that her story had started to generate. However, when her mother found that someone who Barack Obama followed on Twitter, had commented on her daughter’s story, she burst into tears. Mother and daughter are unsure whether the ex-President read the story himself but like to think that perhaps Michelle Obama might have.  

The author describes Cat Person as one of the more ‘realistic’ stories in the You Know You Want It collection. She admits a long-standing love of horror, the Gothic and the ghoulish and describes a number of the nine stories that make up the anthology as ‘tinged’ with elements of  these genres. She reads to us from the last story of the collection – ‘Biter’. As the name suggests, the tale follows the life of a little girl who likes to bite people. As a young woman, she knows that it is wrong but still fantasies about biting the new, undeniably attractive office manager. She objectively weights up her chances of being caught, and, more importantly, accused. A little reflection leads her to conclude that, as a young white women, with no prior convictions, she could probably get away with it. No one would believe her manager if he told others that a young woman, like herself, had bitten him. More importantly, would he even dare to share this information?  

Roupenian’s fiction is deceptively simple in its clean, uncomplicated prose. She has a PhD in African literature, and yet there is no trace of academic pretension in her writing. It goes down easily, like a pleasantly acerbic white wine, by turns comical, ironic and a little kinky. Yet it also succeeds in tapping, with apparent ease, into the underlying streams of unexamined assumptions that continue to underpin much of modern society’s ideas about gender. Her stories frequently succeed in highlighting, in subtle, nuanced ways, the buy-in that many apparently ‘old fashioned’ ideas about gender roles continue to get and how they condition both our behaviour and our expectations regarding dating, sex and ultimately, happiness. Does gender make victims of us all, as one reviewer put it? Perhaps. Perhaps it always will.     Souwie Buis      2nd April 2019