Bizarre, jarring with flashes of promise



Kristen Roupenian

Jonathan Cape/ Hardcover/ 227 pages/$27.95/Books Kinokuniya

3 1/2 stars

When Kristen Roupenian's short story Cat Person came out of nowhere in 2017 and took the Internet by storm, she put into words the uncomfortable anxiety of expecting an encounter, or a person, to turn out one way and realising that he is something else altogether.

By dint of the hype around Cat Person, some of that dissonance has crept into this debut collection of short stories because Roupenian loves her body horror.

Readers are going to come into this expecting witty takes on modern love and leave instead with images of twisted flesh and ocular violation.

What all the stories of You Know You Want This have in common is that they are very unpleasant.

A couple take in their friend after he goes through a bad break-up, only for their relationship to develop into a nasty menage a trois. A narcissistic princess refuses to marry and becomes infatuated with a partner composed of a mirror, a bucket and an old thigh bone. A birthday party hiding game turns into a fleshy nightmare.

This genre-straddling is often jarring - Roupenian displays at times a great knack for subtlety, only to toss it to the winds in favour of going full throttle on the squick factor.

Cat Person remains one of the better stories and is matched by The Good Guy, which proves an apt foil with its blackly funny dive into the psyche of Ted, the kind of "nice guy" who has managed to weaponise the "friend zone", and his attempts to rationalise his sadism.

YOU KNOW YOU WANT THIS by Kristen Roupenian

One thing to appreciate about this collection is that it is not a clear-cut clarion call for the #MeToo movement, from which Cat Person became inextricable.

Its stories thrive in problematic spaces. Women are just as much the aggressors in these tales as they are victims, if not more so. In Scarred, for instance, the narrator summons the man of her dreams into a magic circle so that she can cut him daily and collect his blood for spells.

Particularly delightful is the last story, Biter, which puts a sly twist on #MeToo and workplace sexual harassment. Ellie, who works in communications crafting e-mails nobody reads, fantasises about biting her attractive male co-worker. She dreams of how the tendons of his arm would "roll and snap beneath (her) jaw".

Being bitten is just so bizarre that she reckons he might simply pretend it never happened because nobody would believe him. "And then part of (his) brain would be reserved for keeping track of where, exactly, Ellie was... He would remember her for the rest of his life; they'd be joined by the glistening strands of his fear."

Uneven though the collection may be, it shows flashes of real promise. Just don't read it before a dinner date. It will make you lose your appetite.

If you like this, read: Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?, a short story by Joyce Carol Oates collected in High Lonesome: New And Selected Stories 1966-2006 (Ecco, 2007, $30.48, Books Kinokuniya), in which pretty 15-year-old Connie is approached by the sinister Arnold Friend, who wants to take her for a ride.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 26, 2019, with the headline 'Bizarre, jarring with flashes of promise'. Print Edition | Subscribe