Over the past few years, readers of The New York Times and like publications have been treated to stories about the byzantine and frequently bizarre ways in which young (or youngish) people now relate to one another: hookup apps, ghosting, orbiting, gender, power, gender and power, consent, consent pledges, affirmative consent, enthusiastic consent, incels, hentai, furries, cuckolding fetishes, BDSM gentrifiers in Bed-Stuy, husbands building sheds with their wives’ boyfriends, and the moral quandaries of dating white women. Yet despite this efflorescence of sex talk, the act itself is on the decline. We may be the generation most likely to display our bondage scars on a finsta (as one art student I knew used to do), but, if the General Social Survey is to be believed, we are far less likely than baby boomers or Gen Xers to actually do it.
Something about this generational interest in discussing rather than having sex may help explain the viral fame of “Cat Person,” a short story by Kristen Roupenian published in the December 2017 issue of The New Yorker. The story was so popular that it earned Roupenian a $1.2 million deal for two books, the first of which, the short story collection You Know You Want This, appeared in January. An HBO adaptation is on the way.
“Cat Person” follows an abortive romance between Margot, a 20-year-old college student, and Robert, an older, slightly awkward, kinda-cute-if-you-squint patron of the movie theater where Margot works. After a protracted text-message courtship, they agree to a date, which goes poorly. They see a depressing movie about the Holocaust, Margot is refused entry to a bar for being underage, Robert gives her a bad kiss, they go somewhere else to drink. Robert is a schlub, which initially is part of the attraction—Margot fantasizes about how “hungry and eager to impress her” he would be in bed—and consents to go home with him. Back at his place, she realizes that she would rather not have sex with him, but, feeling too embarrassed to leave, does so anyway. Robert turns out to be a comically bad lover; she endures his efforts and then ghosts him the next day.
A few weeks later, Margot runs into Robert at a bar. He tries texting her afterward and, receiving no response, grows increasingly belligerent. In the story’s closing line, he calls her a “whore.”
“Cat Person” became a cultural phenomenon in part because of its realism. Roupenian described, in sometimes cringe-inducing detail, the psychological back-and-forth of a millennial pseudo-relationship: all the deception and self-deception, doubt and self-doubt, narcissism and naïveté of a man trying to coax a woman he doesn’t really know into bed, and the woman trying to decide whether to let him. The story also struck a political chord, in that many readers, young women especially, seemed to find in Margot’s trials a reflection of their own experiences. Roupenian’s story became, in the words of one Atlantic headline, a “viral short story for the #MeToo moment”: an example of how patriarchal culture and male violence, even if only potential (Margot at one point thinks that, if he wanted to, Robert could “take her someplace and rape and murder her”), compel women into unpleasant or even nonconsensual sexual encounters. Robert, with his insensitivity to Margot’s sexual needs and his final, sexist eruption, became a sort of avatar for everyday misogyny.
For many young men, too, there was an uncomfortable identification with Robert, which tended to provoke either embarrassment, defensiveness, or (as is often the case) both. Men’s angry responses to the story became the stuff of Twitter humor, beneath which was a palpable bewilderment—aside from lashing out at the end, there wasn’t much Robert had really done wrong, other than be ugly and terrible in bed. (One writer in Vox, amusingly, wondered if the story was “fat shaming.”) Robert had neither forced himself on Margot nor acted in a threatening manner; for most of the story, in fact, Margot appears as the one with the power, deriving pleasure from how attractive she must seem in comparison with him.
Margot is overcome by “self-disgust and humiliation” only when she recognizes, upon seeing him naked, that he’s gross, and that by sleeping with him she’s degraded herself. His cry of “whore,” though believable enough, functions in the story as a sort of deus ex machina for Margot’s conscience: It’s hard to feel good—and Margot initially doesn’t—about cutting off contact with a man with whom you’ve developed some emotional intimacy because you found his body so repulsive that fucking him felt like an insult to your dignity. But if he’s a sexist? Drag him, queen. Suggesting, as Roupenian seemed to in an interview with The New Yorker and as many readers certainly did on social media, that Robert’s misogynistic outburst confirmed him as the story’s villain, that Margot’s only flaw was a kind of frustrating willingness to trust a man who ultimately didn’t deserve it, felt like a confirmation of men’s worries about the broader sexual zeitgeist: that men were always presumptively at fault.
“Cat Person” worked as a sort of cultural Rorschach test, inviting readers to identify with Robert and Margot and to project their feelings about #MeToo onto the characters’ relationship. The stories in You Know You Want This, by contrast, labor to make such identification and projection impossible. The book is a collection of strange, often gory tales that tread more or less the same ground covered in “Cat Person”—power, sex, and fantasy. These stories are full of such in-your-face ugliness, often perpetrated by women, that it would be easy to read the book as advocating a kind of post-feminist nihilism.
Unfortunately, it is far less interesting than that. You Know You Want This feels like a book written on a tight deadline, in which an author repeatedly turns to body horror and twist endings that discomfit readers without ever really unsettling them. In “The Night Runner,” for instance, a hapless Peace Corps volunteer in Africa finds that someone keeps smearing human shit on the walls of his house; the twist is that the culprit is his love interest. Another story follows a young couple, in which the woman seems to be afflicted by a parasite that makes her constantly itch. The boyfriend begins to believe that she’s faking it until, at the end of the story, the parasite crawls out of his girlfriend’s flesh and burrows itself, Alien-style, directly into his face. One story ends with a boy murdering his girlfriend and raping her corpse; one ends with a jilted woman maybe-killing her bad maybe-boyfriend at a restaurant; one ends with a queen retreating to a cave to live with a primitive sex toy and then slitting her husband’s throat when he comes to fetch her. (By the second or third such ending, my margin notes had been reduced to writing “fuck you” beneath each story’s final sentence.)
The more successful stories in the collection are those in which Roupenian ditches the B-movie horror. “The Good Guy” follows Ted, who spends his high school years stuck in the friend-zone of the popular girl he loves, Anna, while dating a nerdy girl he detests, Rachel. Here, as in “Cat Person,” Roupenian skillfully describes the power games of adolescent relationships: Anna strings Ted along in order to use him as an emotional crutch; Ted treats Rachel cruelly because she reminds him of his own inadequacy; Rachel, in turn, recognizes Ted’s unrequited love for Anna and, in revenge, needles him for his insecurities and social climbing pretensions. As tends to happen in Roupenian’s stories, Ted’s dream eventually comes true—Anna, humiliated by her jock boyfriend, tells him she’s tired of “shitty guys” and wants to be with him—only to go horribly wrong. As Ted prepares to have sex with Anna, he is struck by the humiliating realization that “she does not want him in a way that causes her to suffer; she does not want him desperately, despite herself. And it turns out that is how Ted has always wanted to be wanted: the way he has always wanted women.”
In fact, while the jacket copy advertises You Know You Want This as a book about the “connections between gender, sex, and power,” Roupenian’s real theme, as Lauren Oyler notes in her review for the LRB, is “the way that fantasies become distorted, disappointing, even dangerous as they approach reality.” The thrill of anonymous sex with a girl from Tinder becomes sickening as a young man discovers the extent to which she wants to be abused. The point is a decent one, but Roupenian beats it to death so violently that her stories often feel like a clumsy seminar in Lacanian psychoanalysis: We delude ourselves into believing that we desire specific people, objects, and outcomes, but their attainment is always disappointing because what we really desire is desire itself. Margot is intoxicated at the sight of Robert looking at her like a “milk-drunk baby”; the narrator of “Scarred,” looking at a man she’s just tortured, admits: “I had never desired him more than I did then, broken and ugly and needing me.”
The moralizing quality of the book (beware of your fantasies!) comes through all the more strongly thanks to Roupenian’s lack of interest in characterization—as she explained to The New Yorker, she had “left a lot about Robert intentionally vague” in “Cat Person” so that readers could “project practically anything on to him.” This vagueness is heightened in You Know You Want This: Many characters lack names and most lack any biographical detail whatsoever, though somehow, almost all still seem to be middle-class, college-educated people aged 20 to 35 living in one of a handful of cities. Their motivations and psychology, when not missing altogether, are reducible to their plot-function—the concerned boyfriend, the jealous ex-wife out for revenge. (A few times, Roupenian directly addresses the reader, asking her to fill in the details that the story neglects to supply.) This gives the stories a certain abstract quality: It doesn’t really matter who plays victim or abuser, desirer or desiree, since these operate according to their own self-propelling logic, like deep-learning algorithms chewing up input data.
It is in this abstraction that You Know You Want This assumes, despite itself, relevance to millennial romance. For a certain kind of young person today, the experience of sex and dating fostered by apps and services like Tinder and OkCupid is one of repetition and anonymization. Prospective partners are stripped of their individuality and reduced to a few salient characteristics—physical attractiveness, most obviously, but also all that one can learn to infer about personality and taste and social class from a handful of pictures and a short autobiography. Interactions tend to proceed down a handful of pre-programmed tracks. If you know that out of every four similarly educated, similarly attractive 20-somethings you match with, one will eventually sleep with you, who cares which one is which?
Roupenian says that she wrote “Cat Person” after a “small but nasty encounter with a person I met online,” and her admission could stand as an epigraph for her book. You Know You Want This is a gothic fantasia of the ways in which all those pretty, seemingly normal strangers can exploit whatever vulnerability you are willing to extend them. The narrator of “Scarred” admits, after refusing to return the smile of a handsome man, that she responds to beauty by being “drawn to it at first, and then recoiling. Ruled by my own shallow impulses, then angry at the trick.” It is the attitude fostered by online dating, a disappointed romanticism that is both needy and self-protectively cynical: It pays to be paranoid, but you can only affect so much detachment because, after all, you wouldn’t be there unless there was something you still hoped to find. In life, such an attitude precludes love or intimacy, which require one to move beyond those shallow impulses without becoming angry at the “trick”; in fiction, it is a barrier to understanding the complexity of the relationships that Roupenian’s book is supposed to analyze. To the extent that her stories reflect a generational affliction, it is no wonder that some millennials feel about sex the way I felt while reading You Know You Want This: I’d rather be looking at my phone.
Park MacDougald is the Life & Arts editor of the Washington Examiner magazine.