Monday 17 June 2019

Audacious take on human relations from the author of 'Cat Person' essay

Short stories: You Know You Want This

Kristen Roupenian

Jonathon Cape, hardback, 240 pages, €16

Raw: Kristen Roupenian mines the most carnal and complex impulses of the human condition
Raw: Kristen Roupenian mines the most carnal and complex impulses of the human condition
You Know You Want This by Kristen Roupenian

Tanya Sweeney

It was a simple quirk of timing that saw this particular short story carried across the internet like a quarterback on the arms of cheerleaders. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, the world had already cast its collective attention to the question: when does bad, uncomfortable or hostile sex become an issue of consent?

When the 'Cat Person' essay was published in The New Yorker just over a year ago, the damp-squib fling between Margot and the much older Robert spawned think-piece after meme after hot-take, resulting in it being the most-read short story in the history of the publication. It soon transpired that Roupenian, hailed as an audacious new writing voice, had a collection of short stories already on the go, of which 'Cat Person' was just one. Hello, seven-figure book deal.

Few can argue that 'Cat Person' was anything but a blazingly salient piece of writing, but does her dozen-strong collection follow in this fine tradition? Well, yes and no.

Currently on the publicity trail for her debut, Roupenian has been quoted as wanting to make the reader feel "uncomfortable". It's a mission she strives for time and time again with a diverse palate of settings, tones and characters, albeit one she manages with élan only occasionally.

You Know You Want This strives to say much, but is a patchy landscape. There are pockets of lush, fertile observation and the odd patch of experimental, needs-more-baking scrubland. Yet uneasiness is very much writ large. The writer has no problem travelling straight to the heart of darkness, mining the most carnal, complex and confusing impulses of the human condition.

And as ideas go, there is genuine daring at play here: 'Bad Boy' starts as a contemporaneous tale of a couple helping a friend through a break-up, before taking a sharp and shocking turn into sadism and sexual assault.

'Look At Your Game, Girl', a story about a young girl groomed by a mysterious down-and-out in the local park, hints at, though ultimately pulls back from, a vicious denouement.

'The Mirror, The Bucket, And The Old Thigh Bone' sees Roupenian work within the narrow confines of the classic princess fairytale, the end result of which is probably less clever than it fancies itself to be. 'The Night Runner', where a Peace Corps volunteer comes undone in a small Kenyan village thanks to a mysterious nocturnal visitor, is suspenseful, if another slight misstep. 'Cat Person', nestled midway through the collection, remains a towering standout. So, too, is the equally visceral and clear-eyed 'The Good Guy', arguably its closest tonal relative in the book.

That said, Roupenian offers an audacious take on human relations in all their awkward and weird glory, putting some of these stories in mind of Curtis Sittenfeld or even, on occasion, Sally Rooney.

There's no doubt that Roupenian is a wellspring of original ideas; the sort that serves a short-story collection particularly well. Yet there's a raw detachment, or lack or adornment in her writing that leads one to wonder what might have been had these stories went through another polish and been more fully realised.

That said, there's more than enough in this collection to justify the hype. 'Cat Person' may have had a singular life on the internet, but its rawness and ruthlessness is certainly no fluke.

And if Roupenian can continue to mine the heart of darkness with the same sort of daring, her future as one of our great literary truth-tellers could very well materialise.

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