Saturday 16 February 2019

Modern dating game at its most destructive

Fiction: You Know You Want This

Kristen Roupenian,

Jonathan Cape, €18.20

Roupenian's stratospheric leap from unknown writer to global phenomenon meant expectations were high for her debut collection
Roupenian's stratospheric leap from unknown writer to global phenomenon meant expectations were high for her debut collection

Sophie White

A viral hit of the magnitude of Kristen Roupenian's 2017 story Cat Person could have been more virus than advantageous but fortuitously Roupenian is in possession of the formidable talent needed to overcome expectations so high as to be verging on toxic.

Her first collection, You Know You Want This proves that not only is Roupenian no one-hit, re-tweetable wonder but that her arresting original story of a fudged sexual encounter arguably hovers on the lesser end of what she is capable of.

Cat Person landed on a Monday in December 2017 and rightly or wrongly became knit into the #MeToo movement. Women read the encounter - a text-courtship leading to a disappointing date and culminating in sex that straddled several murky areas where consent, pleasure and expectations collided - and "felt seen". Men read it and railed that the story appeared to blame men for not being soothsayers, able to divine the inner thoughts of their sexual partners.

Roupenian's intention to question these boundless grey pockets that stubbornly remain undefined in our sexual encounters was railroaded by the contemporary battles being waged online. Proponents of #MeToo sought to make it an allegory for how men have got it so wrong. Without the context of a Roupenian cannon, one would be forgiven for thinking that Roupenian would be an "issues" writer. Her previous works of short fiction had only appeared in online literary publications and Cat Person was her first foray into mainstream.

For many, our reading of Cat Person was mediated by some enthusiastic or derisive tweeter, re-sharing The New Yorker link and either damning it for being anti-men or fat-phobic or dubbing it the most relatable thing they'd ever read. Our conclusions about exactly what Roupenian was about were being infiltrated by the literary Twitterati. This collection neatly and succinctly lets us know we were wrong about her.

With the publication of You Know You Want This, we are seeing the "real" Roupenian. In reading this compact collection, Cat Person recedes and starts to feel like second-hand info about an enigmatic newcomer to a party when the reality of Roupenian is far more intriguing.

The taunting title is a thrilling teaser that neatly ties each of these unnerving stories together. Roupenian primarily deals in those desires that go against our better judgement, the desires that when fulfilled often corrupt us more profoundly than when left frustrated.

There is an immediacy in these pages. Sometimes the first sentence appears to pick up just after the narrator has started the story. "Okay, so this is a while ago, back when I was living in Baltimore and I was really f**king lonely," begins the penultimate story Death Wish.

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.

Whether Roupenian is in the mode of realism or fantasy, the inner worlds of her narrators are always lifelike. She allows us to embody these characters wholly which is always an unsettling journey.

In The Good Guy, Roupenian excavates what forms desire - in the case of our host Ted, it is the fantasy that helps him to climax: the image of his penis as a knife penetrating his partner. "He knew it wasn't great, this fantasy. Yes, the scene he was imagining was ostensibly consensual, but you couldn't ignore its underlying aggressive themes," was his hapless "nice guy" take on his own disturbed sexual nature. The implication that in this porn-centric age, the "good guys" are the ones refraining from acting on their misogynist fantasies is indescribably grim.

The images of mutilation, pain and shame arise again and again. Funny that while Roupenian was being cast as a literary Lena Dunham in the wake of Cat Person - "What?" quipped one Twitter-user, "The New Yorker is just publishing diary entries now?" - she was, in fact, assembling a collection that owes more to the body horror genre than any millennial angst.

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. What is unsaid in these stories leaves a deeper mark as in the opening story of a game of submission gone awry. The final scene of despair will leave you gasping but the words are spare, only chipping away at a morass of degradation, leaving us to fill in the sickening blanks.

"He did what we told him... soon the terrible girl's skin was parchment white... and she didn't move... Yet he kept going; as the room darkened and the light came in again and the air thickened with smells, we kept him there and he did what we told him to do."

The collection concludes with a playful gag of a story about a woman who craves biting people. Ultimately, a male co-worker unwittingly engineers her fantasy by assaulting her, thus allowing her the opportunity to bite and mutilate his face within the acceptable context of self defence. She goes on to "exploit" the scenario in every new workplace as, she finds, there's "one in every office". The biter has the last laugh, just as Roupenian herself, with her transgressive collection, gets the last laugh on an audience that dissected her and underestimated her.

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