You Know You Want This by Kristen Roupenian (Gallery/Scout Press 2019)
Reviewed by Gregorio Tafoya
“Ellie was a biter.”
Kristen Roupenian’s stories bristle, prick, and yes, bite. Just when you start to rub your cheek against her beautiful, velvet prose, you get punctured with cold, hard reality. Marguerite Duras once famously said, “A man and a woman, say what you like, they’re different.” For most of You Know You Want This, Roupenian is in flux with this statement—not quite at odds with it, but trying to pinpoint precisely where those differences reside. Her conclusion is that the differences between men and women are often not intrinsic but external. Overarchingly, asymmetry is a theme to these stories, and Roupenian chose relationships, quite possibly the most asymmetric institution of all-time, to highlight this dynamic.
The opening story, “Bad Boy” could aptly be re-named the Stanford Parenting Experiment, as it chronicles a couple’s perverse nursing of their heartbroken friend. The power dynamics are written with such glee, that you can’t help laughing, even as you’re revolted by the dirty details. A sampling, when the three characters return from a night of drinking:
“He should show us, he should show us what he did on this couch, our couch, when we weren’t around.”
Roupenian packs clichés with squirming detail and dialogue. Take “Sardines,” a tale centering around a twelve-year old’s birthday, with all the usual characters: divorce, a younger girlfriend, and a single, wine-guzzling mother—that she make wholly fresh and organic. There is an aside, tittering between sarcasm and sympathy, where Roupenian gives a homewrecking character referred to as simply “The Girlfriend” a voice, but not a name.
Of course, the centerpiece of the collection is “Cat Person,” a short story that deserves the attention it has received. The characters here are so wildly juxtaposed that only the Internet could bring them oh so briefly and viciously together. The longest story in the collection, which comes right after “Cat Person,” is just as jam-packed with the elements that turned Roupenian into a New Yorker sensation. “The Good Guy” features a protagonist who is largely the opposite of the easily mocked, older man-child in “Cat Person,” but equally as humiliating. Ted, the good guy, is a womanizer in his thirties, who, in the opening scene, gets Elaine Benes-ed with a water glass to his forehead in a crowded Manhattan restaurant by a spurned ex-girlfriend. The rest of the story is a not-overly sympathetic, but completely hilarious, look at how Ted arrived at a point in his life where women, “out of his league” throw glass tumblers at him.
“Pathetic Ted, short nerdy Ted, lady-killer Ted, using a thousand tiny hooks to catch onto a woman’s ego, like a burr clinging to the cuff of her pants.”
The story is full of shiver-mid-sentence quotations.
Roupenian isn’t afraid to get metaphorical either, as “The Mirror, the Bucket, and the Old Thigh Bone” and “Scarred” prove. And she is just as good at turning a metaphor as she is at giving sharp, realist stories meaning. Both stories read like parables for the social media age, where vanity and perceived success, at the expense of just about everything else, are king.
The title to this collection, You Know You Want This, runs like an acidic aqueduct throughout the stories, as characters try to suppress their basest desires—to varying levels of failure. Here’s Roupenian, giving you her thesis in “Death Wish,” a story about a Tinder date up in flames:
“Maybe your average woman is a little more conservative than your average guy, but there’s always going to be some seriously crazy shit happening out at the far end of the bell curve.”
And that’s where Roupenian operates, in the suppressed, but fat tails.
Mental health and #MeToo are tackled in the last quarter of the book, with such creative vigor that the result is rollicking, responsible entertainment. This is clear in the last story in the collection, in which Ellie, our biter from above, goes around the office fantasizing about sinking her teeth into a male co-worker’s “plumb and hairy calf.” She is quite possibly the most adorable predator in fiction’s history, until she becomes a semi-lamented, pedestaled victim of a male colleague’s sexual advances.
Similarly, “The Matchbox Sign,” is a story gently grounded in gender politics and the subjective elements of medicine. The starring couple cohabitate using a spreadsheet, with pro-rated adjustments, to track their expenses. The spreadsheet makes an appearance when an unexpected medical issue arises. You can almost hear Roupenian snickering in the background.
Kristen Roupenian proves that no subject is taboo, if it is done with unfettered style, crooning grace, and, of course, envy inducing hilarity. This is upmarket, uncompromising fiction at its finest—Maupassant with a smartphone. But with more verve.