Did Hype Kill the ‘Cat Person’ Book?

Photo: GlobalP/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The economics of writing are so famously bad, and the economics of publishing so famously nonsensical, arbitrary, and opaque, that for any book arriving with significant fanfare and cash, the fanfare and cash become inexorably part of the story. We have thus been treated, or subjected, to an unusual degree of information about the events that brought Kristen Roupenian’s You Know You Want This — the new host for the viral “Cat Person” — to fruition. Among these is a disarming recent piece by Roupenian herself on The New Yorker website called, “What It Felt Like When ‘Cat Person’ Went Viral” (the answer: not great). The experience of reading the book itself takes on a meta aspect that is at once inescapable, interesting, and tedious.

The stories in You Know You Want This are weird, gross, and occasionally comic, the plots perverse and almost campy in their borrowings from horror. Although they vary significantly in setting, scenario, and even genre, they turn out to be surprisingly formulaic. A better title for this collection might have been “Something Bad Is Going to Happen,” a realization you come to only a couple of stories in.

Still, there’s a 1990s sensibility to some of the stories that I found perversely comforting, even though they are uniformly creepy. In “The Boy in the Pool,” a friend tries to make bachelorette-party magic by enlisting the reluctant services of a former B-movie cult teen heartthrob to come and romance the bride, her best friend. Other times the callbacks were more haunting. “Look at Your Game, Girl” name-drops Kurt Cobain, but the more relevant references are to the murder of Polly Klaas, which sets the mood for a story about a pubescent California girl who meets a weirdo at a local park. These 1990s evocations and my blurred memories, together with the Bad-Thing-Is-Going-to-Happen formula and the over-the-top supernatural elements of stories like “Sardines” and “Scarred,” weirdly reminded me of nothing so much as the iconic ‘90s series Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, books that might as well have been name-checked in this collection.

Another consequence of virality and accompanying swirling discourse is that they invite the reader to place herself on a map of other readers’ reactions. I can well understand that for some reviewers, a Goosebumps-style aesthetic is not a selling point. But I found the stories mostly pleasurable. Roupenian is a funny writer, and comedy softens the ickiness of some of her premises, maybe to a fault (searching for the name of the aforementioned B-movie actor, the character wonders, “Did she know his name? It feels like she did, at some point … maybe he had three names, the way a lot of actors back then did — Chad Michael Nickerson. Nick Bradley Chaderson. Brad Chad Daderson.”)

I’m not the first reviewer to point out that “Cat Person” and “The Good Guy” — a very long story which, as the title indicates, is about the middle- and high-school formation of a soi-disant Nice Guy — are the standouts of the collection, and the ones that are least like the others. There’s nothing magical or horrifying about them, beyond the everyday horror of modern relationships. Roupenian has a coroner’s interest in describing contemporary courtship, gender dynamics, and sexual mores, and these are ultimately far more chilling than the gross-outs of her other work (even though the other work, it must be said, is also concerned in its bloodthirsty way with courtship, gender dynamics, and sexual mores).

If most of the stories in You Know You Want This are stories about monsters, “Cat Person” in particular is a story about ghosts. I read “Cat Person” for the first time from a place of skin-crawling remembrance of unwanted sex, unwanted selves. It was strange to read “Cat Person” now in the context of the other stories. Mostly, I felt a sense of loss, that the nauseating electricity of reading it for the first time was gone. But also I sensed, knowing what I know now about Roupenian’s formula, that the story’s “something bad” was slightly different from mine.

It’s peculiar when one of the reader reactions you can compare yours to is the writer’s own. A story of a nasty, brutish, and short courtship between a college student (Margot) and an older man (Robert), “Cat Person” famously documents the excruciating sex had by women who are not quite sure of the nicest, safest way to say no. Roupenian spoke with the story’s editor about the loyalties the story is meant to engender. The now-famous final text from Robert to Margot, the epithet “whore,” becomes the defining thing, the thing that makes the encounter truly bad, and this for me, if I think about it too hard, robs the story of some of its finesse.

A major part of my reading, and the story’s power, I thought, was the self-loathing it catalogued, both the peculiar self-loathing and bewilderment you feel for doing something you patently don’t want to do, and the subsequent unwelcome awareness of the ways that disgust leads you into cruelties of your own. This is not to say that I thought Robert was the true unsung hero of “Cat Person”; no, Robert sucks, an adult man who is probably about to be red-pilled by his joyless encounter with an obviously repulsed 20-year-old. But Margot doesn’t have the vocabulary for desire or consent, and her own disgust (and the fear that undergirds it) cause her to conflate what she perceives as her own magnanimity with its abdication. That this turns out to be vindicated by the eventual behavior of Robert is something of a cop-out, I think now.

What I thought was brilliant about the story is not that it reveals that men are secretly bad and dangerous all along, but the way it shows how harm is built into and amplified by modern sexual codes in a culture that is, paradoxically, incredibly libertine while also being close-mouthed about pleasure, attraction, desire, and consent. For me, the story illuminates how regrettable encounters can become formative because we don’t know how to treat one another, and how the terrible ways we treat each other are mapped to gender and power and everything that is fucked up in our society. Robert could have been half as terrible and the story would still land, a needed addition to the relatively short literary canon by women about women behaving in ways that are directly contrary to their deepest preference (I thought of Edith Wharton, her hapless Lily Bart: “She had been bored all the afternoon by Percy Gryce … she must follow up her success, must submit to more boredom, must be ready with fresh compliances and adaptabilities, and all on the bare chance that he might ultimately decide to do her the honour of boring her for life”).

Robert was not the man for our putative heroine, whether he said “whore” or not; that he did only drags the encounter toward the worst-case scenario: a Polly Klaas scenario. Maybe what’s really so brilliant about “Cat Person” is that it is a mirror held up to the reader; this oddly enough, is a conceit of the most batshit of Roupenian’s stories called — wait for it, “The Mirror, the Bucket, and the Old Thigh Bone.”

All this is to say that as a collection I found You Know You Want This engaging but uneven. I’m wary of my judgments, though, because of all the unnecessary information I have about how this story, and this book, came to be. But I can’t, in the end, blame Roupenian for the TMI. It’s TMI, in any case, that makes her best work so good.

Did Hype Kill the ‘Cat Person’ Book?