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"On the surface of it, the lover wants the beloved. This, of course, is not really the case. If we look carefully at a lover in the midst of desire, for example Sappho in her fragment 31, we see how severe an experience for her is confrontation with the beloved even at a distance. Union would be annihilating. What the lover in this poem needs is to be able to face the beloved and yet not be destroyed…” writes poet and essayist Anne Carson in her delightful essay on eros in Greek lyric poetry as an inherently paradoxical emotion.

American writer Kristen Roupenian’s first collection of short fiction, You Know You Want This: ‘Cat Person’ and Other Stories, teases out such ambivalences as she charts the possibilities of modern love and sexual desire in contemporary America. Roupenian appears to probe the ‘bittersweet’ emotion Carson analyses by showing how her characters — ultimately unfulfilled by those they love or by the very idea of love — strategise various methods of self-fulfilment, survival and pleasure in the 21st century.

The most striking story in this collection of 12 is ‘Bad Boy’. In it, a young heterosexual couple shares their apartment with a friend who has just gone through a harrowing breakup. In the ensuing weeks, their relationship assumes a patronising form as the couple begins treating the friend like a child, helping him patch his life together. The relationship soon evolves into a blatantly sexual one as the couple initiates a drawn-out game of sexual fantasy with the friend as a pawn. Roupenian’s prose is refreshingly unadorned as she describes this shift, its simplicity accentuating the radicalism of the moment of transition: “At first, what happened during these nights was a strange, unspoken thing, a bubble clinging precariously to the edge of real life, but then about a week after it started, we made the first rule for him to follow during the day, and suddenly the world cracked open and overflowed with possibilities.”

In her first collection, the author of the viral hit short story ‘Cat Person’ explores human yearning through ordinary and relatable narratives

While the relationship appears consensual, the slip from play to pain is so swift and alarming that it brings to mind the limitations of consent as a metric to establish the parameters of sexual abuse. In the age of the #MeToo movement, such stories resonate as they recall a wide range of current debates about what constitutes consent. For instance, several scholars make sense of the historic moment we are living through by interpreting it as a trajectory of the ‘sexual revolution’ that happened in America in the 1960s.

Analysing this movement and its consequences, Rachel Hills, a scholar on gender and culture writes in Time magazine: “the ‘second sexual revolution’ [entailed] a shift in ideology: a rejection of a cultural order in which all kinds of sex were had ... but the only type of sex it was acceptable to have was married, missionary and between a man and a woman ... But today’s 20-somethings aren’t just distinguished by their ethic of open-mindedness. They also have a different take on what constitutes sexual freedom; one that reflects the new social rules and regulations that their parents and grandparents unintentionally helped to shape.”

Other scholars such as David Quinn have analysed how in this ‘era of freedom’, the rampant confusion over consent and its specious conflation with sexual freedom is, in fact, one of the results of the sexual revolution or the ‘wave of liberation’. The translation of such intellectual ambivalences and the dilemmas they entail in everyday life are probed with sensitivity in such stories, which often depict characters in emotional agony, trying to understand their own complex desires.

Despite the concurrence of questions related to sexual freedom, Roupenian’s collection resists thematic homogenisation. For instance, her prose unexpectedly traipses into the whimsical and mythical in ‘The Mirror, the Bucket and the Old Thigh Bone’. Here, Roupenian inverts the classical fairytale, leaving the reader with a thought-provoking twist at the end. The story begins with a young princess who is agonising over endless suitors, failing to find a man that will match her fantasy of an ideal lover. Unable to find this perfect being, she marries a handsome prince to appease her parents. The story lurches into the improbable when, one day, she meets a mysterious man shrouded in a cloak and falls in love with him. The reader soon learns that he is, in fact, not human but rather a prop made of objects — a mirror and a bucket that reciprocate her own face and voice. Her choice to live the rest of her days with the decaying prop rather than with the handsome, compassionate human body of the prince hints at a fascinating idea: that perhaps what we love most is what is inherently narcissistic in our own selves.

The idea that there are aspects of human fantasy and desire, that are neither understood nor communicable, reappears in a different guise in another story that stands out in this collection. ‘The Good Guy’ at first seems like a run-of-the-mill tale about an average American man in his 30s who, as a teenager, felt acutely unattractive and unable to gain female attention, as we are told he was “short ... ugly, and greasy haired.” At first the story seems to veer into a familiar direction; a bildungsroman with a Freudian twist culminating with Ted at 36, an unapologetic playboy who remains brutally aloof to women who increasingly fall for him. However, Roupenian describes Ted’s journey, particularly how he first develops the art of detachment, with acute sensitivity. A memorable scene shows him in his 20s, at a party thrown by Rachel, a girl he has unrequitedly loved for years. At one moment, as he kisses his current girlfriend, he is shocked and elated to “discover that it is possible to enjoy something and yet not care about it in the slightest. He finds this sensation — feeling pleasure, and simultaneously feeling detached from the pleasure — to be, itself, quite pleasurable.”

Roupenian shot to fame with her 2017 short story, ‘Cat Person’, which — in the somewhat anomalous trend of social media — became a viral hit. Intrigued by the story’s tremendous digital reception, I approached this collection with a sense of high expectation. Ultimately, though, I thought it failed to be uniformly impressive as certain stories miss the mark, slipping into predictable endings or bland plotlines. However, what Roupenian does remarkably well is show a universal sense of human yearning through ordinary and relatable narratives.

In stories punctuated with sparks of psychological insight and literary virtuosity, she explores love and its partner: a perennial sense of ‘lack’. This ultimately makes the collection a rewarding read as, in its stories, we glimpse the underside of the glamourised and consumerist notion of modern ‘love’. There we find the haunting loneliness that accompanies the realisation that there is no one who will fulfil you in the precise way you desire — a lesson that French literary theorist Roland Barthes wrote about much more eloquently half a century ago in A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments: “The image of the other — to which I was glued, on which I lived — no longer exists; sometimes this is a [futile] catastrophe which seems to remove the image forever, sometimes it is an excessive happiness which enables me to unite with the image; in any case, severed or united, dissolved or discrete, I am nowhere gathered together.”

The reviewer holds an MPhil from the University of Oxford in Modern South Asian Studies

You Know You Want This: ‘Cat Person’ and
Other Stories
By Kristen Roupenian
Scout, US
ISB: 978-1982101633

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 24th, 2019