The Literary Debut Of The Year™ is Sour, Cruel, and Misanthropic
Just to get it out of the way, the entire time I’ve been reading and writing about Kristen Roupenian’s debut collection of short stories, I’ve had this Janet Jackson song in my head. No song could be less appropriate, as it is bouncy and good-natured, while Roupenian’s collection is neither. In fact, Roupenian’s collection is pretty consistently unpleasant, studded as it may be with dark humor, like a poisoned orange stuck with cloves. The stories are well-made, and they skillfully express the toxic mix of ennui and anxiety that characterizes millennial life among white people with nothing deeper than their navels to agonize about.
But You Know You Want This is so misanthropic as to take one’s breath away, delivering a 12-pack of stories about shitty people acting shitty. People do terrible things, and then feel kind of bad, and then think about how bad they feel, and then continue to act badly, and then think and feel in reaction to acting badly some more, convincing themselves it’s too late to turn back. The self-analysis is exhaustive, and exhausting, to a degree no writer has indulged since David Foster Wallace. The characters never redeem themselves or their bad actions, nor make any effort to change their selfish interiors.
I didn’t like “Cat Person,” the viral phenomenon that brought Roupenian a seven-figure deal with Simon & Schuster. I thought it missed a variety of opportunities for its characters to act like human beings, and I thought it was done before, and better, by Mary Gaitskill, in “A Romantic Weekend.” I gave You Know You Want This every opportunity to reverse my opinion, but no dice.
The opener, “Bad Boy,” involves a polyamorous S&M situation gone wrong, its participants reveling in their cruelties (Gaitskill again). “The Mirror, the Bucket, and the Old Thigh Bone,” is a tonally perfect fairy tale about a narcissism as literal as Narcissus’s, for which its central character refuses to apologize or course-correct. “The Boy in the Pool” causes its characters to trade dignity for either actual or interpersonal currency, so painfully that I had to skim certain sections. “Scarred” could be the story of what Roupenian did to land her book deal: blood sacrifice, drop by drop, until it’s murder.
Of course I’m a little envious of her book deal. What writer wouldn’t be? But my envy is not the reason for my dislike of her stories, which park themselves directly between me and my purpose as a writer. And anyway, the deal unsettles me in a way not tied to my own annual income.
Ultimately, my judgment of Roupenian’s stories is meaningless. How much people like her book, and even how intrinsically good her book is aside from critical judgment of it, has no relationship to how many copies she will sell, or how well her second book will do. The Casual Vacancy wasn’t reviewed well, but it still sold thirty jillion copies, because J.K. Rowling is famous. She, and Roupenian to a lesser degree, are publishing phenomena. How can such phenomena be judged on merit? They are too famous to be touched, too big to fail. That would unsettle me even if the stories were unassailably well-written and bore a moral center I could recognize.
It’s absurd to nurture a phenomenon in an industry where it takes a minimum of two years to assemble and release a product. But it’s also the way that publishers assure their bottom line: with freakishly big sellers like Rowling and the Obamas and Stephen King. Rowling’s status built over a long period of time, and she proved she could sell books. Roupenian? The jury’s out.
These stories are provocative, which will sell books in the short term, and they bear ambiguity and good craftsmanship, which may buoy Roupenian in the long run. But they are ugly. They are mean. One story positions the girl attendees of a Kenyan school as monstrous. Another expends 35 pages on a dude who just needs therapy, for God’s sake. Another makes a sexual harassment metaphor out of a biting habit, but didactically, with a woman who never once considers that the person she’s fantasizing about harming is a person. The self-centeredness of these characters soars without limit, and their empathy has called in sick.
But who cares? Empathy is so 2015. Roupenian’s got her money, and my criticism is meaningless against her fame. Read her book, or don’t. Her press is already busy packaging up the next phenomenon.
(January 15, 2019, Gallery/Scout Press)